Once in a while I’m invited to an event where passed hors d'oeuvre, presented on lovely trays, float around the room at elbow height. These artfully displayed, chic and creatively engineered, minuscule bits of deliciousness, are perfect to grab off the tray and pop into one's mouth. Especially if one (me in early sobriety) is trying hard not to grab at glasses of champagne that are also floating around the room. These libations and culinary creations are
often carried by servers so stealthy and smooth I think they should be hired out to the pentagon for CIA assassination missions. These cool men and women, sleek, black-clad 007-ish servers, snake silently through these events offering up their dainty morsels. They approach, whispering in deference to the magnificence of these little-food works of art. “Can I interest you in a microscopic panko-crusted Dungeness crab cake? A stalk of fetal albino asparagus wrapped in a warm blanket of one organic prosciutto shred and hand-rolled pastry? A tiny plant-based cheeseburger in a brioche bun-let, covered in melted truffled fontina?“ These delicacies, sized for a Barbie doll, are all offered to us patiently, smoothly, relentlessly.
Well, maybe the food offerings at these events are not relentless, but in my mind, during attempted meditations, the thought offerings are.
I meditate every day. And when I sit (or more often lie down) to meditate I imagine myself like Buddha. Calm, untroubled, with an empty mind and nothing but sweet infinite quiet filling up the normally chaotic and jam-packed space that is my mind.
So I sit there and I settle in and I watch my breath. Eyes closed. Calm. Repeating the mantra that I use to start my meditations. Empty empty empty. Just empty out. All the thoughts, all the worries, all the hopes and dreams. The fears and regrets, real and imagined. Empty empty empty. So I attempt to empty it all out, knowing full well that I can put my thoughts aside for 20 minutes each day (I started with five minutes and worked my way up) and they will surely come back to me, full force and with interest, once my meditation is over.
But here is the kicker. Those thoughts, like those hors d'oeuvre, just keep coming, whether I want them to or not. Relentlessly. Imagine I was at a party and the waiters just kept coming over to me and shoving their postage stamp sized yak cheese lasagnas in my face. “Would you care to try…????” “No!” I could shout. “Get away from me with your weird freaky little food-stuffs. I don't want them. I’m not interested. So beat it Pal!” Or Pal-ess as the case may be. Having been a waitress myself I would never be that rude to wait staff but for argument’s sake let’s say that I was. So I would chastise the poor server and off they would go. Never to approach me again...I would hope.
Not so with my thoughts. As I sit there in a meditative state I try to empty my mind and visualize nothing. Just space. I just try to feel my body. Vibrating within that body is the power of existence. The power of now. This present moment. The thrill and wonder of being alive. Of just existing. It is in there. That place. I have touched it, if only for a second. I rest my body each day for hours in sleep. Doesn't my mind deserve 20 minutes a day of rest? It works pretty damn hard too.
But minds are busy creatures. Constantly creating thoughts, ideas, solutions to every problem, big or small. Minds are obsessed with fixing shit. Material, emotional, romantic, physical, familial, work-related, all of it. That is the mind's job after all. To be a thought generating fix-it machine. My empty mind state usually lasts about 3 seconds. And then it starts up. From every single direction. It starts back up, the thoughts, the thinking! The thought waiters glide up to me, charming and obsequious with their shiny, heavily laden trays. And on each tray glistens a gorgeous seductive thought. Just waiting for me to grab it. To gobble it up. To get hooked by it.
So I’m sitting there calmly, eyes closed, counting my breaths, emptying my mind when I sense a little distraction in there. Internally I open my eyes to see what's causing that ruckus? What is that skittering around in my mind, disturbing my peace? That’s when I see that I’m completely surrounded by the thought wait staff. On all sides. I’m doomed. That is the beginning of the end because anything, absolutely anything can be on those trays. My mind, never wanting to be quiet, will offer me anything and everything to ponder. And if I don’t take the bait, it will up the stakes.
“Can I interest you in….” they whisper. “What you will eat for dinner? Those 5 pounds you want to lose? Your past? I think there is a new Thai restaurant in town. You should try it. I wonder how your X is? Work work work work work. How about your future? Your vacation plans? The joy of skiing? What about work? Will you get fired? Get a massive promotion? Or will you get pancreatic cancer? How about your dog? She’s certainly getting old. She might die one day! Then what??? What will you do? Must buy dog food! And guess what? You’re gonna die one day too. And there is that sweater you left at the dry cleaner. God, it better still be there. You sort of suck for not picking it up weeks ago when they called you. What if you want to have a drink again? It's been ages. I'm sure it would be fine. And those new boots you ordered. Can't wait for those. I think I'm getting old. How does one make french onion soup at home? I can't believe he, she, they did that. Next time I see them I'll give them the old stink-eye! They'll be sorry. And that new show on Netflix is so funny. That was a good workout yesterday. Should you stop meditating now and let your friends know about that show? They’ll love it. And the parent teacher conference is tomorrow morning. Ugh. Weed IS legal now, after all. And how about that idiot who threw a snowball at you in 3rd grade that cut your lip? Don’t forget about Ukraine. And global warming. Very very problematic. Both of them. “And look what I have here” they entice me, “your children and your extended family. Can I offer you those to worry about? They're gluten free.”
As I said, relentless. It really is hard, for me anyway, to not let intrusive thoughts butt in all day every day. In fact I have a test I made up to see if I am making any progress. I sit still and close my eyes and try to count backwards from 100 to 0. At first I tried to do this counting exercise with the breaths. 100 inhale 99 exhale 98 inhale 97 exhale but for me and my mind that is virtually impossible. I barely make it to 85 before I lose count, getting totally distracted from the simple act of counting by some silly little trifle my mind finds more appetizing than the boring slog of counting backwards. This is a frustrating exercise and more than anything it helps me to see that like it or not my mind has something to say…about everything. It never stops yammer yapping.
I encourage everyone to try this exercise. If 100 is too daunting then try with 50 and count backwards from there. The majority of people who have tried this get irritated. And it is irritating. This inability to keep my mind trained on the task I have given it signals that, like it or not, I don’t have all that much power over my mind. That is a scary state of affairs and it’s how I ended up in addiction. By listening to the wrong part of my mind. My mind liked getting drunk and it wanted more. It didn't like feeling certain details of my existence (and the feelings around those details) so it told me to drink and drug them away, and I did. I certainly don’t want that part of my mind taking over again. But if I'm unable to still my mind long enough to do a simple counting exercise I need to get to work. So I’m doing the work. Meditating every day. And I’m making slow, slow progress. But even slow progress is progress. For instance, in noticing what my thought waiters are offering up I have noticed that the thoughts that hook me the most are the scary ones. The “wouldn't it be horrible if” thoughts.
But thanks to my daily meditation practice, I have a new awareness. I feel an expanding sliver of inner peace. I see what those smooth and sneaky waiters are up to. Offering me thought after thought after thought, some good, some bad, some neutral, all gussied up and presented on a silver platter. I am learning that I don’t need to grab at those thoughts during my 20 minute daily meditation. I am learning how to sit in the quiet, in my seat, and not get distracted. As thought after thought is offered up to me on sexy silver trays with the whispered “can I interest you in….?” I calmly repeat one of my other mantras. No thank you, no thank you, no thank you.