Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When the Mantra Won't Get Lost

A commenter recently asked me to write about what one can do when the mantra keeps coming up — even when she had made the decision to stop meditating.

In reading her question, it became clear she was dealing with two separate problems: (1) the mantra was weaving in and out of her mind unbidden, and (2) she was apparently experiencing trance states in her daily activities and which were interfering with her life. I write below about the first problem. I hope to write a brief article on unwanted trance states tomorrow.

It makes sense that even people who are determined to stop meditating might find the mantra coming up when they no longer wish it to. It's a simple matter of a habit of mind. In a 20-year career of meditating, for instance, it's very likely that one has replaced conscious, linear thought with the mantra millions of times. The mind doing what it does, this quickly becomes an unconscious habit — one that continues, first as one falls asleep or when the mind wanders and later even in the midst of activity. Not everyone experiences this automatic mantra, but many, many of the people I've counseled have mentioned it.

There are some simple cognitive-behavioral techniques that can reduce, and eventually eliminate, the troublesome repetition of the mantra. Below are some ideas that have worked for my clients. No one method has worked for everyone, so I suggest if you suffer from this problem, try them all and determine which works for you best.

  1. Practice forming the image of a bright red stop sign in your mind and mentally shout "No!" whenever the mantra comes up. The technique is known as "thought stopping." It was developed for people with anger, compulsions, and other unasked for thoughts. By replacing the habit of thinking the mantra with this simple visualization, many people stop the mantra repetition easily.

  2. Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it whenever you think the mantra when you don't want to. A simple form of aversion therapy that works for compulsive eaters can also work for the wayward mantra repetition.

  3. Think of a pleasant thought, prayer, inspirational saying, or affirmation that you would like to incorporate into your thoughts. Then whenever the mantra comes up, replace the mantra with this brief affirmation (third definition). You can also use a more directed affirmation, such as "I am successful at not thinking the mantra and enjoying my life."

  4. Involve yourself in a distracting activity that you enjoy — particularly something taxing mentally. For instance, if you find the mantra arising, start doing a crossword puzzle or chess, something that challenges your mind. It's difficult to work your brain cells and repeat a mantra at the same time. The key here is that you want to replace the unwanted activity with one you actually enjoy. Your mind will quickly drop the old, unwanted mantra habit and substitute the more enjoyable activity.

  5. Try exercise! This is another distracting activity, but has the added benefit of getting you out of your head and into your body and surroundings. Walk, run, lift weights — whatever suits your fancy and matches your fitness level.

  6. Give yourself a reward every time you catch yourself thinking the mantra and stopping. While snapping a rubber band is negative reinforcement, this is positive reinforcement for achieving your goal. The reward could be a hard candy or any similar little joy.

Readers may have techniques that have worked for them. Please feel free to write me at jmknapp53@gmail.com with your suggestions. You may help dozens of others that I work with in the future!


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