life preserver
Call them mantras, mind tools, or—our favorite—O-phorisms. They're the soothing, energizing, sanity-restoring phrases that can get you through any situation. Until you find your own, Katherine Russell Rich has some suggestions.
Recently, at lunch with a friend, the talk turned to stress. My friend said she handled it in a word. Literally. "When things fall apart, I stop and tell myself, Breathe," she said. "Just: Breathe. It instantly takes me out of confusion." Breathe was her personal mantra. Then she asked me if I had one.

"Uh, Man?" I said. "Would that be one?"

She looked at me.

"Okay, what about Oh maaaan!"

Clearly, if a mantra is a mind tool—the word's literal meaning in Sanskrit—I was operating with a pocketknife. After another friend, a therapist, told me about a patient who quite probably changed her life by changing the damaging tapes running through her head, I decided it was time to find me something sturdier.

My friend, whose name is Sheenah Hankin and who is the author of Complete Confidence, specializes in cognitive psychotherapy, an approach aimed at getting people to change the word loops playing in their minds. Not long ago she was treating a woman whose husband was beating her. "A Park Avenue matron," Sheenah said. "She was coming in bruised and cut. Each time I'd ask, 'Why are you putting up with this?' she'd answer, 'I can't be alone.' That was her mantra."

"Her husband was brutal," my therapist friend said. "I was really afraid for her. He was so crazy that when she finally left him, it had to be with armed guards. But she did leave, and the way she did it was to tell herself, I'm doing the right thing." Every year now she sends my friend a Christmas card: Still doing the right thing.

The story underscored for me how powerful the things we tell ourselves are. We all have phrases that repeat in our heads when life heats up. I began to think of these inner voices, good or bad, as spelunking guides. Some of us, in a deep cave of worry, tell ourselves, There's no way out. If that's the voice you hear and believe, there won't be. But if your guide shouts, You fall down seven times, you get up eight, you're going to find the light.

"As you think, so shall you be," the philosopher William James once said. What I wanted to be was more confident. Man! would only keep me wobbly. I hit on a plan. I'd put out an e-mail asking people what they told themselves in times of stress, then test the various mind tools till I found one to adopt. "I can't give people the words," Sheenah had told me. "They have to discover what has meaning for them." But I was hoping someone else's discovery could be mine.

A flood of responses poured in. Some were mind bombs: It'll never work and I always mess up were two of the greatest hits. In that case, no doubt It rarely will and You probably do. "The brain works by repetition," Sheenah says. "If you repeat anything long enough, it gains meaning." If you find there's a self- defeating loop repeating itself in your head—and it can be startling to realize what you actually tell yourself—try replacing it with a mind tool: Don't quit before the miracle, perhaps, or the lovely. When you come to the edge of all you've known and are about to step into darkness, one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid for you to stand on or you will be taught to fly.

Mantras are generally short and therefore easy to remember, often as short as 1 word
The latter is unusual for its length. Mantras are generally short and therefore easy to remember, often as short as one word. Besides Breathe, I heard Courage (from a musician who has to get up onstage a lot) and Om. "That's a powerful mantra," a therapist named Francis Clifton says, "because it vibrates through your body and brings you back to the present. The mind can't distinguish between the thought of a catastrophe and the fact of a catastrophe. It reacts to both with stress. You'll think, What if I can't pay the rent? and even if you're just imagining the scenario, your body produces stress hormones." A mantra situates you in the moment. Clifton's own is complex, nearly as nuanced as a koan: Life is a mystery to be lived, not a puzzle to be solved.

It was fascinating to discover what people were telling themselves in the dark hours. A friend's husband, a big burly guy, repeated a line from Dune, the science fiction novel: Fear is the mind killer. "In the book," he says, "this kid has to put his hand in a box that creates the sensation of being burned, and if he pulls it out, he'll be killed," he said. "So he repeats, I shall not fear, fear is the mind killer till the imaginary pain passes." When I tried saying it, it made me laugh. Which did the trick.

A writer friend reminds herself to try to be the still point of the turning world, a phrase from T.S. Eliot. Another correspondent reports that she's gotten through, time and again, thanks to Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger: "Keep it together, keep it together, repeated very fast." One friend said she stole hers from "a guy who paddled the length of the river Niger and became, like, the seventh white guy in the history of history to do that: Onward ever, backward never." I loved that one, but as it kept repeating itself with a British accent, it didn't take.

One mantra came up far more than any other: This too shall pass. It felt too passive when I tried it, but for many women this idea gave strength and patience. Another friend tells herself, No matter how awful it all is, it's going to change. "It's still my mantra," she says and laughs. "But I wish I had Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

In fact, she could have both. Many people had a repertoire, a whole tool kit: What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.... It's always darkest before the dawn....When God shuts a door, he opens a window.... God grant me strength.... It's never really as bad as it seems.... When the fishermen can't get to sea, they fix their nets, etc. And the all-purpose, if you've lucked out parentally: What would my mother do?

The more mental coping skills you have, the more resilient you'll be—as I was reminded when I met a woman who exuded serenity. "My background is Catholic, so I use the Hail Mary a lot," she said. "But recently, when I had to have a hard conversation with my ex-husband and his wife, I tried the Serenity Prayer—God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. They were trying to provoke me into battle so much, I forgot the words and ended up just squeaking, God...God...God. Didn't matter. It worked. I also like Be still, and know that I am God, from the Psalms, though it feels Buddhist to me since it's about being centered. And If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep walking." I loved that one, put it in my kit.

"Every time I'd get scared, I'd tell myself, 'There is a Plan and I'm being led.'"
Occasionally, I came down with mantra envy. My friend Carol relies on There is a Plan—capital P—and I'm being led. I don't have the muscles yet to take the leaps of faith she does. I wish I did. "I believe our lives get richer when we give up control," she said. "Two years ago, the work I'd done dried up, and I decided what I really wanted was to build houses," though she'd never built a thing. "I was clueless, but I went out and bought property, then hired an architect. My goal was to sell two homes. Before we got the roofs on, we'd sold them and had two more buyers interested. Every time I'd get scared, I'd tell myself, There is a Plan and I'm being led."

I test-drove hers and—embarrassing to admit—lost my nerve when I was supposed to leap. But I ended up finding meaning in two mantras, one my friend Delphine's: There is a solution, a miraculous revelation for someone who's moaned "Maaaan!" for years. Computer won't print? There's a solution if you open the brochure that came with the thing. My other mantra came from a linguist, Alton Becker, a former Fulbright scholar who speaks five Asian languages. "A Vedantist uncle," he wrote, "heard me grumping about something and said, Remember, everyone's doing their best all the time." If it had come from anyone but Becker, I'd have dismissed it as a little too simple, but he's an extraordinary thinker. I tried it and found my life shifting into a much sweeter realm. People in this new place were softer, better intentioned. And even when they weren't, I was—which ultimately produced the same effect.

When the flame-haired older woman in my building, the one who always has a bitter word for everyone, got in the elevator and made a crack about our good-natured super, I remembered the mantra, smiled instead of glared. When a friend didn't mail me the article I really needed and that she'd said three times she'd send, I reminded myself she was doing her best—and saw, instantly, she was; she had two kids, a draining job, two facts I was forgetting. I tried doing his best when a cab driver with sparse English sped off down a route that wasn't the one I'd asked for—fortunately, because his way was faster.

I tried a bigger challenge. A friendship had inexplicably ended. I'd caught the friend, several times, making cutting remarks about me and e-mailed to ask what gives. He'd fired back an angry retort. That did it. I stewed. But I'd only ever been nice to that guy became my indignant mantra. Then I substituted the new one: "Guy did the best he could," I muttered—and was instantly freed from the tangle of emotion—though maybe not in the gentle, evolved way Becker's uncle intended. Hell, I immediately thought, if that's his best, who needs it? His best was more like the worst! And I was out of there. Delphine was right. There was a solution.

Katherine Russell Rich the author of Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language, her book about the year she spent in India learning Hindi.

Read an excerpt from Dreaming in Hindi

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