Strength of mind is as important as strength of body, and we like to feed ourselves both kinds here at Feed Me Strength.
Mantra’s are a powerful and underused tool that can rewire our brains and our belief systems. As with most things, smart people have figured this out a long time ago, with the earliest mantras composed by Hindus in India at least 3000 years ago. Mantras can take the form of affirmations to prime the brain for positivity and success, with research exploring how resultant neurophysiological reactions act to shift mindset and behaviors. They can also serve as reminders that snap us out of self-destructive thought and behaviour patterns.
I recently enjoyed Mark Sisson’s article ‘7 Primal Mantras to Drive your Success’, and it got me thinking about the mantras that I use in my own life.
Here are 6 that have come to my aid in situations that include: when I am stuck, when I mess up, when I am overwhelmed with information, when I get caught up in cycles of negative thinking, when I am faced with self-doubt, and when I am feeling rushed or stressed.
‘Just get started’
This one mantra is the key to overcoming the beast that is procrastination. It is the consistent message of award-winning educator and University Professor Tim Pychyl in his mission to help people who postpone acting on their intentions. He makes the point that our feelings don’t have to match the task at hand. Social psychology has shown that our attitudes follow our behaviour. So rather than waiting on feeling like going training, practicing your instrument, writing an article, just get started, and the motivation will follow.
‘The magic mantra: Just get started. Notice its not the Nike slogan Just Do It. Just Do It is too big.. No, just get started. This primes the pump. You can do anything for 5 minutes, so just get going.’ Tim Pychyl, The Procrastination Puzzle
This mantra has helped me complete many projects, articles, and training sessions over the past couple of years that I would still probably be putting off without it.
‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’
The two rules for living a life of harmony, according to author Richard Carlson;
#1) Don’t sweat the small stuff
#2) It’s all small stuff
It’s only natural that we get bogged down throughout our lives with worries and anxieties. I often fall into the trap of mental self-torture over mistakes or decisions. Others fret about the future. Suffering is part of the human condition, of course, and indeed is a biologically useful agent. Discontentment and insecurities can inspire us to change and strive to do something better. But, as someone once said, perspective is everything. At the end of the day, we are sitting on one little planet amongst a hundred billion other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way itself one galaxy amongst billions of others in an infinite universe. And here we are, racking our brains over every little thing that goes awry in our blip of an existence.
It’s not that we shouldn’t care about anything. Caring and being conscientious are essential if you want to do well at something. It’s that we should preserve our physical and emotional energy for the things that deserve it. Really, I can’t express this point any more eloquently than does Mark Manson in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k:
‘You and everyone you know are going to be dead soon. And in the short amount of time between here and there, you have a limited amount of fucks to give. Very few, in fact. And if you go around giving a fuck about everything and everyone without conscious thought or choice—well, then you’re going to get fucked.’
This mantra helps to remind me that, in the grand scheme of things, we shouldn’t worry too much.
‘Done is better than perfect‘
Perfectionism, it can be perceived as a humblebrag, “oh I’m such a perfectionist”. A refusal to accept anything less than perfect sounds nobel, but it is more often than not an undesirable personality trait, it drives failure-avoidance behaviour and impedes action. It is also associated with psychological illnesses such as depression and eating disorders. Perfection is an unattainable abstraction, you’ll never get there, and you won’t give yourself due credit for successes and achievement along the way. It certainly does not mean we should forego high standards or the pursuit of excellence, it does mean not falling victim to a chronic sense of failure, or living with a fear of making mistakes. By setting standards at the wrong level, you are condemned never to achieve it.
This was exactly my own experience. During 5 years in college, I demonstrated impressive levels of procrastination, usually starting on projects or lab reports the day before they were due in and submitting them a day after they were due. Sometimes ending up with points docked from my grade, and always ending up with last-minute stress. Playing sport, I was always very hard on myself, and never give myself credit for doing well. Ultimately, the behaviours and thought processes associated with perfectionism were my greatest barriers in playing at a higher level, as I was caught up in a cycle of negativity and self-criticism. Even when it comes to the Feed Me blog, it is the misled notion that every post should be a masterpiece that stokes the fire of Resistance to putting out more content.
That’s why this mantra resonates with me and one that merits constant repeating. Imperfect action is better than no action, and done is better than perfect. That last sentence, for example, is far from perfect, combining two different maxims that mean the same thing. But I don’t care. I’m moving on.
‘Keep it simple’
In the world of Strength and Conditioning, at least, there is a tendency for complexifying matters. Perhaps this is partly because we have more data and technology at our disposal than ever before, that we feel the need to match this by taking it all on. I also believe there is an element of ego and insecurity at play here, as some people feel the need to be perceived as super intelligent.
No doubt, there is a time and place for in-depth planning, programming and analysis. And there is also no doubt that there are super intelligent practitioners out there who can effectively interpret complex science for the benefit of their athletes. Detailed micro planning of training, algorithms for prescribing percentage-based sets and reps in the gym, and injury prediction models, can be useful. But for the most part keeping it simple gets results. Why make things more complex than they need to be?
Of course, this concept is not confined to Strength and Conditioning, nor is it a recent revelation. The KISS Principle was a design principle held by the US Navy in 1960’s. It states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made unnecessarily complicated. Sometime before that, Leonardo da Vinci was attributed with the quote that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Every now and then I get swamped in GPS data, new training methods and programming ideas, and can’t see the forest for the trees. Now, when I feel this overwhelming wave of data and decisions flooding my brain, this mantra kicks in. Keep it simple, stupid.
‘You are not your thoughts’
A key part of a mindfulness practice is simply observing thoughts as they come, not suppressing them or trying to control them. The more we try not to do think something, the more impossible it becomes to move past it.
In The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, Michael Singer contemplates that there is nothing more important to true growth than realising that you are not the voice of the mind – you are the one who hears it. This helps us to not lend too much credence to that often ridiculous, irrational, self-defeating voice. We over-identify with the thoughts in our mind, but we shouldn’t.
At first, I found this concept difficult to really grasp, but accepting it and using this mantra has significantly reduced the inner mental battles I have with myself. Thoughts come and thoughts go, and there’s no need to become attached to them.
‘How would you feel if someone outside really started talking to you the way your inner voice does? How would you relate to a person who opened their mouth to say everything your mental voice says? After a very short period of time, you would tell them to leave and never come back. But when your inner friend continuously speaks up, you don’t ever tell it to leave. No matter how much trouble it causes, you listen.’
The next time that voice in your head goes off on another tangent, just remind yourself: you are not your thoughts! The Untethered Soul, by the way, is a must read for anybody interested in exploring their inner-self.
‘I am enough’
These days we are besieged with images and stories of others who are seemingly more successful than us, have more stuff than us, have better bodies than us, have bigger bank balances than us. Today’s western society encourages us not to love thy neighbour, but to be better than thy neighbour. Or at least make it look like you are better! It is an inherent tenet of the consumerism culture that you are not enough, because if you were then there would be no need to consume more and more. That is why this message is implicitly rammed down our throats at every turn. The capitalist model of living teaches us that where you are in your life right now is not enough, you need to keep climbing the corporate ladder, striving for more and not being a failure.
‘In our competitive, material driven, image conscious, and achievement oriented society, the propensity to be affected by low self-esteem is chronic and pervasive.’
Preston Ni, How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions: A Practical Guide
Look at the fine mess that has got us into. A sense of inadequacy, worthlessness, and low self-esteem lead to many of the common emotional and psychological maladies of the day. Anxiety, depression, self-obsession and a narcissism epidemic.
Sources of low-self esteem go beyond society and media, and can include past trauma, bullying, disapproving authority figures, parental expectations, religious belief systems. None of them are your fault, but dealing with it is our own responsibility.
So dust yourself down, and repeat after me: I am enough.
Is there anything as powerful at positively affecting your current physiological and emotional state as the humble breath?
The Wim Hoff method uses breathing exercises to influence the amount of energy that is released into our cells by increasing oxygen saturation. Thousands of years earlier was Pranayama, the practice of controlling and extending the breath to awaken Prana, our life force energy.
In mindfulness meditation, bringing attention to the breath is used as a tool to calm and focus the mind. In a world that trundles forth mindlessly and distracted, focusing on the breath brings us back to the present moment. This gives us much needed awareness. Awareness of our surroundings, awareness of our thoughts and feelings, tuning us in to our inner selves.
When you are feeling stressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed, it is very hard to be convinced to feel otherwise. I can never remember being told to ‘calm down’ and it being in any way effective. But what we can do, through the breath, is directly reduce our stress levels by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
One of the greatest drivers of poor health these days is the prolonged sympathetic nervous system arousal associated with chronic stress. Slow deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, while increasing levels of alertness and vigour. Research has been conducted on the physiology of Pranayamic breathing to help us better understand how it interacts with the nervous system. Now brace yourself for some science.
‘It is our hypothesis that voluntary slow deep breathing functionally resets the autonomic nervous system through stretch-induced inhibitory signals and hyperpolarization currents propagated through both neural and non-neural tissue which synchronizes neural elements in the heart, lungs, limbic system and cortex.’ Jerath, R et al. (2010)
During slow deep breathing practice, we should focus on diaphragmatic breathing, focusing on expansion of the abdomen, rather than the overactive chest muscle. To get this, put your hands on the stomach and feel it rise from the bottom as you breath in.
Don’t underestimate breathing as a tool to improve your health and performance. Next time you are feeling out of sorts, this should be your first port of call. Breath.
Try out some of these mantras as gentle reminders to keep you on the right path and side-step the potential destructiveness of our own thoughts and tendencies. What are your favourite mantras? Please share them in the comments section below!
Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.