I remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of mantras. I was reading J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a story about the two youngest children in a family of geniuses. Franny become disenchanted with academia and starts repeating The Jesus Prayer over and over. The Jesus Prayer goes:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me
The end goal, she said, was to learn how to ‘pray without ceasing’. To internalize the prayer so deeply into her consciousness from constant repetition that it would always be there, sync’d with her heartbeat.
As a young college student, I remember finding this entire concept and storyline very strange. I didn’t understand what would compel somebody to want to do this, much less how brute force repetition was going to cause some sort of lasting change in a person. I mean, I can sit around chanting “Give me a million dollars, give me a million dollars, give me a million dollars,” all day long and it isn’t going to happen. There aren’t magical properties to words and repetition doesn’t change that.
I understand it better now. Franny was trying to heal herself.
The reason I began thinking about it again was because someone gave me the book Love Yourself Like Your Life Depended On It by Kamal Ravikant. It’s a very short, strange, wandering read that basically boils down to this story: Kamal was a silicon valley dude who was depressed because he’d been dumped and his business was failing. He was stuck in a rut and couldn’t get out of it. So he decided that he was going to love himself.
But he didn’t know how to do that. So he tried just repeating it on a loop non-stop for a month saying it over and over again. “I love myself. I love myself. I love myself.” He did it during meditation, he did it brushing his teeth, and he did it looking himself in the eye in the mirror. He did it a lot.
He mentions at one point that it took a “long” time for it to work. An entire month in his case. I seriously started cracking up hysterically at this point. It was clear Kamal doesn’t have a history of childhood trauma holding him back that he bounced back that quickly. I’ve been in a ten year rut, and here Kamal is claiming a cure in a month? His lack of perspective simultaneously boggles belief but also leaves you wondering…
…is it really that simple?
The more reading that I do about neuroplasticity and the ability for the brain to reshape itself, the more I think that there is something to the idea. Forging new neural nets is, after all, about repetition. It’s why we can develop new habits after six weeks of consistency. It’s why practice of tasks makes us better at them, and it’s why I developed chronic pain in an area that had no injury. Habit. Repetition. Wearing down the same neural nets over and over until they become gravity wells, sucking every thought into them.
When I went to look for scientific studies on mantras, I was shocked to find very little research. It seems that the western scientific community has caught onto how mindfulness, meditation and yoga are useful but I could find no real studies about mantras and whether verbal repetition of concepts created any changes in the brain or behavior. There are plenty of studies on repetition as a tool for learning and retaining information, but nothing (that I could find) on its impact on behavior.
But I think it makes logical sense. In many ways, my poor self-image was forged by repetition of abuse and fear in my childhood. So perhaps positive repetition is the correlating antidote.
With no studies and only Kamal’s anecdote to go on, I have no choice but to be my own guinea pig. I started telling myself “I love myself” today. I repeat it to myself any time I’m not really doing anything or anytime I think about it. In the shower, in the car, on the toilet, while I’m packing up a box to take to UPS, while I’m sitting here typing, in my head while I’m walking the aisles of the grocery store. It’s 3pm and I’ve probably said it 500 times today. I expect it will be 1000 by the time I go to bed. And I’m going to keep doing this as often as I can.
Most of the time I feel nothing. It’s just words. Meaningless. Sometimes the words lose all meaning, just like words do when you repeat them over and over again. And then sometimes, it feels weird. It feels icky, even. Like I’m saying something I don’t believe in. I get a tightness pulling in my chest and a bad taste in my mouth like I’ve just said “I’m going to shoot up a school”. Like I’m saying something vile and wrong. The words “I love myself” shouldn’t create a reaction like that. But those are the brain pathways I need to carve out and replace with something else.
How many times do you have to tell yourself that you love yourself before you actually believe yourself? I hope I find out.