Become a student of change. It is the only thing that will remain constant. –Anthony J. D’Angelo
Eighteen women gathered last weekend for a “Thriving through Tough Times” workshop I offered in Bozeman. Not the lightest topic, yet one that elicited lots of shared laughter from the group. Ranging in age from twenty-nine to timeless grandmas, everyone had valuable advice to contribute. When we spoke about first finding ourselves in difficult circumstances, one of group elders wryly added, “When times get tough I tell myself, ‘Things might get better (long pause)…or they might not.’”
The grounded optimism of these words summed up a workshop theme. Many of these women had overcome some very tough times. They explained how they had gathered fantastic opportunity and learning from their experiences, modeling how life can indeed improve through adversity. Yet they were realistic, when you lose a child, or your best friend at midlife, things might not get better.
The journey through personal challenges in the Buddhist tradition is sometimes referred to as a “little death.” Our current job/marriage/situation ends or “dies”, we enter into a dark time of transition, and if things get better…or not, a new career/relationship/life emerges. These little deaths are seen as valuable practice to prepare us for the big one at our physical end.
Around the world, we are counseled to be calm and focused on the path ahead whether meeting a little or big ending. Many cultures strive for a “good death,” or one that is conscious and peaceful, since they believe this will supports us getting to the best next destination possible.
Repeating phrases like Theresa of Avila’s, “All is well and all will be will,” is very common global technique to foster a good death and rebirth. We might chant prayers over and over to comfort the dying, reminding them of the life yet to come. For example, in the Catholic tradition, the prayer “Hail Mary…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” is repeated, while Hindus sing devotional prayers and chant Vedic mantras throughout the process.
When we face little deaths, repeating favorite sayings can both calm and ready us for the adventure ahead. Another workshop participant offered her father’s favorite motto, “Everything happens for a reason.” Explaining how these words provide her solace and courage she said, “By repeating this phrase I accept my circumstances and I figure I better start looking for that reason.”
Mantras are like a verbal opening bow to the opponent, “Tough Times.” When this adversary appears I like to say,
- “Good teacher” – Borrowing the martial arts belief that our opponents are our best instructors. This reminds me that I can learn something and become wiser (a big personal selling point!).
- “Opportunity, lots of opportunity” – That’s my version of “Things might get better…”
- “I get to be here” – Recalling that this might be my only opportunity — in this body anyway — to have this experience.
In the above phrases, notice I invoke attitudes of learning, hope and gratitude. Interestingly, all three of these responses are processed in our neo-cortex or the two hemispheres residing on the top of our heads. This is the portion of our brains best equipped for complex problem solving. When the neo-cortex is engaged we have access to our creativity and can consider future implications of our actions. We play best when this brain region is in charge. I am thus suspicious that the most effective mantras engage this highest cerebral region.
So, what might be your calming phrases or sayings?