So I’m listening to the car radio and “Don’t Bring Me Down” by the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) comes on and I crank it up, singing along with the chorus, “Don’t bring me down, Bruce!”
Except that I’m thinking, I know I heard somewhere that he’s not actually saying “Bruce”.
So when I get home, I Google the song, and yep he’s actually saying “Grroosss". But in doing this I come across a line in Wikipedia,
A common mondegreen in the song is the perception that, following the title line, Lynne shouts ‘Bruce!’
What’s a mondegreen? I must find out, so of course I click on it and I’m off on a chase across the internet for the definition, examples, and the history.
My personal favorite,
And that of course leads to other searches and word plays and thoughts, until a simple song on the radio has cost me almost an hour of “internet research”.
Our meditative practice can be the same experience. We are sitting in meditation and we think of task we need to do, “send an e-mail to Joe”. That leads to the thought train,
“shoot, I left the laptop on my partner’s desk and since I'm not home, she’ll have to move it which frustrates her, because it means I don’t respect her space and then she might be cranky when I get home, but where can I work right now? we really need more space, but to have that I need a better job, aghh, I’ve got to do more job searching, why am I not looking more often, I waste so much time, I’m such a looser….etc. etc.,etc."
All of those thoughts occurring in a few nanoseconds. One simple thought of a task, proliferated into anger, resentment, fear, and frustration. It’s like a train where once the first car gets through the railroad crossing, there is a whoosh and then the other 40 or 50 train cars just come racing down the track behind that first thought.
One of our goals of meditation is to first notice the racing train cars. Be aware of that train of thought. Notice when we wake up and see that the train has raced off into the distance.
A second goal is to try and put some space between the thoughts. To start to decouple the train, to shorten the number of cars. When a thought or task arises in meditation, we can acknowledge that thought and then let it go on down the track by itself. We actively remove all the other baggage cars racing behind it.
Then a task or a thought is just that, without all of the feelings and story that arises if we allow the train to get longer and longer.
Practically, what can we do? There are two techniques I’ve tried, one more passive and one more active.
The passive approach is to visualize the thought or task as a bubble or small box. When it arises, you acknowledge it and then visually set it to the side. At first this may take a very active conscious will power to not expand on the task. But with practice the visual clue of setting it to the side (or allowing it to float by) doesn’t ignore it, but also stops the train of thoughts.
A more active approach can be useful when the thought train is really trying to pick up speed. Especially when there is a deep emotional connection or feeling to the thought. I find quickly opening my eyes and focusing them on an external object even just for a moment can break the train of thoughts that is about to race away. Combining this with a deep inhalation and exhalation can act as a very strong physical signal to prevent the mind from taking control and to bring me back into the body.
Over time with practice, the need for the active approach may diminish into just a shift in breath or a subtle shift of the body. But when that train is picking up speed or already hurling along the tracks at rocket speed, we may need an active mechanism to bring us back into the present.
Back into stillness, back into our breath.