"My first encounter with an ocean storm came on my way to the U.S. on the Fulbright exchange program. I sailed from Bombay on an ancient P&O liner that had been in service before the first world war. There were no luxuries, but I enjoyed the trip because of the variety of passengers — from empire builders to scholars from the Far East — and the ever-changing beauty of the sea.

"But July in the Arabian Sea is monsoon season, and three or four days out our little ship began to be tossed like a toy by winds and rain.

"A storm is a great equalizer. All distinctions of class and color were swept away. Empire builders hung at the railings side by side with Asian academics, clutching identical brown bags. All of us cheered with relief when the weather passed and we were obliged to put in at Aden for repairs.

"Sailing from Cherbourg to New York on HMS Queen Mary was an utterly different experience. The Queen Mary too was nearing retirement age. But she was fast, and positively luxurious by comparison with that P&O vessel. When we hit rough seas on the Atlantic, we sailed through majestically without a roll.

" 'Why aren't we being tossed about?' I asked an officer. 'Is it because of the ship's size?'

" 'No,' he said proudly, 'it's the stabilizers. We installed them a couple of years ago. Now rough waters don't bother her at all.'

"I often recall those two journeys to illustrate one of the most important truths I have ever learned. Like a storm, life is a great equalizer. It does bring sunny days, but it is sure to bring storms as well. And regardless of class, color, status, birth, or wealth, some of us sail through surely while others flounder and even go under.

"We can't control life, but we can control how we respond to life's challenges. The answer lies in stabilizing the mind.

"Few human beings are born with the skill to weather storms and stress with grace. Yet everyone can learn. We can't control the weather outside, but we can control how we respond. Like the Queen Mary, we can install stabilizers — in the mind.

"For it is in the mind that the storms of life really blow. What matters is not so much the turmoil outside us as the weather within. To a person with an agitated mind, something as minor as a rude driver can cause enough stress to ruin a day. By contrast I think of Mahatma Gandhi, who gave himself away when he confessed, 'I love storms.' Gandhi began life as a timid child, but he learned to keep his mind so steady that he could face tremendous crises with courage, compassion, wisdom, and even a sense of humor.

"This steadiness of mind is one of the most practical of skills. Without it, no one can face the challenges of life without breaking. And life today is challenging to say the least. We live in the midst of conflicts — within ourselves, at home, in the community, even nationally and internationally. This is an age of conflict, which makes it an age of anxiety as well. Nothing is more vital than learning to face this turmoil with confidence and compassion.

"Fortunately, we don't have to develop these capacities. We already have them. But we need a calm mind to draw on them. When the mind is agitated or confused, the deeper resources we require are simply locked up inside. That is the practical importance of a calm mind.

"We already have the capacity to deal with challenges. But we need a calm mind to draw on the resources locked up within.

"So how do we calm the mind? One very powerful way is so simple that everyone can learn it easily, right now, even a child: the repetition of a mantram, or "prayer word" as it is called in some circles in the West. (See sidebar on the next page.)

"You can think of the mantram as a handrail for the mind. It gives you something to hold on to, so that you can steady yourself in confusing circumstances until your thoughts become clear.

"You can think of repeating the mantram as calling God collect — or, if you prefer, as an emergency call to your highest self. Either way, repeating the mantram is an appeal for resources that are always present but seem invisible in times of trouble. 'This is beyond me,' we are saying. 'I need strength I can't find — I can't even pay for this call. Please send help, and pick up the bill too.'

"The mantram is a tool for calming the mind that anyone can learn and use at any time.

"If you're like me, at this point you may doubt that such a simple skill could do what I claim.

"I doubted it, too, when my grandmother tried to tell me what the mantram can do. Granny was the wisest person I have ever known, and I loved her passionately, so I always took her advice seriously. But, after all, grannies don't know everything. 'Granny,' I protested, 'that's just mindless repetition! What can repetition do?'

" 'Walking is just repetition too,' she said. "One step after another, each one the same.'

"She had me there. But I still didn't believe her.

"But life went on presenting challenges, and in college I encountered a really intimidating one: public speaking. I found the activity fascinating and took every opportunity to learn, but no matter how many times I stood before an audience and lived to tell the tale, I was always afraid that on the next occasion I would trip on my way to the podium or open my mouth and find that no words would come out.

"When I confessed this fear to my granny, she had a very simple piece of advice: not to sit there going over my notes or trying to size up my audience, but to repeat the mantram to myself quietly while awaiting my turn.

"I decided she didn't really understand. After all, she never had to give a speech! But because of my love for her, I promised to give it a try.

"The next time I had to give a talk, I sat quietly repeating Rama, Rama, Rama over and over and over in my mind Whenever my thoughts tried to blurt out 'I'm afraid! I'm afraid!' instead, I would bring them back to 'Rama, Rama' — adding to myself, every now and then, 'I hope it works.'

"And the talk went well. With my mind calmer, the words came up right on cue.

"I kept on practicing this little trick, and after a while I began to say, 'Rama, Rama, Rama ... I think it works!'

"Today, after years of practice, I can assure you with complete confidence that I know it works. This is really the only way that trust in the mantram can come — through your own personal experience.

"Using a mantram is not just mechanical repetition. You learn to trust it by using it.

"You can draw on the power of the mantram like this at any time, wherever you happen to be, whatever you happen to be doing. But if you want the mantram to come to your rescue when you need it, if you want it to steady your mind in times of turmoil, you need to practice, practice, practice in calm weather.

"Whenever you get a moment free, unless you are doing something that requires attention, repeat your mantram to yourself silently, in the mind — while waiting, walking, washing dishes, and especially when falling asleep at night. Constant repetition drives the mantram deep into consciousness, where it can anchor your mind so surely that no amount of agitation can sweep you away.

"I must have given this advice a million times, but it can never be repeated too often. Throughout my life, no matter how assiduously I practiced this skill, I have always been able to find more time, additional opportunities to put it to use. This is how we can gradually extend sovereignty over the mind."

"What Is a Mantram?

"What is a mantram? How can it help you? How does it work?

"The term mantram (ormantra) stands for a word or short phrase that you can repeat silently to yourself to help you cope with stress. It has the power to calm and steady your mind whenever you need access to deeper reserves of strength or patience within you.

"You may already be using stress reduction techniques such as counting to ten, taking a couple of deep breaths, or repeating a positive affirmation to yourself. All of these can help, but the mantram is just as quick, just as easy to use, and much more powerful. It combines immediate help with long term benefits that, like a savings account, accumulate the more it's used.

"This simple skill is thousands of years old. Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, repeated "My God and my all." Mahatma Gandhi used "Rama, Rama."

"But you don't have to think of yourself as religious to use a mantram It works for everyone, because it works directly on the mind. You'll see from the stories in this book how the mantram continues to help ordinary people face crises today.

"How does the mantram help?

  • "It calms you down, whether you're facing a minor irritation or a major drama.
  • "It stops you from reacting too quickly and saying or doing something you may later regret.
  • "It halts rising anger, fear, panic.
  • "It gives you a breathing space.
  • "Once you've got your mantram going, you'll find yourself in a much better state to choose your next move — and to choose it wisely.

"The mantram works fast. If you start using it today, you'll probably feel the benefit of it the very next time you face a problem. But the more often you repeat the mantram, the deeper its benefits go.

You'll find a fuller list of mantrams to choose from on the Web at www.easwaran.org/mantrams."