What’s Your Mantra?

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.

William James, The Principles of Psychology

The word “mantra” sounds exotic and spiritual. It’s one of those words you’re likely to hear in the final moments of a yoga class or as you’re scanning the magazine headlines in the check out line of Whole Foods. But a “mantra” is simply a repeated word or phrase that creates changes in the mind.

You may not be a “spiritual” person. You may not meditate or do yoga. But I can guarantee you that you have a mantra.

If you don’t believe me, try the following experiment: for the next few hours, pay attention to the repeated words and phrases in your mind. You might be surprised – or even terrified – at what you find.

I did this experiment last night and found loads of unconscious mantras playing on repeat in my mind. They all sounded like an angry football coach calling his players a bunch of wusses during a half-time speech. Here are some choice ones:

  • “I’m lazy. I should have written more today.”
  • “Maybe this whole Life Beyond Logic thing is a terrible idea,”
  • “I wonder if that lump in my throat is a thyroid tumor?”

I asked some of my friends about their unconscious inner mantras and came up with the following list:

  • “Not only am I untalented, but I’m also fat.”
  • “I am so unhealthy, I’m going to die of cancer.”
  • “Nothing matters because we’re all going to die anyway.”
  • “Life is too scary to think about, so I need a drink.” 
  • “Do I have a drinking problem?”

You may not have these exact mantras, but I would bet that your mind wanders into similarly self-deprecating terrain at times.

I’ve noticed something interesting about these unconscious mantras: they’re almost completely outside of our control. Like it or not, they just seem to come and go on their own schedule.

It’s a lot like sitting in a restaurant with annoying background music – say Justin Bieber’s latest hit. You may want to change the radio station or turn it off or bash the amplifier with a baseball bat. But it’s ultimately not up to you. You stay calm: the music plays. You scream and yell at the wait staff about it: the music plays.

These repeating thought patterns are the same. You’re just along for the ride. You don’t call the shots.

If we could consult Emerson about this, he would probably call these unconscious mantras a part of our “fate.” In his essay – “Fate” – he calls such things “irresistible” and outside of our control. Nobody makes the conscious choice to have an inner monologue that sounds like a sadistic parent or whining two-year old. It just happens.

But Emerson would remind us that “fate” is only one part of the human condition. Freedom is the other. We may not control negative mantras, but we do control where we direct our attention. Just as we can shift attention from the background music to the conversation at our table, we can shift our inner attention toward more productive mantras.

This shift is what Emerson described as passing “fate…under the fire of thought.” The old thought patterns may continue to spin in the background, but we can turn our awareness elsewhere.

How do you make this shift? Here are a few tips that have worked for me:

  • Choosing a Mantra – Find a few mantras that resonate deeply with qualities you would like to cultivate. If you want to cultivate gratitude, you might use, “Thank you.” For faith, “all is well.”
  • Allow the Background Music to Play – Try to let go of your need to control the negative mantras that arise in your mental chatter. They are not wrong or bad, they’re just background music. They arise from nothing and fall into nothing, just like waves (see the Inner Surfing Practice).
  • Catch Yourself – As soon as you become captivated by unconscious negative mantras, catch yourself. This act opens the space for shifting your awareness toward a more productive mantra.


  1. Mark Andrew says:

    Hey Nate, nice blog. I just mentioned this article in a post on my blog and did my own take on it: “What negative phrase do you repeat to yourself regularly? Do you want to be free of it?” Check it out: http://theworkworks.me/2011/exercises/what-phrase-do-you-repeat-to-yourself-regularly

  2. Nathan says:

    Nate my man, you are right on point with this posting. I totally agree with your commentary. I use mantras everyday to replace the negative phrases that unconsciously show up. I have several mantras I say daily, but my favorite ones are:

    “I believe that I can be what I will to be”
    “I believe day by day in every way I am getting better and better”
    “I believe that persistence which does not recognize failure will bring riches”.

    I’ve recently been introduce to your site from our twitter Following of each other.

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