While I appreciate that fact that mantras often call on us to employ positive thinking, I sense that in order to live whole, vibrant lives of richness and radiance, we must embrace not just the light but the shadow.
As much as I’d like to think that positive thoughts yield positive outcomes, I’m convinced that true healing happens when we have the courage to dive all the way into the depths of our deepest pain and allow our hearts to break open. Something shifts from that broken place, and we awaken into a new understanding of what it means to be fully human.
Mantras that acknowledge both life’s triumphs and life’s messiness can be powerful tools to facilitate this inner transformation. Here are six that I employ regularly:
I had the pleasure of spending this New Year's Eve with my spiritual mentor and author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, and musician Karen Drucker. Right at midnight, Karen asked me what my mantra was for the year, and she promised to write a song about it. I said, “I am in agreement with life, and I resist nothing.” She promptly wrote a mantra that we chanted.
This was an important moment for me. This past fall, I lost five people I love within six weeks — all but one of the five were very young, and the deaths were tragic. Suffice it to say, everything in me wanted to resist them. This mantra helped me heal my grieving heart.
I was trained as an OB/GYN, and I’m also a mother, so I know a lot about childbirth. Of course, when contractions hit, the natural impulse is to resist the pain. But as all mothers know, when you resist the contraction, it hurts even more. As every midwife and doula will tell you, the trick is to soften into the pain and let it take you over.
When life hurts, soften into the pain. Just like a contraction, grief or heartbreak lasts about 90 seconds, and then you get a reprieve before the next wave hits. You feel it all the way and it heals and awakens you — you get broken open and your capacity to love expands.
As I wrote about in my book The Anatomy of a Calling, a lot of weird mystical stuff has happened to me over the past few years. As a doctor who was raised in a very rational, regimented household, these inexplicable things shook me to the core. Everything I thought I knew about how the world works — including all my medical knowledge about what leads to a cure — got dismantled. I was extremely confused, but then Rachel Naomi Remen invited me to “Be curious.” This is the mantra that changed my life.
There’s a certain humility in its words. The phrase suggests that we can’t possibly understand the mysteries of life, and that's OK. I was always asking Rachel “how” and “why,” but Rachel said, “Perhaps how and why are the booby prize.” I was stunned silent. When you can simply “be curious,” you invoke a sort of childlike innocence — a humble willingness to not know. I call upon this mantra every time I feel my heart beat a little too fast because the Universe just rocked my world with yet another unapologetic show of magic. And then, as a curious child, I can simply be grateful for the magic that's unfolding all around me and marvel in wonder at it all.
One of my mentors, Martha Beck, taught me the life-changing mantra, “Cave early.” This is the mantra to invoke when you’re trying to make a decision, and you’re tempted to choose the path your desire is beckoning you toward. Yet, your intuition is saying, “No, honey. This ends badly. Get out now.”
Choose to simply cave early. Breathe through it and just say no. Learn the soul lesson without putting your heart through the ringer. You might cave early when you know it’s time to quit your job, cave early in a health crisis, or cave early when you’re dealing with conflict with your family. The key is not to cave to your fear but to your intuition. Fear might say, “Cave early because this is too risky.” This has a different vibration than intuition, which says, “You have free will, so go ahead if you must, but this is going to hurt, and there may be side effects."
So many of us beat ourselves up ruthlessly. Yet blaming, shaming, criticizing, and bullying ourselves doesn’t lead to the desired changes we might seek. The only way real change happens is through gentle self-compassion. In her song "Gentle With Myself," Karen Drucker sings, “I will only go as fast as the slowest part of me feels safe to go.” We tend to think that we have to push ourselves through force, discipline, and self-hatred in order to make change in our lives. But these tactics don’t work — only radical self-compassion and gentleness can allow us to make the brave choices that transform our lives.
Similar to “I am in agreement with life and I resist nothing,” “I accept” is a simple but powerful mantra that has been known to make the body ripe for miracles. As I wrote about in my book Mind Over Medicine, Kris Carr had “incurable” stage 4 cancer for 10 years, and her tumors never shrank or grew. Then Kris began an “I accept” meditation, accepting and even loving her cancer. And for the first time in 10 years, her tumors were half their size. Acceptance vibrates at the frequency of miracles.
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