If someone would’ve told me back in December that the first month of 2019 would be the hardest of my life, I probably would’ve thought twice before signing up for Yoga Journal’s 30-day meditation challenge. Because let’s be honest: Meditation is the exact opposite of running away from your problems. Instead, it inspires you to sit your butt down right in the middle of those problems and face your resulting emotions head on.
In January, all I wanted to do was run away from my ongoing relationship problems, self smack-talk, and most significantly, the immense sadness from the death of my beloved aunt.
Yet even though there were many days that stared at my cushion with pure, unadulterated resentment, or put off my practice until the end of the day, I can honestly say that the practice completely transformed how I handled some of the most challenging times I’ve ever faced. It not only gave me the space to confront my feelings, but it also helped me learn how to take care of myself along the way.
Introducing Myself to Mantra Meditation
I’ve been consistently meditating for a little over a year now, practicing everything from guided 10-minute meditations on the Calm app to classes at MNDFL meditation studio in New York City. However, I would say my relationship with meditation didn’t become a real commitment until I got a meditation cushion for my apartment about five months ago. It’s dramatically changed my practice, which used to happen in my bed. (You can imagine how that went on the days I was tired.)
Even though I had heard positive things about mantra meditation—a practice where you silently repeat a mantra, which you either choose for yourself or is given to you during an initiation—I was pretty intimidated by it. However, when I spoke with Alan Finger, meditation teacher and author of Tantra of the Yoga Sutras: Essential Wisdom for Living with Awareness and Grace, he told me that mantra, just like asana or pranayama, is simply a tool used to alter the consciousness. “When practicing with a mantra, it’s important to say the mantra aloud first, so that you can feel the sound vibrations in the body,” he told me.
As a somewhat experienced meditator, mantra meditation was still very new to me. I didn’t really have a plan to choose a mantra, but after practicing alongside Hilary Jackendoff in a guided meditation video, she helped me discover “So Hum,” which means “I am that.” Finger mentioned that different mantras can be used for different feelings, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and more, but this mantra felt pretty versatile, so I stuck with it.
Jackendoff taught us to meditate with the mantra, using the breath. On every inhalation, I would silently say the word “So.” On every exhalation, I would silently say the word “Hum.” I’m used to meditating with my breath, so this seemed doable.
Week 1: When Sh!t Hits the Fan, It’s Time to Sit
Disclaimer: I didn’t meditate at all the first two days of January. I also didn’t work out or eat healthy (some of the habits I stick with regularly). I was feeling really down on myself, because January is supposed to be a time to start new habits, eat clean, and get fit—and I felt like I blew it already. It sounds ridiculous, but that is my thought process sometimes. When my good habits don’t happen, I tend to beat myself up.
Then, as I was working at my laptop on the third day of January, I had a thought and told myself: You can sit here, work, and feel miserable—or you can take a 20-minute break, step away from your laptop, and meditate.
It took everything in me to walk upstairs and grab my cushion, but I was desperate to feel better, so that’s exactly what I did.
Week 2: When “I am that” becomes “I am love”
After my first week of mantra meditation, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Suddenly, my goals for the new year weren’t tied to perfecting myself through diet and exercise, but instead, doing something every day that made me feel loved—and meditation became that thing. I switched my mantra. Instead of silently repeating So Hum, I started repeating “I am” on every inhalation and “love” on every exhalation. I found myself looking forward to making a cup of tea, plopping down on my cushion, and sitting for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
Having a week of solid practice under my belt really helped me for what was to come. Because my theme for 2019 is self-love, I became hyper aware of my relationships—with myself and with others. My boyfriend and I got into an argument in the beginning of the month and I wasn’t able to let it go. Every time we tried to talk about it, we couldn’t come to a fair conclusion.
During the second week of my meditation, the lingering argument kept coming up in my meditation. I would sit on the cushion, silently repeat my mantra, and cry. How could I practice “I am love” if I didn’t feel loved? How could I love him if I kept beating myself up?
So, what did I do? I continued to sit, to cry, and to come back to my breath. Giving myself that space during meditation allowed me to tap into what I was really feeling. It also gave me the space to go to my boyfriend later that week with a calm heart. Instead of arguing, we were able to have a productive conversation. I truly believe that if I didn’t give myself that space, we would still be arguing today about the same thing.
Weeks 3 and 4: Sitting with Sadness
For the past eight months, my beloved aunt had been living with metastatic breast cancer—the terminal kind. On January 21, she passed away.
A few days before her death, I my mom called me to let me know it was time to come home. I took a bus from New York City to Maryland on the morning of January 21 and repeated my mantra for about 25 minutes. An hour into my journey, my brother texted me to tell me that my aunt had passed away.
In the days following my aunt’s death, I felt so much hurt I didn’t even realize was possible. Every time I came to my meditation cushion, I would cry, breathe, and simply sit in a feeling of numbness. The cushion gave me space—to feel sad, to mourn, to feel angry, and sometimes, to do nothing. Every time I came back to my mantra—“I am love”—I remembered that my aunt wouldn’t want me to live in grief and sadness. It was inevitable to feel these emotions, sure. But I realized the only way these feelings would pass is if I really felt them.
The difference I noticed thanks to my new mantra meditation practice happened when I wasn’t on my cushion. Every single day after my aunt passed, I would ask myself how I could bring a little more love into my day. Some days that meant resting and watching movies with my mom. Other days that meant working out, going for a long walk, or spending time with friends.
Moving Forward with Mantra
Now that it’s February, I still hold my mantra in my heart. I still ask myself every day, “How can you bring more love into your day?” or “What will make you feel more loved?” I think I will continue to keep my mantra in my practice until something else seems like a better fit. Just as Finger told me, there’s a mantra for everything—and I look forward to discovering more mantras as my life’s journey, and all its ups and downs, unfolds.