The word “mantras” might seem out of place in the conversation about spiritual formation. I understand that, especially since the word comes out of an ancient Eastern religious tradition. Some think that borrowing from other faith traditions is dangerous. I would offer this:
Any wisdom we find becomes dangerous when it doesn’t match God’s formational reality.
The reality I’ve found is that when we set our minds on things that are good, beautiful, and true (see Paul in Philippians 4:8) it shapes our life.
So borrowing the term “mantra” is only dangerous if it doesn’t match the reality of how God works in our brains to transform us.
With that in mind, I decided on four key “mantras.” These phrases help me keep my mind focused on the priorities of my spiritual life in this season.
I offer these four mantras not to show how great and disciplined I am. Trust me, I’ve tossed the mantras on several occasions and we’re not even out of January. The reason I offer these is to give you some ideas that help you form “mantras” of your own.
Also, I realize that these are all “doing” kinds of mantras. “Doing” and “being” go hand in hand with living the journey of formation, of course. I say all that follows in the full knowledge that I am one in whom Christ dwells and delights, with whom I can do anything and without Him I can do nothing.
It’s helpful to remember that mantras should be brief and memorable. The reality test for our mantras is this: can you bring all four to mind while doing something else? While driving? When you’re riding the train?
The mantras have to be portable because in the movement of life is where we need their wisdom.
Here they are, in no specific order:
1. Don’t spend expensive time on cheap things.
Many of us are presented with a daily challenge. We declare that certain things are important to us, but then decry our lack of time to attend to them. One of the things I’ve found to be true is this:
We have enough time in our lives for the things that matter most.
The question is this: are we spending time on things that don’t matter? Time has a cost. That’s why the metaphors of “spending” or “saving” time make sense.
My focus in this mantra is to remind myself of my priorities, beginning with “seeking the kingdom” and reign of God here and now in my life (Matthew 6:33). Then, my daily choices have a context. Physical health, mental health, family health – these are kingdom movements. They’re worth the investment.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I don’t spend some “clock cash” on cheap stuff (Marvel’s Contest of Champions, I see you). Starting the day with this mantra simply turns my focus toward the greater value in each day.
2. Snooze never wins.
One of the greatest battles I wage on a daily basis is with my snooze button. I thought using my phone as an alarm clock would mitigate this issue, but sadly I found the opposite to be true. As with many things, technology aids me in my diversions.
I start my day fairly early, getting up at 4 AM to exercise and read. I do this so that when the rest of my family rises, I’m ready to engage with the wider life of the household. There’s nothing holy about getting up that early, trust me, but for my life the most valuable time comes in those quiet morning moments.
To say “snooze never wins” reminds me of the value of entering the day in a certain posture.
The mantra drives me to set out the coffee supplies and my breakfast the night before. My “snooze loser” mentality also drives me to go to bed earlier, forfeiting the Netflix episodes. Not only that, but I need to shut down technology earlier in the evening. The reason being that the blue light from our screens on the melatonin levels in our brain that help us sleep.
I still hit the snooze from time to time. When I do, the mantra helps me see what is lost when I succumb to the “button.”
3. Watch for stalling.
My wife and I have both noted than when we pick up our phone or device, open an app like Instagram and begin scrolling, something strange happens. We cease every movement and conversation. Everything is paused.The effect is that – and this is not scientific, just my observation – we implicitly believe that time has also stopped. We lose awareness of spatial and chronological reality, which typically ends with a glance at the clock. We exclaim, “It’s 4:30 already? What just happened?”
When we stall, we get sucked into the tech vortex.
In line with the “expensive time & cheap things” mantra, this one reminds me that wisdom comes in ordering my days with thought and intention (Ps. 90:12). If I say, perhaps in the morning, “watch for stalling” then I’ve created a category in my brain for the day. I’ll be attentive to times when I mistakenly believe I’m living outside of time.
I will say this mantra has had the most impact – I’ve become aware of more and more “stall moments” as well as what triggers them.
4. Observe my peak, trough, and recovery periods.
Of all four mantras, this one is the most awkward. Listening to a podcast by Jeff Goins, I heard the writer Daniel Pink talk about his new book When. The book is about timing, which is critical to our work and life, and specifically how we are uniquely engineered for time.
Pink says that there is a rhythm to our life that determines how we enter into our daily story:
Peak time is when we are functioning at our best. I know that my peak is between 8am-11:30am. When I can, I try to do the work of writing and creating in that period because I know I have the most energy to give to the work at that point.
Trough time is the downtime after we’ve hit our peak. Trough time is when I try to handle “tasks” – return phone calls and emails, unclog the bathroom drain (hey, that reminds me…), and run errands.
Rebound time is the time when we are open to big picture, creative ideas. Thinking about the next 5 years, wondering about a new project at work or a new approach to our parenting are all things that fit well in rebound time.
This year I’m trying to pay attention to these rhythms and plan around them, and so far the results have been “meh.” Granted it’s 8:55 and I’m writing so check that “peak” box for today.
The hardest part for you may be figuring out when these three periods occur in your life. You may be at your peak late at night. You may be like me and hit the peak before the sun crowns the horizon. It does take a little bit of thinking and observing before you can nail these categories down.
You Call These Mantras “Spiritual”?
Perhaps you’ve read through this and now you’re thinking, “This isn’t spiritual. It’s self-help, corporate productivity nonsense.” You may be right, in a sense.
However my belief is that whatever we set our attention on is what will form us. The priority of finding the kingdom in our work, play, exercise, and “recovery” time is well worth whatever means we need to get us there. Perhaps the challenge is to set 2-4 mantras of your own, make them a point of prayer, and see if God brings grace and energy through these daily foci?
May you go today and know the value of the most important things. May you then be formed into the image of Christ by attending to that which matters most within the poetic life of His Kingdom.