The song in my head

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.

On wants and needs

Everything I write is about my own personal experience and reflections, but what I observe in myself, I often observe in others. When I write about it, it is mainly to make some sense of my reflections, but it is also to share and invite you to reflect about it. It might resonate with you, it might not. Either way, it is okay. I do appreciate comments whether you agree or disagree.

So, this week, I have been reflecting especially about the idea of lack. It is something that I have reflected about for a while now because I have noticed how this feeling creates distress in my mind and sometimes has led me to act in ways that haven’t helped at all. I observe how, the wanting of something can often cast a shadow on what I have and the opportunities and choices I have in front of me otherwise. For some people, the pursuit of acquiring something they lack can turn into an obsession.

I wonder why we have this in us. Is it part of our survival instinct? I guess the pursuit of a goal or a need has saved lives and brought what we call progress, but maybe, at some point during our pursuit of this ‘thing’ we lack, we ought to stop, observe, reflect and ask ourselves if the price isn’t too high. Is this pursuit taking all our time and energy? Is it affecting our mental peace? Is it interfering with our ability to see those around us and be present for the people who need us? Even more importantly maybe, is there another possibility? Are we ignoring all the positive aspects of our life because this one thing we believe we need or want so badly? Where does this need come from? Is it a need or is it a want? Can we find the root of it inside ourselves? Can we satisfy this need in another way?

I have experienced and seen many examples of lack: lack of romance, lack of children, lack of money, lack of acknowledgement, lack of respect, just to mention some. Christmas is the time of the year where we hear a lot about people struggling emotionally because they feel alone. Loneliness is apparently getting worse and worse from year to year especially in the Western world. I do believe it is a problem, and I don’t mean to trivialise it, but I wonder if it isn’t yet a state of mind. I know it is easy for me to say when I have a family to take care of, but what if, when we go into the state of lack, instead of focusing on our need or want, on what the outer world ‘should’ do for us, we turn the situation around and focus on what we can do? Maybe we can engage somehow either in an existing group or on our own? Maybe we know about someone who also struggles in one way or another and we can reach out? It doesn’t need to be big things.

One thing that I have observed during this year is the joy it bings to my kids when they can do something for someone else. I think it is a mixture between the joy of feeling useful and the joy of someone being happy because of our own actions. It has been small things like crocheting something for a friend, being kind to a stranger in the street by picking up something they dropped, including a friend during playtime. It can also be picking up rubbish from the park or feeding the birds during Winter. Anything that makes us feel purposeful and implies giving instead of receiving.

So, next time you catch yourself in distress because of something you lack, stop, take a deep breath and:

  1. Acknowledge your need/want and do not judge yourself. Cultivate an inner feeling of self-compassion.
  2. Ask yourself why it is so important for you? Is it really this one thing that will make you feel for ever happy? What will happen if you acquire what you want? What will happen next? Can you do something else to feel happy?
  3. Look around you and see where you are, with whom you are. Are all your basic needs met? Do you have all the resources you need to have a simple yet good life? What is a good life for you? How much is enough? How much is too much?
  4. What can you do for others? Are you seeing and acknowledging those around you? Can you give some of the time and energy you are spending in your pursuit for the benefit of others (be it people or the environment)?