My Mantra


That’s the thing I say to myself, over and over.

“Loved” is my mantra, when I meditate.   Those five letters do the job of any other mantra: the return my awareness from whatever thoughts have popped inside my head.  They are my anchor to this moment that is happening right now, tethering me to the only time we are actually alive.  Regrets might want to push me back into the past.  Worries might try to rush me into the future.   When I feel this happening, I say that word to myself, dismiss the things that are clamoring for my attention, and then I am here, in the present.

Some of the time, anyway.  Other times, letting go takes this strange sort-of repeated not-effort.  Sometimes I get swept up a little bit.  I see that getting frustrated with myself at these times is an adventure in missing the point.  So sometimes, I might make several attempts, saying that word, to myself.

There are lots of different types of mantras.  Not just words but images, candles, sounds, sensations like breathing.  All of the those, I think, perform equally well for all the things listed above.

But personally, I get a little extra mileage out of that word, “Loved.”

Difficult and terrifying things came up when I sit in the silence.  Some of them would be dismissed by any old mantra.  But with my word, there is a second line of defense.

When I truly embrace the reality– not only that God is love, but also that I personally am loved– everything also just fades away.  There is not a single fear, worry, memory or feeling that can stand before that simple truth: I am loved.

Saying the word once doesn’t instantly awaken myself to this reality.  But each time I think it, I believe it a lot more.  And that’s a really good feeling.

Five Important Words, And Two More

It is all very simple.

I used to believe this in a hundred different ways, for a hundred different reasons.  In a way that is hard to describe, I still believe it.  With at least as much intensity as I used to have for it.  But all the reasons I believe it now, are very different than the reasons I believed it then.  

When I say it is all very simple now, it means something so very different than it used to.

Before, I had these ways of experiencing the world.  These filters.

Some of them were based on past experience.  Whenever X comes up, Y inevitably follows.

Some of them were based on ways of understanding the world.  People told me (and I listened!) A means B.  And it will always lead to C.

Much of it was connected to living with a multiple choice mentality.  Things are either this or they are that.  I didn’t have much room for ambiguity.  For both/and.  For embracing the fact that everything that happens is unqiue.

Maybe it began to change when I learned  from my breath.  I must inhale AND exhale.  This is not an either/or proposition.  Further, I suspect that I get past my defenses and rationilizations when I am calm.  Perhaps, most importantly,  I suspect that I can hear God better when I quiet down the chatter in my head.

There is something in the midst all this connected to experiencing each moment as something wholly new and unique  Every moment that has ever happened has never happened before.  Even if it appeared identical, down to the smallest little piece of it, that second moment has a difference from the first: it comes later, it comes after, it has accumulated something new and different as a result of all the things that occured before it.

When I make the decision to experience each moment as something new, when I reject the desire to categorize it with things that have gone on in the past, I am finding some redemption, even in those hard moments.  Often this is something that comes in through my senses.  When I live in the moment I am in, I might notice a scent I would have missed.  I might see a beautiful interplay of the sunlight and the cloud forms.  I might taste the apple I would have been tempted to devour with out even noticing.  Other times it comes from a recognition that it is not as bad as it initially seemed, and it not as black-and-white as it appears to be.

It is all very simple.

I am only in this moment.  My only responsibility is to live there.  I don’t have to align myself with this side or that side.  I don’t need to wholly embrace this idea and thoroughly reject that one.  It is very simple to hold them both.  

It is very simple to say ‘I don’t know.’  It is very simple to validate wisdom where ever it lives.  It is very simple to recognize that loving is the most important thing, and choosing which side to be on is usually the way to despair.

There is lots of power in five words, “It is very simple.”

There is also lots of power in two words, “Just this.”

As you meditate, or pray, or play video games, or wash the dishes, or hug your kids, let this be the chorus of the song you are singing by living your life, “Just this.”  Let it be your mantra, let it be your fall back, let it be your focus: “Just this.”

When you breathe, or eat, or play chess, or reach a cheesy science fiction novel as you drink a great beer, those two words, “Just this” Are a powerful anchor into living in only this one and single moment.  This is all there is, this is all that there needs to be, this is where you are, right here and right now.

#6: God, Popeye, and Me

Imagine that God’s name was not a word; suppose that it could not, in some sense, be said.

Further, imagine that despite this, what if there was a holy person somewhere, who had been saying God’s name?  What if this saint had been saying God’s name since the day he was born and he would continue to say God’s name until the day he died?

What if this holy person was you?  And also me?  And all of us?

For centuries, some people within the Jewish-Christian tradition have believed God’s name is a thing that can not, or should not, be said.  Moses seems to be looking for a name from God, after he has his first encounter.  Moses worries that when he tries to free his people that they will ask him who sent him.  As he generally does, God responds in a way that challenges the assumptions of the question.  We often translate the answer that God gives as “I AM!”  It seems like Moses is looking for a name and he gets something quite different.   (More on that later.)  

Some traditions have resisted writing down God’s name.  Today, this sometimes manifests in putting a dash in the middle, written something like, “G-d.”  Many translations of the bible refer to God as LORD, written in smaller capital letters, as a way to sidestep the naming of our creator.

Rabbis make something of the sounds that made up this name for God.  They are not sounds that are made with the teeth or the tongue.  They are an imitation of the breath itself.  In the modern translation of this name, Yahweh, we get a sense of this.   When you say this outloud, it feels like an exhalation.  

People smarter than me have affirmed that God’s name is the breath itself.

So we have said this name in our waking and our sleeping.  We have said it in our tears and in our deepest joy.  We say God’s name, regardless of the place we live, or the religious tradition we identify as our own, over and over and over again.

When we sit in meditation, we bring a special attention to our breath.  The idea that we might be putting our attention to saying God’s name…  This is pretty amazing to me.   

A thing that makes this even better is that the meaning of this breath-name is perhaps more accurately rendered “I Am who I am, I will be who I will be”

It is amazing enough that these statements have a certain meaning to God.  He is the only necessary thing in the universe, he is the only unchangeable thing that there is.  But even more amazing, “I am who I am, and I will be who I will be” applies  to myself in an entirely different way.  

I love that I focus on my breath, and in some sense I am saying these things about myself.  They are exactly what I want to say as I meditation.

In these words there is a declaration that I am in the present moment.  I don’t need to finish the sentence, “I am” when I meditate.  I don’t need to say ‘I am rich’  or ‘I am sad’ or ‘I am white’ or even ‘I am meditating.’ The fact that I am, that is quite enough.

And as I sit and breathe, I am longing to get past my ego, my delusions, my fear.  I am like Popeye, a bit, when he says that Godly statement ‘I am who I am’  With God, and with Popeye, I am saying ‘Look, this is what you get, this is who I am, and I will stand proud of that.’  

Maybe when you meditate today, your breath can be your mantra.  It can be like a word used to dismiss intrusive thoughts.  Whenever you breathe you are, in some sense, saying God’s name.  But when you do it with intent and awareness, it becomes something new.

#5 Would a Rose, By Any Other Name…

Names are no small thing in the bible.  There are many figures who are given a new name when they perform a great deed.  Angels go to the parents of  John and Jesus and tell mom and dad the names the kids will have.  The evil spirits cast out of people frequently make a big deal out of knowing their own name, and they often place importance on the fact that they know Jesus’ name.  The book of Revelation tells us that we have a secret and true name carved into a stone that is waiting for us.

There are things in the bible that don’t feel very relevant to us today.  So  we might try and pay lip service to the idea that names are just arbitrary and meaningless.  We could claim that they are just a random series of sounds assigned to us birth.  But our life experiences don’t bear this out.

So many  groups that wants to create a community will assign its members new names.  From summer camps to street gangs, from college fraternities to online communities, we give each other new names.  We go to restaurants or coffee shapes, and when we interact with people we will never see again, we find it important to make sure that they spell our names correctly.  Kids that are just reaching their adult years often find it necessary to re-name themselves, requesting that others call them by some new name, a process not unlike ancient tribal people, who would endow those entering adulthood with a new name, often earned through some sort-of vision quest.

When you engage in meditation today, perhaps you would like to choose a word, today.  People use mantras as a way to focus.  Repeating the word silently is a strategy to get past the distractions which our minds will throw at us.  Some people like to use words with a specific meaning they won’t to focus on: “Love”  or “Jesus” or “Yahweh.”  

Contemplative John Main suggests the word “maranatha.”  Before I researched this word, I kind of liked it.  It is almost as long as each of the breaths I take.  When I choose a shorter word, I find that distractions creep in, between repetitions.  And when I looked the word, discovering it is one that Jesus himself said, an invitation for God to come and a declaration that God has already arrived, I liked it even more.

There is no magical meaning to these sounds.  They are just words.  But even without magic, words and names are powerful things.  Choose a mantra today, and let go.


Part 4: Breath, Spirit, and God’s Name

I love the bible.  A part of the journey  though, is learning how to use it, and when to use it.  I think for lots of us, that is one of the earlier steps in the process as we begin to look for something more in our lives, as we realize these places that have spiritally nurtured us are only a first step.

When this stage goes well, we can learn to love the bible more than we ever did.  When we are using it the ways it was intended, when we are not having to stretch and rationalize, we can relax and be influenced in deeper ways than we ever were before.

I don’t look to the bible for scientific facts, for example.  I don’t expect an objective account of history, either.  This mind-blowing collection of stories is incredibly rich in detailing the subjective experience, the inner life of countless people across thousands of years and tens of thousands of miles.

I have found the bible so helpful during this stage of my life.  One of the biggest mistakes I was tempted to make, through this whole thing, was to leave the bible in the churches that are no longer leading me into growth.  I am so glad I brought it with me.

As I have been learning about contemplation, about meditation, about wordless prayer, I have been so excited to find that scripture speaks to these concerns.  There are whole books written about this topic.  I will certainly have some more to say later.  But today, I would like to begin at the beginning.

Last post, I wrote a little bit about the experience of simply sitting.  A powerful thing to do while sitting is bringing the attention to the breath.  Putting attention on the breath helps take attention away from the foolish things that don’t matter.  Putting attention on the breath sends signals to the body about what we are doing.  But maybe the most important thing: putting attention on the breath lines us up with God himself.

According to the book of Genesis, God made the land and then he created rivers.  These rivers flowed through the land, and nourished.  God reached down and  scooped up mud, and breathed into that mud to make the first person.  One of the things I love about this creation story is the way that it speaks to the idea that we are both material and spiritual: We are made up dirt, water and breath.  

In many languages, including Hebrew, (which the Old Testament is written in) there is overlap between words like “spirit” “breath” and “wind.”  The fact that we have divorced the meanings of these words in English separates us from what the original readers of the bible would have known: there is this connection between breath and spirit; they are almost the same thing.

Many Rabbis have made a further connection.  They say that the original sounds in the words which make the name of God are ones which imitate the breath itself.  We capture some of this when we translate this word with the sounds “Yah-way.”  There is no work done with the teeth are tongue on this word; they are sounds we simply make with the breath itself.

The idea is that we come into this world, and the first thing we say when we are taken from our mothers’ wombs is God’s name: we breathe.  And we begin a process of repeating God’s name over and over, millions of times in this life.  And the last thing we do, as we leave this life?  We say God’s name one last time.

What a beautiful and tragic irony.  We spend our lives thinking that we don’t know God’s name.  We have ended other’s lives because we thought we had different names for God.  But all the time, we were saying God’s name, and regardless of our religious affiliation, we were saying the same name for God: it was our breath itself.

The use of a repeated word, a mantra, is a common thing in meditation practice.  Some people choose a name or other word that has meaning.  Others choose one specifically choosen for it’s lack of meaning.

Today, maybe you would like to meditate with a sort-of spin on this idea.  Today, perhaps your mantra to be your breath itself.  With each inhale, with each exhale, realize that you are saying God’s name.  You always have been saying his name.  You always will be saying his name.  Perhaps you will something amazing in the awareness of this fact, as you use God’s name to dismiss the thoughts, and feelings, and distractions that will arise.