For a couple of months now I have been experimenting with different protocols for designing mantras and visualization exercises, combining them into ‘stacks’ like one might do with nootropics, and nestling them into ritual structures which make them more likely to become habits. As I have now had the opportunity to explore this territory under a variety of conditions, both favorable and unfavorable, I feel prepared to discuss my results.
My theory is that these techniques work because they create depressions in a cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. This is probably not even close to the full story, but it seems a useful enough metaphor for present purposes and not obviously wrong in any way, so it will be my point of departure.
Traditionally pursuits like this would have been undertaken in a religious, not secular, context; some cognitive operations are best performed via what I call themythopoetic command line interface, and religions have a monopoly on this. The ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding religions provide are important because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspective algorithms are shallow and lack teeth.
That having been said there is no dogma or metaphysical commitment associated with the exercises I describe below. To the best of my knowledge they are compatible with existing religious beliefs and with an absence of such belief.
The First Steps
When I began, I did two mantra sessions daily, one in the morning and one at night. They were structured as follows:
- Lit a candle, took a few deep breaths.
- Spoken: “Initiate Titan bootstrap sequence”
- Spoken: “I will be like water in my process, earth in my resolve, fire in my intensity, and air in my presence”. This mantra is henceforth “The element meditation”.
- Spoken: “I notice that I am distracted. A mind that wanders is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the colors of a prism become like a knife when focused, so too does the light of my mind converge upon the task at hand.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Distraction.”
- Written: some habit mantra. Generally these consisted of a short phrase that I would write longhand between 15-25 times. An example: “I will spend my last hour reading by candlelight”.
- Visualized: The best version of the coming day that I could imagine, with a special emphasis on moving quickly and efficiently from task to task.
- Lit a candle and took a few deep breaths.
- Spoken: “Initiate Titan shutdown sequence”.
- Spoken: The element meditation, same as before.
- Spoken: “I notice that I am frustrated. Frustration is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the fog clears and lays bare the world so too does my frustration dissipate, leaving me to think and to act.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Frustration”.
- Written: some habit mantra, usually about getting up early the next day.
- Spoken: “if/then”s, i.e. “if I wake up tired, then I will still get up”.
Now some of this may seem grandiose and overblown. Is it really necessary to begin with a phrase like “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”? Surely I don’t consider myself a Titan, after all, and what purpose is served by styling myself after the four classical elements?
Perhaps the more interesting part of the answer to that question is that many aspects of the mantra stack just occurred to me. Once I began tinkering with my practice certain phrases began suggesting themselves as natural extensions of what I was already doing. I still remember how the element meditation kept coming to mind, almost fully formed, until I finally decided to incorporate it into the stack.
The same is true of the opening phrase, “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”. After a few days it just felt like I needed a dedicated signal to myself that the mantra stack was beginning, and as soon as I noticed this feeling the sentence presented itself to me.
Furthermore, as time went on some of the mantras became accompanied by stylized hieroglyphic images. These days when I say the Litany Against Distraction I picture a man standing with a rainbow beginning about a foot behind him, the colors converging as they pass through his head to become a focused point of searing light about a foot in front of him. This too was something that occurred naturally and with little overt effort.
The rest of the answer is that I believe the best mantras have a solemn, lyrical quality that echoes other elements of the religious memeplex. Commandments, poetry, songs, and stories from religious traditions often feel like a cross between a haiku and an aphorism. They are weighty, but short and easy to memorize. They’re true, but general enough to be applicable across vast swaths of a person’s life.
At once the bow and the arrow; a heavy stone with a little handle; a linguistic seed that, like an acorn, contains an enormous folded structure than opens when fed on sun and rain.
In other words, my mantras sound portentous because that’s how mantras are supposed to sound.
As the months passed this stack received all number of stress fractures and consequently underwent many changes. For a little while I tried adding a third mantra session around noon, and even gave thought to mimicking the Islamic Salah by doing five sessions a day. At various times I experimented with including failure autopsies in the stack, and was happy with the results.
There’s an interesting idea lurking here: I would’ve loved to have had a program into which I could enter various parameters and time constraints for a given day and received back a customized mantra stack. Huge bonus points if it could use data from something like Thync to automatically adjust my stack when I’m feeling more frustrated or stressed.
Alas, with an increasingly busy schedule my practice gradually eroded until, these days, I usually just do the morning session. And I’ll be honest, I’ve begun to feel less focused, less centered, and a lot more irritable. So I’ve begun to experiment with a new mantra stack, and I’m thinking about ways of adapting it to the challenges which caused me to loosen my grip on my practice in the first place.
I think multiple daily sessions will be a lot more sustainable if they’re very short, on the order of 90 seconds. That’s not enough time to write anything but it is enough to light a candle, do a little chanting, and hopefully get most of the benefit out of the exercise. One or two sessions a day will be longer, and it is during these times that I’ll do the writing and habit work.
What Have I Learned?
There are a two important takeaways here. The first is that mantras are definitely effective. More than once I have found myself on the verge of losing my temper only to have the Litany Against Frustration play itself in my head, and the less I’ve worked through the stack the more often frustration has gotten the better of me.
The second is that my stack has naturally bifurcated into theoretical and applied segments. The theoretical side consists of the bootstrap sequence, the two litanies, and the element meditation. These are very abstract, not at all specific, and are more about reaffirming a worldview. Thus they are spoken while staring into candlelight and visualizing an associated hieroglyphic instead of being written down, which would take too long. The practical side consists of habits I’m trying to instill, and they are usually written long-hand in front of a candle while I visualize myself performing the action.
The above classification scheme can be usefully extended. The theoretical elements in the mantra stack are like “rudders” you can attach to an iceberg to do something vaguely like steering. The practical elements can be further categorized as “vice wedges” or “skyhooks”.
In “Deep Work” Cal Newport recommends waiting five minutes to get online when you really need a piece of information. This small temporal distance diminishes the reward signal you get from distraction, making it less tempting in the future. It drives a wedge between you and your vices. Skyhooks on the other hand are built for ascendancy, and can include any positive behavior you are trying to make into a habit. Yes, as usual, these semantic boundaries are semi-permeable.
The fact that exercises like these crop up in many different religious traditions, together with personal experience, are enough to convince me to continue with my experimentation.
More broadly, this essay can be construed as another push in my attempt to adapt the best parts of religion to secular use. But so far this has all been pretty tame, just some mantras and some candles.
There are hints from the Neopagan community that that this religious posturing can be taken much, much further. Indeed, the Gods may be nothing more than stable micro-personalities running on a devotee’s wetware, and summoning one no more a violation of a scientific worldview than imagining a conversation with a deceased loved one. What I’ve read indicates that in this form the Gods don’t rise to the level of a full-blown Tulpa, but they can be, engaging, frightening, and insightful.
I have begun to wonder if a talented enough deimancer could use rituals to erect a pantheon of entirely new, custom-built Gods. To what purpose could such a profound level of mental control be bent….?
 I coined the phrase “mythopoetic command line interface”. It works just the same as an actual command line interface, but in the language of dreams, symbols, art, and metaphor.
 Candles are a popular ritual accoutrement. My best guess for why this is: candles do in the visual channel what rain does in the auditory one. It’s a gentle, unobtrusive stimulus that is just intriguing enough to be an object of focus while leaving extra resources for visualizing or chanting.