Tuesday, December 29, 2009: The music in my head
I am one of those unfortunate souls who gets songs stuck in her head – and they then play on an endless loop, often unconsciously. I’ll be writing an email at work, or getting groceries, or paying bills, or walking the dog, and will suddenly find myself humming the tune du jour. And I will actually startle myself, and ask myself, “Man, how long has that been going on in my mind?” It’s a little bit ridiculous.
Today, I got a little more insight into this perpetual melodic phenomenon. Up to this point, I knew when I was in the midst of a musical mind storm – but I never really thought much about the specifics of the tune. This morning, however, I became aware that the content of the tune has quite a significant impact on me mentally and emotionally.
In my meditation retreat afterward, I stated that one of the learnings I had as a result of my Vipassana experience was that I need to be very strategic, conscious, and vigilant about what I choose to allow into my life. Music absolutely falls into this category – especially with my propensity to live with the tune again and again for days on end. However, I can’t always control what I hear. Shopping malls, restaurants, other people’s car stereos all put music into my ears – and unlike some unpleasant sight, I can’t simply look away and end my exposure to this stimulus; sometimes I have to be with the disturbing sound for a little while – at least until I can change the station, or leave the environment.
So, this is how I found the song “Rape Me” by Nirvana stuck in my head this morning. I heard the song several days ago, and unfortunately, it stuck. Today at 4:45 am, as I tried to sit quietly in meditation, the tune danced around in my head. The lyrics soon followed; and they really agitated me. I tried to push them away; then I tried to ignore them; then I tried to shift my attention to something else – and nothing worked. So there they lived, keeping me company in my meditation.
After my 20 minutes of sitting, I got into the shower – and the song persisted. And I could feel myself getting annoyed, and starting to ruminate about all of the things I don’t like in my life right at this very moment. And I caught myself beginning to enter a slow-but-steady downward spiral. Uh oh.
As I was getting dressed, a new thought came to me suddenly: “Stef, you know what? Ask for help. Ask if perhaps a different song, a more positive song, could replace this one. See if that can happen; and see if that then changes anything.” So I took that action. I asked for help – and not even half a second later, a new song occupied my mind (“This Little Light Of Mine”, Tina Turner-style). And two seconds later, my mood and outlook and demeanor started to shift; I felt myself growing calmer instead of more agitated, hopeful instead of despairing, positive instead of negative. The attitudinal changes came as quickly as the song had – it was as if a switch was flipped. It was wicked cool.
But the new song didn’t stay very long before the old song began competing for my attention once more. And I observed my mind flip flop back and forth between the two songs – three seconds with one, then seven seconds with the other. Then ten seconds with the first song, then eight seconds with the other one. And with each change in song, I felt my body and mind change in response. It was really, really wild to experience; and it was a profound gift of awareness.
After around 90 seconds of this experience and observation, I chose to actively cultivate the second song – and began to focus on it, and invite it into my mind, and worked to do what I could to be in that light, happy space (versus the alternative). And it wasn’t perfect, and it didn’t last all day – but when I did catch myself with Mr. Cobain in my head, I gently invited Tina to re-join the party.
Let it shine.
Thursday, December 11, 2009: A calm collision?
Earlier this week the city received a healthy dose of snow (6-9”) and very cold temperatures – which is the perfect set-up for tricky road conditions. Driving on a back road near my home, the wheels of my car hit a large patch of ice as I approached a stop sign – and I found myself sliding right into the back of the car in front of me that was actually stopped at the sign.
I have been in a few fender-benders before. The very first one I had was a month after I received my driver’s license, when I bumped into a parked car in my friend’s driveway. Her car was fine; my headlight was smashed; and I immediately burst into tears.
Moving to Minnesota and experiencing snow, ice, fog, and wind pretty much every winter, I have had ample opportunities to test the limits of my car. Once I spun out as I was leaving an entrance ramp and entering the freeway traffic (again, my car wheels hit a patch of ice and I simply lost control) – and my car turned literally 360 degrees on the road. (To clarify, my wheels stayed in contact with the road the entire time; the nose of my car turned around in a full circle.) To say I was panicked during (and for hours after) that incident would be a mild description of my emotional and physiological state.
Another time, I was the one parked at a red light – and a fellow traveler ran the front of his large Ford F150 into the back of my small Subaru. My trunk was crumpled, and my mind was very, very angry. (Thank goodness for insurance.)
There have been a few other fender benders, scrapes, nicks, and dings, but you get the idea. With each one, my reaction varied slightly based on the situation (Was I at fault? Was it someone else’s fault? How much damage was there? Was it really an “accident” due to uncontrollable weather conditions, or just stupid human carelessness? Etc.), but my reaction was always a strong one – racing heart for minutes to hours afterward, mental recounting and replaying of the situation for days or weeks beyond the event, lots of energy spent on rationalizing or justifying or blaming or judging… you get the idea.
So today, I was given an opportunity to see how I would really react to an event that historically has been proven to disturb me pretty significantly, how I would really handle an external condition that has been known to move me very far away from a place of peace.
Well, what happened?? After my car did stop (thanks to the car in front of me), I turned off my ignition, walked to the back of the other woman’s car, and looked at her rear bumper, and then looked at my front bumper. Mercifully, no damage was done. The other driver then opened her car door, and I approached her, and said, “I am so sorry. My wheels just hit the ice, and the car just wouldn’t stop. It looks like there is no damage to our cars, but still, I am so sorry.” The other driver looked just very shocked, and looked at our cars, and then just stared at me. I then said, “I think everything is okay here; are you okay?” She nodded, and then said, “Just shaken up”. I replied, “Yeah, I know what you mean. Do you want to do anything, or are we okay to go?” She looked at the cars again, and said, “It looks like everything is fine; let’s just go.” We both then got in our cars, and left.
It was a few minutes later, after I had driven away from the stop sign and was a few miles down the road, that I realized hey, my heart isn’t POUNDING. And hey, my mind isn’t BLAMING. And hey, I’m not even thinking about the accident; I’m just right here in the present moment, focused on the road right here instead of the road back there. Hey, someone my mind and my body just let the whole incident go, without any “direct” influence or effort from “me”. Hey, it’s in the past; and I’m not belaboring it or re-living it – it really IS in the past for me. Hey, that is pretty freaking cool!
It looks like the practice I have been doing each morning of trying my best to focusing on, and live in, the present moment really IS translating into my every day life experiences. Wow!
Monday, December 7, 2009: Unexpected music
I work in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota – and one lovely feature about the city is the rather extensive skyway system. As the winter air turns cold and windy, and as the snow begins to fall, the skyways are a lovely feature – and I take full advantage of them.
As I was walking from my car (in a climate-controlled, covered parking garage) to my office via the skyway, I came across a squeaky automatic door. As I approached the door’s motion detector, the glass pane slid to the side – but with a rather lengthy noise. It sounded like the noise a drinking glass makes when a person begins to rub their finger around the rim in an attempt to make the glass “sing”; I got to experience “music” first thing in the morning on my way to work, in an unexpected place, and in a very unexpected way!
Then tonight, I was making a baked potato in the microwave. (It’s super-easy to do: scrub a potato, do NOT poke it, wrap it in paper towels, stick it in a fabric bag, zap it for 3:30 minutes on high, and voila – baked potato.) Around the second minute of cook time, the potato started to make a noise: it sounded like a high-pitched hum. It was likely just some of the air inside the potato being forced out by the heat of the microwave, but it sounded like, well, kind of like the potato was singing.
In one day, I got to experience two inanimate objects sharing some music with me – I truly consider myself lucky! And blessed: I was present enough, and aware enough, to recognize and value the uniqueness of what I might have dismissed months ago – or what I might have completely overlooked altogether. My meditation practice is helping me be more aware in each moment; and I get to experience cool little surprises and treasures as a result.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009: Misery and Compassion
I have been sick for about 10 days – first with a bad cold, then with a mild flu. I am finally about 90% restored to health; and have some perspective on how I was mentally feeling a few days ago, when my illness was at its’ worst.
When I realized I was sick with the flu, my mind immediately jumped to the future, and what I imagined waited for me over the next few days (based on past experiences) – and I got very, very angry. Angry at the people who I thought most likely “gave” this flu to me; angry that my body accepted this damn “gift” (instead of refusing it by successfully fighting it off); angry that I would spend the next few days sleeping and vomiting (which is just so damn nasty!!), and basically losing several days of my life. Angry that I was going to experience discomfort. Angry that I would lose all control over what *I* wanted, and instead be forced to accept whatever was to come my way. Angry, angry, angry!!
Two years ago, I became familiar with a statement that now often involuntarily re-surfaces in my mind when I find myself emotionally upset, disturbed, distressed, or troubled: “Our troubles are basically of our own making.”
Yes, certainly unpleasant things will happen in my life – like illness. But the actual physical illness is relatively short-lived; in this case, I was hit hard for about two-and-a-half days. (And then spent another few days getting back to “100%”.) It’s what I MENTALLY do with the unpleasant thing that can allow it to torture me for much longer than its actual real duration. While life can put catalysts in my path, my own mind is the thing that invites misery into my existence.
Over the past 10 days, I have been living with unnecessary misery.
As I reflected on all of this, I asked myself, “How did I get so far off the rails? I mean, I meditate every morning, doing my best to accept reality exactly as it is; I’ve been engaging in this practice every day for over a month now; so how did such a relatively minor thing like a mild flu get the best of me so quickly, and so strongly?”
At this point in my self-cross-examination I paused, and gave myself some compassion. Stef, hon, monks get to practice intensive meditation for years (decades, even) before they re-enter the “real world” and engage with all of the annoying catalysts life can offer – if they ever even re-enter the real world at all. I have been doing this for less than a month, WHILE I am knee-deep in life events (like work, and co-workers, and bills, and traffic, and home remodeling projects, and travel, and on, and on…). Sweetie, cut yourself some slack – you are doing pretty darn good, all things considered.
I AM. I’m growing in awareness, growing in my recognition of reality, and growing skillful behaviors (like compassion and radical acceptance). It may take more than a month, but slowly, I am learning to create less misery for myself.