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Our Unconscious Mantras

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

How do you talk to your life, when you're alone?

There’s this idea that reciting a mantra can affect your life — bring peace, help identify your passion, awaken the inner guru. My teacher, Anam Thubten, says that reciting mantras can energetically connect you to a lineage and have a positive effect, but he doesn’t go much further. He says it’s too easy to get attached to spiritual tools, as though they could be used to make bad things go away. That’s not what they’re for — but that’s a different conversation.

I myself don’t have a mantra practice.


No, that’s right. I don’t have an intentional mantra practice. But I do have an unintentional one, and it’s full of dissatisfaction and rough speech.

The other day, I was trying to open a bottle of Schweppes tonic water, and I spoke these words as I twisted and re-twisted and failed, “Are you kidding me? … What the f*%k!? … This is ridiculous. I mean, come ON.” I tried with a towel. I tried with a rubber jar opener. I tried giving it to Elena. Finally, we got out a big, heavy wrench, and by that time we felt we truly deserved the gin and tonic that the contents of this bottle eventually provided.

All that verbal fuming? That was my unintentional, my unconscious mantra. The mantra that trickles out and flows into the life I’m living. The mantra that shapes my attitudes, solidifies my moods, and hardens my face in the mirror.

So, what am I supposed to do with that? Am I supposed to say nice things, now, while I’m frustrated as hell? “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to exercise patience?”

Hell no. I mean, that’s fine if you want to do it; but at the end of the day, countering our unconscious mantras with their contrived opposites only muzzles them. They’re still baring their teeth inside the muzzle.

What our life needs, what the unconscious mantras are asking for, is our presence. Our curiosity. Our tender, wide awake appreciation for what’s going on right now. No matter what that is.

I’m not sure I have it to give. But as I try to imagine how I might do it, I asked myself this:

“What if my life were a living being, separate from me?”

Think about it for a minute. If your life were a living being, separate from you, but with you everywhere, how would that change you?

Think about the things you mumble to your life as you move through the day. Notice how you’re talking to it. Would you want to live with you, be friends with you, if that’s all you ever heard from you? I’m only asking because once I started paying attention to my own utterances, pretty much all that came out (when I was alone) was frustrated, defeated expletives.

In other words, I don’t treat my life very well.

What am I going to do about it? No idea, really. But I could try using that question and see where it took me. What would the Schweppes moment look like, if my life were a living being that I cared about, separate from me? What would it look like if my life could hear me, and was affected by my words?

I replay the moment: I pick up the bottle and struggle with it for a while. I feel the aggravation building, and I stop. Instead of just bitching at the situation, I try something different. I try to listen in on the conversation going on between me and my life.

ME: What’s the agitation about?

MY LIFE: My hands hurt. I’m angry. I feel ashamed that this is not easy. I blame the manufacturers of bottles and jars, those bastards. I bet they’re all men. Young men. Nobody cares. I feel impotent. I feel old and frail. I feel irrelevant. I’m tired. Everything is hard.

ME: I get it. So, there’s way more going on here than the bottle top.


But then I stay put. I sit still and feel into where all those different feelings live in my body. I watch where I’ve knit meanings and sub-meanings into extra layers, creating a massive, knotted, impossible mess.

And as I watch this happen in real time, it feels strangely wonderful to just be seen. To be listened to. And most important of all, to be accepted in that mess. Nobody’s rushing around to make it better. It’s just me being curious about my life, curious enough to look...and compassionate enough not to look away.

I learned how to do this from Byron Katie — a writer whose work has been invaluable to me. She encourages self-inquiry, but doesn’t stop there. Once we’ve identified what we’re thinking and believing, she invites us to ask who we would be without those thoughts and beliefs?

Like, who would I be if I had no way of thinking, “I’m old, I have arthritis, the world is against me, everything is hard”? In that specific, Schweppes bottle-opening moment, who am I without all those beliefs?

I am a woman standing in a kitchen, trying to open a bottle. It looks like I’m going to need some help. I try many things. My wife thinks of using a wrench. We open the bottle.

Do you see how unencumbered the moment becomes? Isn’t that lighter? Cleaner? The little moment, freed of its shackles can breathe, and my life and I breathe with it. The irritations that used to elicit my mumbly mantras now bring forward my more curious heart. My desire to know, to ask, “What’s this about?”

Let’s listen to how we talk to our lives. Let’s hear the mantras being spoken by our lives —

and take them seriously. They’re trying to get our attention.

Let’s pay attention. Hold our lives in a tender respect. Our days are precious and few and none of us

knows when the last one has come.


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