What is it that we can do to bring out the most from the present, and to come out on the other end of this crisis in the best possible way? There’s one really simple tool that can work wonders! It’s using the continuity of the self.
I wonder what the mood was like in the crowded train car that carried my grandmother and the other Jews to the camps? Judging by the stories she told us and other people’s recollections, it seems like there were those who were panicking, those who were crying, then there were the rebels, just like there were the ones silent inside and out, and finally there were those repeating mantras. It seems to me that it must have been this last group that had the best chance to survive the hell they were put through. At least it’s them who wrote most of the books and memoirs.
A prayer is also a kind of mantra, but you don’t need to be religious to repeat mantras. To me a mantra is simply something I repeat to myself many times over. This exercise shows that someone has a strong ability to keep their boundaries. First, because it means having something I can keep doing. Second, I’m doing it to lock out the effects of the outside world. All the while I’m increasing the power and expanding the effect of the mantra inside me. What an apt word, “perseverance”: it means enduring in an activity, but in its etymology, it carries the idea of holding yourself apart.
The second thing mantras do is they create a continuity in the self. I picture myself as I appear in the light of my hopes and desires in the future, be it near or distant. My mantra can be simply “I’ll make it through today!”, but it can also be “In five years I will be as rich as no-one’s ever been in my family!” The idea carried by a mantra is not necessarily positive. I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been those people in the concentration camps who survived because they kept repeating to themselves “I will survive and take revenge!”.
The continuity of the self means picking a point in the future that I would like to reach. By picking the point, I’ve already started moving towards it. I can call it hope, faith, power, or endurance. To me it goes beyond these, because it’s a concrete tool that’s simple to use in our everyday lives, and not something abstract or spiritual. I’m sure the abstract and the spiritual are wonderful too, only they don’t get me too far when my head is about to explode after re-starting my son’s computer for the third time because the microphone is not working, while for instance I’m worried what kind of virus my coughing mother might have (she doesn’t have a cough, it’s just an example), all the while the cats are running up and down the place like lunatics, because it’s their meal time, and personally, I would really like to sit down for a second already. In my experience, when all this is happening, a single sentence, planted in the ground like a tree that I can hold on to, is much more useful than a commonplace balloon like “Always look on the bright side!”.
While I’m doing yoga today, I would like to find my continuity of the self: my survival sentence. So I give myself time for calm introspection. Instead of a sentence, my more wholesome future self arrives in the form of an image. I’m standing in a field, that’s all. No mansion in sight, no Nobel prize, my bottom’s not smaller either. What matters is the feeling it gives me.
I feel free inside, and I feel the absolute certainty that I am good just the way I am. I often feel like this already, but not always. This is inner existential security, which we all get as our birthright, only for many of us, it becomes damaged as we grow up and live our lives. This will be the future me I’ll set for myself.
We can have more than one images like this. We can pick a new one ten times a day if we feel like it. We don’t even need to be in a crisis to look for one.
The continuity of the self can be a picture we draw, it can be a piece of music, a landscape, a country we’d like to visit, an image that comes up in meditation or an image of what we’d like our bodies to look like. I can choose anything that can stand in as a symbol for the future I wish to get to.
With each of these, I’m installing a compass inside. Whenever I “look” at it, this compass can show me what’s the direction I should take my next step in, so that I come closer to what I wish for, if only by half an inch.
When life gets hard, this tool that can give me the power to move and the faith that taking the next step is not for nothing. I can reinforce and strengthen my mantra by writing it down, by putting it on a post-it and sticking it on the fridge, by telling my friend, I can use my image as my desktop background.
I’ve talked earlier about Edith Eva Eger’s book The Choice, where the mantra that kept her alive through hell was “no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your own mind.” Edith’s book is evidence to the power of a decision, but what I’d like to underline now is this mantra that she attached to it. If I don’t reinforce my decision again and again, it can lose its radiance in the everyday hustle. Even if the point I end up reaching eventually turns out not to the exact one one I set my aim at in the beginning, repeating my mantra and recalling the image of my desired future can be a big help in holding myself together. Even if this doesn’t turn out to be the time I realise my childhood dreams, this tool, the continuity of the self can help me avoid getting floored. And even if I fall, it will be easier to get back on my feet.
for the translation thanks for my brother, Mate Herner