Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head and no matter how hard you tried, it wouldn’t stop? I often hear this from students on their first residential retreats. They become frustrated that their minds are filled with a particular song to the point that there’s no space for anything else. In truth it’s not really a problem, but until students realize this, they feel totally stuck. This situation isn’t too far off from how many of us live our lives, immersed in certain repetitive narratives that seem to squeeze the space and energy from our lives.
Most of us are familiar with our stuck stories, the ones that rear up at inopportune times, or when things don’t go our way. For some of us, our dark repetitive thoughts may accompany us every day and lead to full blown depression. For others, they’re more like a damp, cloudy drizzle, arriving just after we’ve settled at the park with our picnic blanket and basket. Either way, these old songs have a way of taking over our minds and snuffing out awareness and appreciation of our daily activities.
As young adult I was terrified of public speaking. The first time I spoke in front of a group at work, which was only about six people, I nearly fainted! My boss suggested I join Toastmasters, a speakers group, to gain experience and confidence. Reluctantly I agreed. In the process of doing what I feared most, I began to see the stuck stories in my head: If I speak in front of a crowd I’ll freeze up and forget what to say; I’m too introverted, I’m not capable of public speaking; I don’t have anything worth sharing with a crowd. These songs were tied to fixed identity I held of myself as a shy and private person. But they were just a narrative and had nothing to do with me as a fluid, ever changing being. This became clearer and clearer the more I spoke in public. The fear didn’t dissipate completely but I learned to accommodate it; my old songs still appeared and I simply acknowledged them while getting on with my presentations. As they lost their power over me, I was able to tap into the creative energy that had been blocked by those old songs. My presentations improved and I began to do public talks on a regular basis.
What are some of your songs? Do you fall into self-blame and criticism when you don’t achieve an objective? Are you sensitive to how others perceive you, maybe a person whose approval you care about says or does something that leaves you feeling rejected? Are you afraid of being alone and left out? Often, we perceive people or events in accord with rigid ideas about ourselves and twist them into something they’re not. If this happens enough, we may even give up on a relationship or an important intention in our lives.
On my first week long meditation retreat, the teacher kept encouraging us to dig deeper into our koans. I was practicing in the Rinzai Zen tradition at the time and koans were a vital part of our practice. Halfway through the retreat I was feeling frustrated and stuck, telling myself that this particular koan was too difficult. That night during a dharma talk, my teacher spoke with deep conviction that all of us there needed to believe in our innate capacity to awaken, that we were capable of far more than we knew. His words cut to my heart; I knew they were true. Right at that moment I saw through the song I had created about my limits, that the koan was too hard. I recommitted to working with the koan and had a breakthrough. Similarly, I’ve seen many dharma students give up on a committed practice because they didn’t believe they had the capacity to awaken deeply. But sincere practice often brings a series of smaller awakenings that begin to accumulate over time and lead to major insights. Patience is needed, returning to this breath, this moment, over and over.
Here’s another example. Let’s say you’ve decide to start a daily meditation practice. You know how important it is, you’ve read all the studies and heard testimonials from teachers and students alike who say it is life changing. You get off to a good start and sit daily for a week, a month, or even longer. Then something comes up, internally or externally, and you start to miss a day here and there. Pretty soon you’re missing days or weeks. At some point you try to recommit, but the juice, the excitement and motivation are gone. Did your enthusiasm for meditation just wear off, or is there more going on in your mind that dampens your efforts? This is where taking a closer look at your old songs can illuminate your mind.
What are you really telling yourself about this effort? What’s your song? Look beneath the familiar excuses about lack of time or the vague promise that you’ll get back to it someday soon. If needed, let it be an open ended question until a clear answer appears. Practice patience. Look at your responses when you ask the question, where do you feel it in your body? Is it a contraction at your chest or a twinge of anxiety in your stomach? This practice will help you settle your discursive mind and access insight. Your sincere intention will support you. Once your song is visible and out of the dark, you can start to de-compose your song and resume your practice with a much greater chance of consistency.
We can de-compose our songs by seeing them clearly. It’s really pretty simple; the hard part is letting go of the spiral of reactive thoughts and emotions that accompany our narratives and lead us astray. If we train our minds to keep coming back to this moment, we can experience our stories as a felt sense, right now. The more we do this, the more will find open space where once there were tight, dark knots and a rigidly defined sense of self. We access energy and the power of insight that will begin to diminish our clinging, open us to new possibilities and ultimately lead us to liberation.