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How to Prevent Your Thoughts from Swimming Off Course

Many people avoid triathlons because they fear the swim. In training, swimmers use the line in the center of the pool to orient them within the lane. When these swimmers reach the open water, the lack of a center line — or even ropes on either side — disorient them. Panic ensues.

I once watched two swimmers practice in the open water. One was swimming very fast, but off course. Every few minutes she would have to stop, correct course, then return to swimming. The other swimmer practiced “sighting,” which is spotting a landmark or buoy every few strokes to stay straight on the swim course.

The straight swimmer, even though she was technically slower than the crooked one, finished first. The crooked swimmer did swim faster, but she swam a longer course because she didn’t keep the correct path. She was also more frustrated and exhausted.

Many people don’t meditate because their minds often go off course. They sit down, and the moment they close their eyes, their minds dart from one thought to the next. Like swimming in a body of water with no lap lanes or buoys, meditation disorients them. Rather than maintain a practice, they avoid meditation altogether.

A mantra can act like a lap lane or sighting landmark in your meditation practice. It keeps you oriented so that your mind doesn’t go off course.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that mantras can improve concentration and mindfulness. “A mantra is a kind of magic formula that can transform a situation right away; you don’t have to wait for results.”

Choosing a mantra

In the yoga tradition, a teacher will offer the student a mantra after several years of study. This mantra is unique to the student and can have special power. Even if you don’t have the time to devote years with a guru, you can still benefit from a mantra.

The word “mantra” has become so mainstream that we often substitute it for “motto.” The mantra is not a phrase or set of words you live by. Some of the best mantras are those that don’t evoke an emotional response, which might send your imagination wandering.

Some mantras might be in another language, like Latin or Sanskrit. Don’t be afraid to use them, particularly if they translate to something profound, like “rejoice.”

Eknath Easwaran offers a list of mantras — he uses the term “mantram” — from major religious traditions. He suggests spending time choosing a mantra because it will be with you for a long time. In other words, your mantra shouldn’t be an affirmation of what you wish for your life at this moment. Those affirmations are temporal, and the mantra is permanent.

Mantra as prayer

It’s possible, though not required, to use a mantra that has a spiritual connotation. The mantra could be a devotion, such as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I know, that’s a wallop to say — and remember — during meditation. A Catholic nun taught this to me, telling me to breathe in deep during “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” then exhale “have mercy on me, a sinner.” This “Jesus Prayer” has been practiced for centuries, starting with the Desert Fathers and popularized by The Way of a Pilgrim.

Gandhi had repeated the mantra “Ram,” which is a Hindu deity, to the extent that it was always present in his mind. Just before his death, his last words were his mantra, “Ram, Ram, Ram.”

The mantra, in this case, is used not only to guide the mind from “swimming off course,” but also to guide the heart towards a deeper spiritual relationship. God’s name isn’t used in vain — it is used to keep the heart directed towards a higher power. Easwaran writes, “Whatever name we use, with the mantram we are calling up what is best and deepest in ourselves.”

How it works

Once you choose your mantra, you decide if you want to repeat it aloud or in silence. Repeating it aloud gives the benefit of sound resonating in your body. Try to slowly recite the mantra “OM” and feel it reverberate in your lungs, throat, and the space between your eyebrows. If you choose to repeat your mantra in silence, it still can benefit in anchoring the mind.

Because the mantra doesn’t change, it reorients us and keeps us centered.

You can say part of the mantra on the inhale, then the rest of the mantra on the exhale. Or, you can just repeat the mantra on the exhale, or whenever you catch your mind wandering. If your mantra is a few words or syllables, reciting the mantra on the exhale can induce calm because you are slowing your breathing.

Because the mantra is repeated, it gives the mind something to do. Dr. Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of neurology, explains how the mantra serves to hold our attention.

[W]e know that concentrating on a short phrase will activate specific areas in the front and side of the brain. These areas, the frontal and parietal lobes, are involved in selective attention — the capacity to maintain a single focus despite the presence of distracting stimuli.

The mantra, like the line in the swimming pool or a site on land, gives us something to “come back to” when our minds want to engage in excessive thought. Because the mantra doesn’t change, it reorients us and keeps us centered.


We don’t practice meditation so we can practice meditation “better.” We practice meditation to practice harnessing our thoughts. It makes no sense how long we sit on a meditation cushion if it doesn’t translate into a more calm, attentive approach to our lives.

The mantra can be our compass, navigating us through the waters of life.

In this regard, we can employ the mantra during moments of stress post-meditation. The moment we “catch” ourselves in anxious thoughts, we repeat the mantra. Even in moments of boredom where we reach for a distraction, we can sit quietly with our mantra. The mantra can be our compass, navigating us through the waters of life.

Over time, we find more moments in our day to practice calming our thoughts. Osho writes, “Slowly, slowly the madman disappears; slowly, slowly the thoughts start falling into a certain pattern; their chaos is no more…”

The mantra can provide rhythm to our lives, allowing us to “sight” our way so we don’t swim off course.

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