I first realized the importance of Mindfulness Mantras when I was working with David some years ago. David had been referred to me for mindfulness coaching by his doctor. He had been suffering from resistant depression for 30 years and had tried everything along the way to help himself heal.
I soon found that David could not concentrate because he was so severely depressed. Embarking on mindfulness training when you are in the grip of a serious challenge is like learning to sail on a stormy day—it is not the ideal time. Yet, it is a fact of life that many people do exactly that. They come in an effort to feel better when things are not going well. David could not do silent meditation. He could not even do guided meditation—he could not concentrate on the instructions. He was better with walking meditation, but I found that I had to keep him on track with frequent instructions.
I knew from chatting with him that he had a musical background and had taken piano lessons for 12 years when he was young. I decided to try mindfulness songs. Singing engages more of the body and mind than even walking meditation. It engages the lungs, mouth, vocal cords, ears, and brain. Songs have a way of worming themselves into the mind—literally, as they become earworms with repetition. It is the melody that does the worming, as the words hitch a ride on its back. Songs can teach you the basics of mindfulness practice—after all, there are even nursery rhymes for teaching the alphabet!
David took to this practice readily. As he learned mindfulness skills, I learned to shorten and simplify my large repertoire of songs so he could concentrate and understand. As I looked closely, I realized that the kernel of a song is present in the first verse, or sometimes in the refrain, if there is one. The rest is artistic elaboration. Because artistic merit was not what I was after in these mindfulness songs, I found shorter to be better—it’s easier to remember.
With some reluctance, I amputated many of my songs until only one sentence or one phrase was left. As I wrote new songs, I learned to stop after the first verse. For several weeks, I had a newly amputated song or a newly written short song ready for my meetings with David. I decided to call these short songs Mindfulness Mantras, for I saw that they served the same purpose as traditional Hindu mantras such as Hare Krishna—they served to keep the mind on a chosen teaching intentionally. In fact, paying attention intentionally is one of the definitions of mindfulness. A mantra mimics concentration by sticking to your mind like a piece of double-sided adhesive tape that you cannot get off of your fingers. While the song is running in your head, you concentrate without effort in the direction the words are pointing at.
I convinced myself that, despite its esoteric connotation, mantra is an appropriate word for this type of song. Here are the words to one that has been particularly helpful for me:
Just breathe, just breathe
Everything will be all right,
Just breathe, just breathe
Everything will be fine.
I wrote this song at a time when I could feel anxiety knocking at the door: I was lost in the woods while hiking, and it was getting dark. This song kept anxiety at bay, as I alternately changed the words to “Just walk,” and “Just smile.” Indeed, after a while I began to see the lights of a village.
One way to use mindfulness mantras is while taking short meditation breaks during the day. Even if you are an experienced meditator and enjoy effective meditation sessions every morning, a few hours later the memory of that session fades away, and the experience needs to be refreshed. Download a mindfulness mantra to your phone so that you can use your break time to sit outside or walk as you listen to it. Better still, sing along with it! The song fills your mind, so that there is no space left over for negative thoughts or for any kind of stray thoughts to enter. Without a song, the same surface thoughts you were thinking before the meditation break will just continue to run on in your head. Each song takes five minutes or less, and you are as good as new afterwards.
Stress and fatigue accumulate during the day for various reasons. Our sympathetic system automatically and instantaneously primes us for fight-or-flight at the slightest threat, be it real or merely imagined. On the other hand, the parasympathetic system that relaxes us is not as automatic or as instantaneous. We do not need mindfulness to avoid a car that is veering dangerously toward us; nature takes care of that. But many of us need mindfulness to come down to our baseline of relaxed functioning after the threat is over, because nature does not take care of that as effectively.
That is what makes mindfulness and indispensable skill—our driving, work, and home life present us with moments of real and imagined threats. With regular mindfulness breaks, we compensate for the automatic dominance of the sympathetic activation and are more likely to remain at a comfortable, relaxed, and positive state of mind throughout the day. Using mindfulness songs is a handy way to accomplish that.