I constantly go around with a song in my head. Luckily, it isn’t always the same song but don’t ask me how my mind decides to change it. It just happens. I don’t seem to have any control over it. You might have noticed that not only songs seem to appear in our minds uncontrollably. Many (if not most) of our thoughts are like that.
In February, I went to a ten day retreat with my Yoga teacher in Munnar, India to learn more about meditation. We practiced silence during two of the days during our stay, and what I noticed this time is that many thoughts kept coming back like a playlist on loop. Even thoughts about events in my life that I felt I was over with. I think this happened because my mind was desperately trying to find things to cling to. I sometimes suspect my mind for trying to torture me emotionally…
Luckily for me, I am have been practicing japa since I started studying Yoga five years ago and it helped me to calm my mind. Japa is the repetition of a mantra, and it is used as a technique in the Yoga tradition. We can read about it in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
1.27-29 The word expressive of Isvara is the mystic sound OM. To repeat it with reflection upon its meaning is an aid. From this practice all the obstacles disappear and simultaneously dawns knowledge of the inner Self.
The mantra mentioned in the Yoga Sutras is the word OM which is known by many people. The beauty of it is that it is easy to remember, it is powerful and it is very soothing to repeat either aloud or in your head. I repeat OM as part of my meditation practice, but it can also be repeated mentally whenever and wherever.
In the Yoga tradition there are many mantras. Sri Swami Satchidananda mentions Japa Yoga in his commentary of these sutras, which I think is the repetition of mantras as a technique to calm the mind and come closer to the True Self.
It is also possible to have a personal mantra (preferably made with the help of a teacher) often repeated as some sort of antidote against limiting thoughts (i.e. ‘I am safe and secure’ if you know you are the anxious type, or ‘I am enough’ if you are constantly torturing yourself with thoughts of self-doubt, ‘I learn and I grow’ if you keep putting yourself down whenever you make a mistake). Usually, one has one mantra and sticks with it for a long period or even a lifetime. It is not advisable to change mantra as we change socks because for it to make a change in our mindset, it needs to be repeated constantly over a long period of time. That is called japa.
So, when, where and why do japa? Whenever and wherever! You can decide to start from the moment you open your eyes in the morning and continue whenever you remember. Most probably, your mind will keep taking over, but when you notice, you go back to your japa to still the busy mind. It is a very good ‘activity’ to have when waiting in line, or at the waiting room before an appointment, while sitting on the bus, while going for a walk, etc. Once repeating your mantra becomes a habit, it can be powerful tool when you are feeling mentally or emotionally distressed. I remember a friend of mine told me she used her mantra when she was lying on the operation table right before surgery, and it helped her feel safe. I use mine when I wake up in the middle of the night and notice my mind is all over the place. Most of the time, it helps me fall asleep again quite fast.
Note that Patanjali tells us that by doing our japa, ‘obstacles disappear’. The obstacles in question are our own mental obstacles. The practice of japa is to overcome our limiting thoughts. Either rumination, regret, worry or limiting thoughts about ourselves. The noice in our head that doesn’t help us.
Ask yourself, how is your self-talk? What do you usually think about yourself? Do you usually feed into your strengths and qualities or do you ruminate on your shortcomings. When you make a mistake, do you show self-compassion or do you drag yourself down through your critical inner voice? Unfortunately, most people have quite nasty self-talk. Whenever you catch yourself putting yourself down stop, take a deep breath, show yourself some understanding and either replace the thought with a positive one, or do your japa. It doesn’t need to be ‘relevant’. You are trying to train your brain to stop limiting yourself.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t spend time reflecting on what we can do better next time, but it means that we talk to ourselves as we would like a good friend would talk to us. You want to have constructive self-talk, not destructive.