How Modern Mantras Keep Us Stuck

Too often, spiritual clichés can be misunderstood and misused
June 25, 2017 Updated: July 29, 2020

“Your life is perfect exactly the way it is.” Imagine offering this to someone whose child was just killed in a terrorist attack. “You already have everything you need.” Tell this to someone facing a serious illness or going through a divorce. “Only you can make yourself happy or unhappy.” Huh?

Lisa, a client of mine, was in a bad relationship when she came to see me. Almost immediately after telling me about the situation, she explained that she knew she already had everything she needed to be happy. So, she was here to work on herself, since if she was unhappy and unsatisfied with her partner, she had only herself to blame.

Another client, Peter, is a seasoned meditator. He has been deeply disturbed by the political happenings in the world as of late. In a recent conversation, he expressed feeling angry and frightened by it. At the same time, he was sure that the world was evolving in exactly the way it needed to be. And so, it was best not to be angry or fight for what he believed in, but rather to just trust that everything is exactly as it should be—even if he didn’t like it, or thought something was utterly wrong.

Mantras Go Mainstream

(Jack Frog/Shutterstock)
(Jack Frog/Shutterstock)

For many years, I too was confused by the “you have everything you need to be happy” mantras. I blamed myself for needing or even wanting anything outside myself for a sense of well-being. I was supposed to be able to feel joyful regardless of the contents of my life. Disappointment and desire, I thought, were for spiritual sissies.

Spiritual truths such as the ones I’ve mentioned are thrown around in yoga classes, on social media, at the bar, in casual conversation—everywhere. And yet, these mantras are being turned into platitudes that are misunderstood and misused. What makes this troublesome is that, as such slogans gain cultural traction, they are being used to shame and blame us for feeling the way we do, thereby cutting us off from our actual experience. So, too, they end up preventing us from making changes in our lives.

Feeling sad, angry, frustrated, or confused is perfectly sensible when life isn’t how you want it to be. You feel pain when bad things happen; that’s just the way it is. Wanting to change what’s not working is a part of self-care and sanity. People often use the “life is perfect” mantra as a form of spiritual bypassing; that is, to avoid the feelings of suffering that come from not knowing how to fix the situation.

Acting From Your Truth

We exist at both a relative and absolute level. On a relative level, we are affected and impacted by our life situation. We feel better when we have social connections, financial security, and good health—better than when we are isolated, poor, and sick. We want our life to contain elements that make us feel good. Such is the human condition.

At an absolute level, there is perfection in what is, simply because it’s the truth—it’s the way life is manifesting at the moment. From an absolute perspective, we have what we need because our peace lies within us and not in anything we can attain externally. Our deepest well-being arises from knowing that we aren’t our current situation—or the thoughts and feelings it creates—but rather our presence and awareness, which illuminates all that we experience.

If you look at spiritual leaders like Gandhi or Mother Theresa, and so many others, they embodied joy and a deep sense of well-being. But at the same time, they lived their lives as agents of change in the world, working to make things better.

Whether you are pulled to activism or just want to change your life, this is a reflection of who you are in this moment. From that sense, it is a part of this moment’s inherent rightness. If the truth is that you desire change, then acting from that truth is the same thing as accepting this moment as it is. This “perfect now” includes who you really are within it.

To try to improve your life is an aspect of psychological health; it is a form of agency, which we require to be well. And yet just because we try to make things better does not mean we must wage war with the way things are. We can try to create a better tomorrow while simultaneously accepting the truth of today. The two aren’t contradictory.

So, too, we can seek to change our life without a strong sense of pursuit or entitlement. Remove the idea that you’re missing out on a better life that exists in some parallel universe. There is only here and now.

We can also work for better circumstances without believing that those new circumstances, should they come, will provide us with lasting happiness. Whatever new situation arises, it too will change and pass, and thus cannot be relied upon for our deepest well-being. We can work to improve our lives even though we know that all situations are impermanent.

Making Peace With Paradox

(Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock
(Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

We are far more than just the contents of our life; we are the mystery that is life itself. Life is full of paradoxes: We are spiritual beings on a human journey and also human beings on a spiritual journey. We can know ourselves as spiritual beings while still taking good care of, and fully experiencing, our human selves.

Wanting your life to be different, and knowing that your life is perfect in this moment because it can’t be any other way, creates a perfect handshake. Feeling the heartbreak that comes with being human, and knowing the joy and miracle that it is to be alive despite life’s hardships, is also a perfect handshake.

So feel what you feel, fight for what matters to you, work to make your life better, and be who you are. All of it is in perfect alignment with knowing that things are exactly as they need to be, for now.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com