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Modern Mantras for Daily Life
In the Plum Village community, we learn to apply the art of mindful living in daily life. My teacher, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, (Thay) has taken many traditional practices and given them new spin. Mantra practice is one such example. They are simple phrases that can be recited in any language. Thay says that, “The Six Mantras are six sentences that embody loving speech and let people know that you see them, you understand them, and you care for them. In Buddhism we call these sentences ‘mantras.’ They’re a kind of magic formula. When you pronounce them you can bring about a miracle because happiness becomes available right away.” (Nhat Hanh, 69)
1. I am here for you.
2. I know you are there, and I am very happy.
Created to deepen interpersonal relationships, the first two mantras can be used with just about anyone, at any time. You can change the words to find what is most natural to you. The most important part, however, is to actually become aware of the other person’s presence and how precious it is to be alive together. We never know when we will see our loved ones for the last time and these phrases help us come back to what is important, here and now.
Over the years I’ve learned that these mantras can even be used internally, toward oneself. When I’m feeling lost, confused, and alone, I tell myself these phrases to remember that I can give myself the comfort, kindness, and love that I usually look for from others.
3. I know you suffer, and that is why I am here for you.
4. I suffer, and I want you to know it. I am doing my best. Please help.
The third and fourth mantras are to be used when there is tension, conflict, and general suffering. It’s so easy to freeze up in these moments and not know what to say, or to explode in anger and make the situation worse. When we remember that everyone is doing their best to be happy (though some strategies for happiness are tragically misguided) we can remember that conflicts come from suffering.
When a friend is experiencing grief, these phrases highlight that our presence is the most important thing we can offer another, not our advice or our fear. When there is a conflict, these phrases remind us that when we come from the intention to relieve suffering for everyone involved, then we’re much more likely to find a resolution. And even if we don’t find an immediate resolution, we can feel at peace with ourselves, knowing that we did our best and stayed to true to our integrity.
5. This is a happy moment.
The fifth mantra can seem like a naive affirmation, and the truth is that it can be used in such a manner. It you just say it and hope that something will change without looking inward, it has no power. I’ve fallen victim to this many a time. But when taken as an invitation to look for the sacred in the profane and to remember that awakening is available here and now, this mantra can become a doorway to freedom. If happiness is already present, then live it! Enjoy it! If suffering is present, remember that the conditions for happiness are also always present. If there is neither suffering nor happiness present, then ask if even a little well-being can be found right now. Let it be simple and small. We so often look for exciting and blissful states that we pass over the small moments of peace that are so close, that are already here. They just need to be noticed.
It’s also worthwhile to note that this mantra is not meant to be used to deny suffering. In moments of grief and fear, if using this mantra feels repressive, then don’t use it. But if the invitation to find a corner of well-being in a great hall of despair feels freeing, then use it.
6. You are partly right.
This mantra is to be used both when being praised or blamed by someone. So the statement is simple and the practice is really hard. Somehow this contrast makes me laugh and it has become my favorite mantra. Mindfulness practice may be important but it need not be serious!
When praised, there is bound to be some truth in it and yet we need to remember that we have plenty of flaws too. Then when criticized, it’s important to look for the truth in what’s been said and to remember that we also have good qualities. This mantra gets at the heart of patience and humility, essential practices on any spiritual path. Most people become stuck in pride or shame, but ultimately both are expressions of our ignorance that believes we have a self that is separate from others and can be judged at all. Reality is beyond all concepts, so no one is only their pride or their shame. Another way to say this is simply, don’t take things so personally.
There have been times when I was sure that the criticism I received was false, and this mantra helped me to loosen my grip on needing to be right. At other times, I was certain that the criticism I received was totally true and the mantra helped me to remember that I am more than my faults. The same has happened with being praised. Then I started to apply this mantra toward my own thoughts. This brought the practice much deeper into me. When veering too far into pride or shame, this little phrase can point us back to a middle path.
Whether you have a traditional mantra practice or not, these mantras can be used by practitioners of all faiths and none at all. They’re simple reminders of how to be present with one another and ourselves. They’re also meant to be played with and like jazz, improvised. Find the words that feels the most authentic for you. The mantra “I know you suffer, and that is why I am here for you.” could turn into, “You look blue. Want to talk?” The words aren’t nearly as important as the feeling in the heart.
What phrases bring the Dharma alive for you in your daily life? Might you make a practice of repeating them to yourself to strengthen them? Let yourself be playful; just give it a try. You have nothing to lose!
Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2013. The Art of Communicating. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
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