By Kellie Schorr
At an ecumenical retreat, I was sitting with a number of teachers and leaders from many religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
We had spent the day learning how to communicate across differences and retreated that night to a fire pit where we watched sparks dance in the darkness under the wide star-kissed New Mexico sky.
“I feel like we should be singing,” the leader said.
Uncomfortable, and silent, we looked around at each other as the air thickened into walls between us. What song could we all possibly know? Who among us was brave enough to sing in front of strangers?
The leader tapped her foot, then suddenly began to sing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells…”
“Jingle all the wayyyyy,” the rest of us joined in, laughing. No matter where you’re from or who you are in America, Christmas songs are simply an unavoidable part of life. We sang several songs, with people naming favorites. Then someone said, “I know one! The Little Drummer Boy!”
“Oh, I hate that song!” Someone else blurted into the darkness. Immediately, the group of many people who had become one choir split into columns of love or hate for the sweet humble boy giving his best to Jesus (also known as, “that little noisy brat waking up the animals with his nonsense.”).
Song time was over.
For the record, I was on the hate side.
I hate that song so much I’ve trained Pandora never to plan any version within three miles of my presence. I hate the rhythm, I hate the rhyme, I hate the repeating pum pums with every cell in my body. I’d like to grab this ridiculously unsupervised minor by the scruff on his neck and pour molasses in his ear just to show him how it feels to have to listen to this droning slogging nightmare.
It’s not just me. The song is so bad that it was written in 1941 but was not recorded until 1951. It took 10 years to publish this rum pum monstrosity. You know who finally recorded it and sent it into our unsuspecting world? The Trapp Family Singers. That’s right! Those bratty Austrian kids who used to run around Salzburg wearing the curtains and singing about Edelweiss before climbing over the Alps to freedom. Well, at least, that’s what the movie would have us believe. The Trapp family, who did actually escape from Austria (not by walking over the Alps singing), gave this song its debut.
However, love it or lump it, there are lessons in this song about one of Buddhism’s most sacred practices, even if we have to plug our ears to learn them.
The Power of Repetition
Mantras, like our little teacher seeing his newborn king, are a ubiquitous practice in Buddhism, and to an extent, in every life. We all have those phrases we repeat, again and again, that help us maintain balance, temperament, or motivation. A phrase doesn’t have to be a string of Tibetan words and sacred syllables for it to be a transformational mantra. A simple, “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this…” has the ability to walk us through some exceedingly difficult times.
Repetition has long been known to be a powerful agent of persuasion. Beyond the earworm factor, the more we hear something, the more we will believe it is true. Telling yourself you can do something will help you believe that it’s possible which may just be the motivation you need. Chanting the sounds or syllables of a traditional mantra ground your attention and focus. When our minds are chaotic, distracted, or unhelpful, the sameness and solidity of the phrase, along with its lyricism, will quiet and direct us.
The Beauty of Simplicity
Having watched Whiplash a couple of times, I can tell you that this little drummer’s pah rum pum pum solo is pretty unspectacular. If Terence Fletcher (played mercilessly by J.K. Simmons) were his teacher, there would be more than just chairs being thrown around the room. However, simplicity has its benefits and nowhere is that more seen than mantra practice.
Whether they are traditional or personal, most mantras are short and crisp.
“Om Tarre Tuttare Ture Soha” (Green Tara’s Mantra)
“Right now, it’s like this.” (An acceptance mantra, often used in addiction recovery)
“Om Mani Padme Hung” (The world’s most recited mantra).
“One more step, just one more step.” (My exercise mantra).
There is a wisdom, ancient and accessible, in simplicity. In fact, sociologists often suggest the more complicated you make something, the less likely you are to actually understand it. Mantras cut through all the spiritual materialism and blah blah of theory and ego and get straight to the heart of the matter. That’s exactly what we need.
The Strength of Clarity
We have to give some props to the little drummer boy–he’s keeping it real. “I have no gift to bring,” he tells the people attending the birth. “I am a poor boy too.”
How rare, and refreshing, is this clarity in our fake-it-to-make-it age where people are told to buy a few generic gifties and keep them wrapped just in case someone shows up unexpectedly? This drummer boy isn’t cringing under bad self-esteem or playing up his part of the situation. He just states clearly and without shame the nature of his world and what he’s got to offer. What does he get? A slot with the Bethlehem Philharmonic Orchestra? No. A smile. He gets a smile. And it is enough.
Mantras are direct and clear statements designed or blessed to get to the heart of the matter. They aren’t magic spells that are going to spin out lottery numbers or business contracts. Saying them won’t make you the Dalai Lama or pay your college loan. Their gift is the way they can transform your mind from chaos to stillness, from defrayed to focused, and from doubt to surety. They are a simple, repeated, ordinary, practice. And it is enough.
“Come, they told me…”
Editor: Dana Gornall
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