of mottos and mantras
Posted on May 28, 2017
Saturday 27 May 2017
Start time: 8:15am
Mottos* generally rub me the wrong way, but some serve a purpose. “Cave canem,” for instance, stops idiot humans from trifling with cool dogs. “Don’t be evil,” reminds our tech overlords at Google to rule with mercy. “Work hard, play hard” is a cross-generational justification for binge drinking habits. “Just do it” has gotten hundreds of thousands of people off the couch and into Nike sneakers. My personal favorite motto is “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” from Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
I had a hunch the dictionary might provide some insight into the difference between the terms ‘motto’ and ‘mantra,’ and I was right. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, mantra comes from 18th century Sanskrit, meaning “to think” whereas motto comes from the Italian for ‘word.’ A motto is highly symbolic set of words, meant to represent the ideals of an individual or institution. A mantra is a motto repeated out loud several times to spur a meditative state. Motto is static; mantra includes action.
The psychology behind a motto is that it’s a kind of shortcut to thinking. If you can remember a motto, you can remember your values without having to dig too deeply into moral or spiritual reflection. It’s like Easy Mac. I’m inclined to think there are no shortcuts to thinking and that it’s worth the extra time and real butter to make good mac n’ cheese, which is why I think mantras are far more effective.
With a mantra, you repeat the words until they become meaningless. It is a starting block for transformation of thought and self. You begin with an idea, and end in a completley different place. When I tell myself “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” I travel to a new zone of discomfort, I discover things about my physical limits, and I make myself mentally tougher. The words provide initial inspiration and perhaps a bit of confidence, but the work is, ultimately, all my own.
Still, we need to be wary of both mottos and mantras. To paraphrase a favorite over-the-top poetry professor in college, mottos enable the downfall of democratic society. Political mottos seduce large groups of people into identifying with candidates whose platforms and beliefs contain vast fine-print caveats between a few sweet-sounding words. You cannot subscribe to a political motto without first breaking down hidden meanings. You cannot support the symbol without first approving the substance. Yet, people do it all the time.
And we can become too attached to our mantras. Day after day, we follow the same routines and thought patterns. If we tie ourselves to the same messages and motivations for too long, how can we evolve? A certain mantra may apply to a certain day or period in one’s life, but then it is time to move on, to find a more appropriate mantra, to leave the wrung-out words of the past behind.
Ok ok, that was serious! And this is a running blog. Let’s take our loafers off and put our sneakers back on. Good news is you can enjoy mottos and mantras and still think independently. I think one way to do this is to find a humorous motto or mantra. If your motto continues to make you smile or laugh it is 1) fresh 2) not likely to be co-opted by politicians 3) keeping you self-aware. Here are a few of the best running mantras from friends, pros and personal experience:
- “Smile every mile”
- “I am water”
- “Never judge the state of the race on an uphill”
- “Today looks like a good day to die”
- “I am here”
- “Hills for breakfast”
- “The work is done, just have fun”
- “Do or do not. There is no try”
- “Leave some in the tank”
- “Right on Hereford, left on Boylston”
- “Think fast”
I’d love to improve this list. Leave a comment to share your favorite mantra.
*If you, like me, are a copyediting geek and want to dispute ‘mottos’ versus ‘mottoes,’ slide into my DMs.