Mantra? I barely know ya!
If you’re like me, words like “mantra” and “affirmation” tend to leave a bad taste in your mouth. The problem I’ve always had with them is that life is far more complicated than a simple aphorism can usually handle. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“, for example, may be golden but doesn’t apply so well if you’re a personal trainer, a surgeon, or a childcare provider. If you’re response is that it’s more of a generalization – “Be nice to each other” – I would argue that first that’s not always the case (a police officer, for example, making an arrest) and second that the usefulness of the mantra becomes diluted to the point of uselessness when you’re generalizing life into big categories like “Be nice.”
Then again, I tend to be cynical. There’s a reason this blog’s motto starts with the word “Practical”. Mantra’s seem like a cop out, a way to avoid the realities of life in favor of some simplistic phrase.
At the same time, I love things like the artist True’s culture-jamming art installation on the MTA in the late 90’s. Titled “Life Instructions”, he took the banal warning stickers so ubiquitous in the subway and subtly replaced them:
I am not sure why I am so enamored of the project. It could be argued to not only be very mantra-ish and also somewhat dangerous (what if someone didn’t know how to evacuate because they were too busy striving to be happy?). I think perhaps it is because these types of signs become so ubiquitous in our world as to blend into the scenery and go unnoticed. On the other hand, changing things up just slightly – having the subway suddenly take an interest in your psychological health, for example – seems to be the kind of rapturist (the opposite of a terrorist, that is, with a goal of joy rather than terror) act that could turn someone’s day around.
“…instructions you give yourself repeatedly to reset your thoughts and clear your frustrations.” – Chris Brogan
That’s his definition, and when you put it that way, I can actually get behind it. In thinking about that part of his new book, I realized that I do have a mantra. In fact, it’s one that I created almost a decade ago, when life was quite different. I had sat down with my then-partner and going through a goal-setting exercise with her.
She was very much into goal-setting – still is, in fact. Me, on the other hand, I tend to believe pretty strongly in the inevitability of change. Considering that I currently make a living doing work that didn’t even remotely exist ten years ago, much less twenty, setting long-term destinations has never seemed to be useful to me. Still, I was a man in love, and so I was working through the goalsetting with her.
The goals have long since been forgotten. But another part of the process was creating a mantra or motto that you would put up in order to help you along the way. The mantra I came up with, after much thought, was:
Dance. Don’t Scramble.
Which, upon reflection, could be simplified to simply “Dance.” Why have a couple of negative words in the motto, when one positive one will work? It was a reminder that while life was motion, dance was intentional motion, and by remembering to move with intent I could handle the obstacles in my way with grace and, dare I say it, aplomb.
I don’t have a nifty set of iconographic stickers to remind me – though I know of a lot of people who get tattoos for exactly that purpose. For now, though, this image of one of my heroes reminds me of the many possibilities a dancer creates:
Do you have a mantra that works for you? How do you keep it in the forefront of your actions? I’d really like to know…