It’s been a rather dismal week or so. I’ve had a head cold for a week and a half now, not really a very bad cold, and without much coughing, but I’ve felt kind of lousy and have gone through box after box of Puffs Plus Lotion (a very superior product). The only places I’ve gone are to Howie’s and to Walgreens to buy six more boxes of Puffs Plus Lotion.
But it was more my mind that was the trouble, as I fell into believing certain venerable and gloomy thoughts. I’ve been reading Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness, but put it down temporarily; I started to feel that delving farther and farther into the canonical details of Buddhism was not the most-needed thing in these dark days.
Somewhat in desperation, I returned to that teacher—as it happens, a Zen teacher—who has cast more light than any other: Ezra Bayda. I started at the beginning of his first book, Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life. I didn’t realize how big an influence he’d had on me until I saw again in black and white his advice that what we need to do is be aware of our thoughts and reside in our physical experience. By which he means we actually have to do this. He says it might take years of naming our thoughts, but eventually we will see them as just thoughts: “[T]his tightly knit sense of self, with all its painful and unwanted emotions, begins to unravel. We can then see it for what it is: a complex of deeply believed thoughts, unpleasant sensations, and ancient memories!”
That’s his exclamation point. Here’s mine: !
I re-embarked on this simple but powerful practice. You don’t have to see and name every mundane or simple logistical thought: Having the thought that I need to go to the bathroom. Having the thought that I will answer the ringing phone.
The ones of interest are the ones that come washed in gloom, anxiety, fear, anger. Having the thought that I’ve made bad choices. Having the thought that I’ve done my entire life wrong. Having the thought that I’ve squandered my talents. Having the thought that when I’m very old (if I’m very old), I will be defenseless and alone, at the mercy of strangers who don’t know or love me. Having the thought that I’m in the wrong career, the wrong city, the wrong life entirely. Having the thought that I somehow have ended up in someone else’s life. Revisited over and over, they etch ever-deeper grooves in the brain, as Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor might explain it.
Sometimes, diabolically, the thoughts directly contradict each other: It is essential that I do X, and it is crucial that I don’t. Or, even worse, if I do this, it will be the wrong thing to do, and if I do that, ditto. Whatever I do, I will be a failure.
As for the actual doing of such-and-such thing or not, it’s slightly tricky because, on the one hand, I’m positive we can potentially be happy in any circumstances, whether we are movie stars or janitors. I believe this. Yet I also think we are particular beings suited to different things. One occupation, city and way of life may be really right for one person and totally wrong for another. Yet it is also verifiably the case that no amount of thinking “I’m in the wrong job!” has been helpful.
It’s not necessary to understand the origins of such thoughts, just to see them clearly. Nonetheless, it does not escape my notice, and is of some interest (to me) that having directly contradictory beliefs precisely parallels my situation when I was a child, starting at age seven, dieting with my mother. I felt then that if I went off my diet, I was a failure, but if I’d succeeded brilliantly at my very first diet and had never had to diet again, what would my mother and I have done together? I’m sure it seemed to me that dieting with my mother was the means of retaining her love and attention. To feel allied with someone in this world, I had to fail over and over and over, affirming countless times in my childhood and adolescence, “I am fat and ugly.”
Interesting to see, but not helpful in the current moment. I began again to note every thought that came with an emotional charge. In a couple of hours—this was a few days ago—it was bedtime and there was nothing new under the sun. I lay in bed tuning in to the sensations in my stomach and chest. There was not that much going on at all, just a slight churning or pulsing, possibly the near or far edge of anxiety or sorrow, but nothing definite. I appreciated the chance to apprehend my real, actual life, as opposed to the veneer of believed thoughts or a false covering of positive thoughts designed to keep threatening emotions at bay.
The next day I felt better, and not just because there had been a five percent improvement in my cold. It would also have been fine if I hadn’t felt better. Because I did, there were fewer emotionally charged thoughts to note, though not none. If I’d still felt awful, there would have been more. Either way, the practice would have been the same.