Fortunately, some are born with spiritual immune systems that sooner or later give rejection to the illusory worldview grafted upon them from birth through social conditioning. They begin sensing that something is amiss, and start looking for answers. Inner knowledge and anomalous outer experiences show them a side of reality others are oblivious to, and so begins their journey of awakening. Each step of the journey is made by following the heart instead of following the crowd and by choosing knowledge over the veils of ignorance.
Henri Bergson

If you want to change, grow, evolve, develop as an individual, then get ready to have your intelligence insulted a lot. There is no way to change without repetition: of intention, of action, of reminders about intention, of reminders about action: an endless loop.

People who identify themselves with their intelligence find the idea of repetition a bit offensive. Being so smart, they do not need to be told something they “already know.” They complain of the cringe and cliche inherent to repetitive practices, and especially the repetition of words and ideas. But it is intelligent people who often behave the most childishly, and who seem most resistant to reforming and upgrading themselves.

Change requires humility for two reasons: first, humility is needed to acknowledge that there must be change to begin with, and second, humility is needed to acknowledge that the first hundred, maybe thousand attempts will be insufficient to achieve the change, and more attempts must be made.

It does not matter what kind of change you want to make. You might want to start a workout routine or a diet. Those changes require your mind to actively track your behaviors and steer toward discomfort and away from comfort — especially habitual comforts. We eat mindlessly, and many people’s diets are ruined by the actions they are only vaguely aware they are taking. In order to succeed, you will have to remind yourself not to open the refrigerator when you are bored, not to run to the cupboard at the first moment of anxiety. You will have to pep talk yourself to the gym each day, and repeat physical acts that lead to the desired results in the development of your muscle fibers.

If you want to change your mental habits, there is no avoiding repetition either. Your negative mental habits were formed by repetition, and they cannot be eliminated, only replaced with better ones. Each time you encounter one of your familiar negative thoughts, you must repeat something else to take its place. Many people make the mistake of trying to chastise themselves or punish themselves for their negative thought patterns when they manifest. But this is just more negativity in the mind.

Imagine, for example, that you have a procrastination problem. You do everything you can to avoid starting or finishing a task that needs to be accomplished, think of all the excuses that might intervene to prevent the effort from being worth it, and so forth. It is remarkably difficult to rationalize one’s way out of procrastination. There are always reasons to wait!

But now imagine you have practiced the repetition of a simple mantra in the morning:

Acta non verba.

This is a Latin phrase that means “action, not words.” Procrastination in a sense is the mental habit of replacing action with words. The words can be excuses, distractions, or whatever, but they must be dealt with, or the procrastination will continue.

You can listen to Bach, sit in silence, or turn on a track of a thunderstorm, but take 15 minutes in the morning and try repeating “acta non verba” out loud, slowly, calmly, over, and over.

Acta, non verba.

Acta, non verba.

Acta, non verba.

It helps that the phrase is in Latin, a dead language you are unlikely to speak. Because of the rarity of hearing the words, they are automatically more “scarce” and thus sacred to you.

One way of thinking about personal development is that it is the gradual process of sacralizing all of the secular activities necessary to sustaining life. If you were a subsistence farmer, your every interaction with your garden would become sacred over time. You would ritualize your shovel and your hoe. You would have a prayer for when the weather is too dry, and one for when it is too wet.

That we live in a highly complex, abstracted society where we do not have hoes and shovels, but iPhones and chat apps does not change the need for sacralizing the secular, but perhaps enhances the need for it. There is something inherently sacred abut a plant growing. It is a life, after all — it takes a lot of effort to forget.

But our backlit screens are distraction engines. They trick us about what time of day it is, and they trick us into wanting things we don’t want and into not wanting things we actually need. We are confused, and by that confusion, we further confuse ourselves and each other.

The simplicity of mantra, so long as what is repeated is true and helpful, clears away the clutter and noise of the inputs that keep our attention astray.

“Nothing can bring me peace but myself” is a mantra I crafted out of the closing lines of Ralph Wald Emerson’s essay Self Reliance to help me when I feel lonely, rejected, alienated, and isolated. I wear a ring on the middle finger of my left hand that I use as a totem, in fact, to remind me of this line.

When I was single and missing having somebody in my life, I would grip the ring between my thumb and the base of my middle finger and repeat over and over:

Nothing can bring me peace but myself.

Nothing can bring me peace but myself.

Nothing can bring me peace but myself.

When I am struggling with fear and feeling cornered by people, or by the circumstances of life, I reach back to the 23rd Psalm and I repeat an adaptation of its opening lines:

The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

Your mantras must be phrases that are meaningful to you — or, by repetition, you make them meaningful. Indeed, any words or phrases which are currently meaningful to you came to be so by some form of repetition. Maybe it is a song you have listened to a thousand times, and the lyrics help remind you of some important fact or feeling that it’s too easy to forget otherwise. Or maybe it is an inspiring quote you read in your adolescence that you keep returning to — repeated encounters with words make them meaningful, and once they are meaningful, they are a powerful tool you can wield in the molding and directing of your subjective experience of reality.

This is the way you can take control of your own life, and recapture your agency and will: by nudging yourself.

Marketers, advertisers, politicians, and now every random person on the street is trying to get into your head, program you with their words, their phrases, their thoughts. To be an independent person, capable of creative expression, empowered to set and achieve goals in the material world, you must first develop an independent mind.

That independence is cultivated by what you feed it.

Like mindless eating, mindless consumption of words leads to poor health. Intentionally selecting your mantras, repeating them over and over, reflecting in your journal about the successes and failures of your day, connecting with others sharing similar struggles: all of these are required to overcome the mindlessness that predominates the red alert button reactive habits engendered by our technology stack.

New mantras must be added just as useless old mantras must be ditched. You have to be ruthless with yourself: keep finding what works, and keep cutting what doesn’t. If you don’t like to sit in darkness and meditate, repeat a mantra while you clean the kitchen.

Every moment is an opportunity to infuse the secular with your own sacred. Through the means of creating sacred spaces and words for yourself, you will come to new and better insights about your mind and patterns of behavior, learning the triggers of your negative habits.

You will come to understand when you get near the refrigerator that it’s better to stop even before opening the door, or before picking up the phone to text somebody a needy message because you’re feeling lonely, to take a breath and say “nothing can bring me peace but myself”.

The implications of taking this level of control over the processes of your mind are far more profound than are apparent on first glance. The conflicts you have with other people, the loss of time to fits of anxiety, habits of procrastination, or spirals into anger and depression can be progressively minimized by raising your moment-by-moment awareness. Repetition and ritual are tools fit for this purpose, and indispensable to any journey of personal development.

As Henri Bergson reflects ““To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”

The choice you have is whether that endless creation is part of your own design or the hapless reaction to the circumstances of the external world. There is consequently no choice more critical in all of life if you have any hope of becoming yourself.

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