“A mantra lasts three days,” the British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes tells us. Allow me to explain: let us suppose you’ve set out to ski solo and unaided to the pole – as one does. And let’s suppose the weather becomes a tad nippy, perhaps somewhat unpleasant, or, why not, unimaginably harsh. Now I may be wrong, but I think in such conditions there’s a chance you might feel just a fraction less upbeat than in normal circumstances, perhaps not quite your usual self. Enter the motivational mantra – the short, succinct sentence, the magic words you play on a loop in your head, in order to stay focused and remain steadfast. Apparently explorers use these affirmation-like tools a fair bit. Making your own is supposed to be best. But even then, and in spite of the cold which preserves other commodities almost indefinitely, it seems a mantra’s freshness only lasts three days. A night’s sleep, and the initial brilliance of the words begins to fade. Use it for a day, and the effect starts to lose its edge. Another sleep and another day, and the power is waning, the mantra gradually becomes depleted. And after three days – you need a new one. Or a helicopter rescue home.
But even lesser mortals such as myself, find self-motivational words useful. Far more modest undertakings or projects than polar expeditions can still give rise to self-doubt, anxiety, concern, and other thoughts and emotions that are a threat to our peace of mind or at times even to our sanity. And yet, from considerable personal experience, (also read: ‘lots of mistakes due to being a slow learner at the school of life’) I feel that unless your very survival depends on focusing ever last iota of your concentration and energy on the goal, the killer mantra is not always your best friend.
It is both impossible and undesirable to try and keep so-called negative emotions at bay forever. In order to connect with our true inner strength, there is no alternative but to make friends with our shadow, and with those self-sabotaging and other inner tendencies that cause trouble. However big our inner demons, however recurrent the patterns that drag us down, we resist them, (or worse, make them into enemies), at our own peril. However ‘clean’ of anything not wholly positive we might want to keep our hearts or mindset (in particular if we want to make changes in our life, or create or achieve things), the way to do it is not to try and control what we let into our innermost space, nor to try and seal that same space off to keep pests out. This obviously doesn’t mean we start embracing all the things that pull us down, and decide to grudgingly accept them as inevitable bedfellows. But it is generally easier to get on with troublesome neighbours if we allow them their space, rather than constantly give them the cold shoulder, radiate ill-will, and make them feel they are absolutely not welcome.
A student once asked a Zen master, “Master, what would you do if you realized you were worried?” To which the wise old nut responded, “Well, I would agree!” Do not fight what is, don’t wish you were feeling otherwise, is what he meant. The Tibetans call such an attitude inviting your demons in for tea. Stop trying to choose your visitors at all costs. It is my experience that many turn out to be paper tigers. And wisdom from closer to home recommends we know our enemy.
But I digress. Or I digest, as Ali G. would say, and in fact, the two are not entirely dissimilar, because a digression or distraction is sometimes the best break to allow us to absorb and process a great truth. The point is, about the three days: I have found Sir Ranulph’s mantras to have a lot in common with creative ideas. However brilliant or inspiring they may be, these too often rapidly lose their spark. How many beautiful works or undertakings have never seen the light of day because we never acted upon the creative impulse? Perhaps because we were too lazy, or because we thought that although the idea seemed great on the spur of the moment, it probably wasn’t actually very good. And, after a few days, that’s exactly how we feel, which confirms we were right. Except if it doesn’t, and confirms only that we will now never find out.
So I’ll leave you with this: next time a beautiful idea arises, especially if it comes utterly unexpectedly and most emphatically, seize it on the wing. Have your tea first if you must, but don’t sweep it under the carpet, or file it under ‘ideas to revisit’. Remember, that spark of inspiration, like the mantra, may only last three days.