I participated in a study conducted at the National Institute of Health (NIH) a couple of years ago to determine the disease process of Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (or LAM, my rare lung disease), and during my stay on-site, I had a chaplain visit me in my room to see how I was doing. She was a lovely, middle aged woman with short hair whose voice was as soothing as her overall presence. She moved around the room gracefully and made no gestures with her hands as she spoke slowly, in a mild and even tone. This was all in sharp contrast to my energy. I tend to use my hands a lot when speaking, and I rely a lot on my facial expressions to not only enhance my speech but often times in lieu of a verbal response – sort of like a real life emoticon.
During her visit, the chaplain brought up meditation as a way to cope with LAM and to invite stillness in my life. Maybe she interpreted my wild hand and facial gestures as a cry for help. It’s no surprise that I responded with “I can’t sit still long enough to meditate. It’s not my thing.”
She smiled knowingly and said “You don’t have to be still to be still.” And that’s when she introduced me to mantra recitation. If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, here we go with the woo woo stuff, which was precisely my reaction. But she went on to explain how reciting a mantra is simply a form of meditation that helps you still your mind, and you can do that without having to sit still.
The truth is my mind is constantly racing throughout the day and this rapid-fire thinking often takes energy and attention away from my present being. I remember a time before the Internet, when I’d rewind my cassette player over and over again just so I could figure out the lyrics of a song. Or I’d fast forward so I could skip ahead to the next song. It wasn’t very often that I actually listened to a song in its entirety. Over time, the symbols on both buttons wore out, and yet the “play” button remained in tact.
Apparently not much has changed with the way I think now that I’m an adult. I’m either engrossed in Monday-morning quarterbacking or I’m in fast forward mode struggling with to-do lists or worse, agonizing over my future health outlook because of LAM. And what I’ve discovered is that you can’t hit “play” on your present life at the same time as rewind and forward. You have to pick one.
This is where mantra recitation helps, as the chaplain explained, because it brings the mind’s focus back to the present and helps still the mind from racing. It can also serve as a powerful reminder or affirmation in your life. And if you do it often enough, you can train your mind to use your mantra as your fallback thought.
She suggested I try the mantra All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well or simply, All will be well, which is a prayer or promise of hope, that all will ultimately be put right by the universe, no matter the circumstances of yesterday or today. And as though sensing my resistance, she followed up with “If you can’t sit still to do it, then do it while you walk or run, or while you fold laundry or do dishes or drive or pretty much whenever your mind wanders and leads you to worry or be anxious.” So in my case that means all day long.
Much to my surprise, I do find myself repeating All will be well every once in a while, especially when I get stuck in fast forward mode with an overwhelming sense of despair. And yes, it does restore my hope in what tomorrow might bring. Mostly. But I must confess that there are times when the faith claim of All will be well seems too distant and even incredulous. I suppose you could argue that’s when I need to recite the mantra the most.
But as much as I tried, All will be well just didn’t cut it when I found out that my lung function had declined a little while ago and that was now my new normal, or when the oncologist told me we were out of treatment options for my mom’s brain cancer. And let’s face it, in the low points of my life, I can’t always find hope in my future when I have a rare and progressive lung disease for which there is no cure.
In those moments, I need something more immediate and within reach, so I’ve learned instead to turn to Today I’m here. This mantra is like a jolt because it forces me to examine where I’m at in the moment – sort of like hitting the stop button and then hitting “play”. It takes away any judgements and second-guessing from the past, and makes no promise of what the future will bring. Because today, in this moment, I’m here and that’s all I can control.
There’s also an acceptance with a note of gratitude to this mantra, which is liberating. No matter what my lung function test or kidney ultrasound indicates at my next doctor visit in three months, Today I’m Here and in this moment I’m going to choose to be present in my life. I can’t second-guess if we could have caught the progression of my mother’s brain tumor any sooner because Today We’re Here and I have to enjoy what precious time we may have left together. Those days when I can’t run because it feels like my lungs just won’t cooperate, I walk instead, and remind myself over and over again that while I may not be able to run at this moment, at least I can walk and I’m okay with that so I choose to hit “play” and repeat Today I’m here. Today I’m here. Today I’m here.