A True Story About A Mantra

Once upon a time, I was a teenager in an economically depressed neighborhood where drugs were rampant and violence loomed on the streets. I walked to school each morning with my brother or a group of friends past grim apartment complexes and run-down houses with bars on the doors and windows. And at night, after I finished my shift at the dingy, local sandwich shop, that same group of friends would escort me home as protection against a gang that had taken a special disliking to me.

This gang had attacked me once. I’m pretty sure it was random, that I just happened to be in their path when the flush of violence overtook them. But my apparent lack of fear (I was in shock) on that occasion struck them as intolerable, and I became a target. They would station themselves outside the sandwich shop and threaten me with punching gestures from just far enough away that the police could not or would not intervene.

On the occasional nights when the coast was clear and I walked home from work alone, I carried a knife.

I was afraid. I was constantly afraid. But I was even more angry than afraid. Angry at being trapped in this circumstance and feeling powerless against physical forces mightier than my own. Angry at the drugs and the culture of violence ruining the lives of so many people around me.

It was a difficult time. But it was living in this environment, that I discovered the power of mantra.

This was during the late 1980s, before yoga had proliferated in the U.S. and before pop-culture championed positive affirmations and self-talk. I was not reading esoteric texts, seeking enlightenment. I don’t think I’d even heard of yoga at the time. My mantra experience was born from an entirely different physical practice: jogging.

I took to jogging during daylight hours on weekends when other kids in my 'hood were trying to score an eight ball, an ounce, or a relatively innocent forty. (That’s meth, pot, and malt liquor, respectively.) I began to jog because I did not know what else to do with that particular teenage energy that is a combination of rising life force and frustration. So I ran. And as I ran, I discovered that my mind would try to match the rhythm of my body.

My sneakered feet would pound a rhythm on the pavement, and my mind would write lyrics to match that beat. Maybe it was the influence of the military culture I had been steeped in my entire life prior to my dad’s retirement and our subsequent move to this city of modest means. Cadence, it’s called, when soldiers train to a chant.

This was my cadence: “I can do whatever I choose.”

Over and over again: “I can do whatever I choose.” Again and again, marking each syllable with my feet.

In hypnotherapy, we would call this an autosuggestion. In new age lingo, you’d call it an affirmation. At its essence it is a mantra, a repeated phrase used in spiritual practice to train the mind away from distress or distraction toward a desired focus.

I didn’t know to call my chant anything at the time. I just jogged and chanted, jogged and chanted. Sometimes I would repeat my mantra silently while walking or before sleeping at night. My mantra turned my energy away from helplessness, fear, and anger and toward empowerment, autonomy, and choice.

When an ecosystem doesn’t support a person’s health and wellness, but rather colludes with violence and despair, it’s easy to stay stuck. Mantra is a tool for organizing and strengthening one’s life force energy into a coherent new story.

I could have listened to the story being told all around me: that watching TV all day and doing drugs by night was an appropriate use of my life force energy. Instead, whether by grace or by chance, I listened to a different story. A story told in rhythm by my own body through a very mundane — yet very magical — mantra.

Mantra was not my only resource during my transition out of this environment. I had help from others — the friends who protected me, the school officials who eventually intervened with the gang, the guidance counselor who steered me toward scholarships for college, and my family’s unwavering faith in my abilities and commitment to my future. To these allies, I offer my gratitude. And to the mechanisms within us that respond to our own self-talk, I also say thank you.

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Take a moment to reflect on mantras you’ve used consciously or unconsciously to liberate yourself from old stories or depleting patterns.

What new mantra could you bring to your sitting meditation or to your physical exercise? What does your body-mind system need to hear from you — regularly, repeatedly — to steer your energy toward a better future?