I remember a conversation with a friend and former coworker. We spent two summers working together as landscapers. Often this would consist of digging holes and pulling out trees. Some of it was busy work, but it produced long spells of conversation.
We spoke about religion from time to time, as the monotony and repetition quickly could become meditative. In the first year, I told him about Buddhism, in the second year he told me about mantras.
He said that through repetition of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, he had started to see them take shape in his life. He was becoming a new and different person. He seemed wary, but both of us had parents who suffered from addiction, which gave a cynicism toward the promise of happiness without an asterisk. As my dad would always quote Bon Jovi, “Every form of refuge has its price.”
A few years after, I found out he had become a monk. He had found peace in the mantras, the meditation, the renunciation of his worldly goods. It’s a remarkable thing for a young man who I first bonded with over burritos.
And the idea of the mantra, as he expressed it, touched on something true — something that is both unscientific but universally felt. Prayer exists to manifest the metaphysical into reality, which is really just a Western idea of the Eastern mantra.
Children express an interconnectedness with silliness — that your ringing ears means that others are talking about you, or that an itch on the nose means that others are thinking about you. Adults across the world know the feeling of inexplicable dread; expressed through a mother’s story of a children being injured, thousands of miles away, or awakening with the sense that something’s wrong before hearing a police officer’s knock.
All of these things, in strict scientific language, are weird. They’re human, and they’re really, really hard to explain.
Without question, they benefit from the slipperiest human thing of all: memory. How many nights of restless sleep have we forgotten because there was no police officer at our door? And how would we transform a stomach ache into an outsized foreshadow spelling doom when we think back upon the night when something truly tragic happens.
There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re both connected to something greater than ourselves and any attempt at explaining that thing is about as maddening as nailing Jell-O to a wall.
The problem comes from our perception of time. We cannot view the future. We cannot clearly remember the past. We have only a moment by moment frame of life. Yet it is the present that dictates our tomorrow and our present is shaped on our past. More specifically, the emotional resonance of what happened yesterday shapes how we feel, which in turn shapes what we choose for ourselves—who we are in the past.
I’m not a fatalist, and I’m not saying everything is predestined. In fact, one could say that “who” we are is how we respond to the pieces of our past. These responses in no small way create who we are in the future. The key here is that we’re aware of our perception in time and the limits on our free will inside of it.
This is where mantra, where prayer and belief, come into play. That bump in the night that didn’t amount to anything doesn’t play a role in the story we tell ourselves, but the one time that it was a raccoon who tossed over our garbage cans, or something so much worse, plays an outsized memory in the formation of our personalities. It makes us buy mint trash bags to get rid of the raccoons, a subtle indication on the kind of person we are, put out cameras to film their bandit-like antics or read about the shape-shifting tanuki from Japanese folklore, dreaming of the ways that these little furry creatures are transforming themselves into tea pots.
Our mantras, our prayers, our beliefs remind us who we are and who we want to become. They help us shape our futures into what we want from them because they color our emotional responses to trauma, stress, joy, love, others…
They’re powerful thing. Memory is a powerful thing, but ultimately that power resides in each of us. There are limits to how we can rewrite the past, namely other people — they were there too, and more and more they have a recording of it.
And the ability to tell the story of what happened has been abused for millennia by the people with power to disenfranchise those who do not have any authority.
But if you are someone who has confronted grief, abuse, disenfranchisement, and, truly, who isn’t, your ability to shape your memory and your emotional reaction can help set you free.