How much of what goes on in your head is actually useful?
How much of it is about the past which cannot be changed (though of course we can learn from it)?
How much of it is worrying about the future (as opposed to planning for it)?
How much of it is designed to help you avoid the present (which is actually the only point at which we live)?
For many of us what goes on in our heads is considered normal. We rarely examine it and we assume there’s not much we do about it.
At last night’s meeting of the St. John’s Waterloo Contemplative Prayer Group we extended last week’s reflection on listening to include noises in the head, usually known as thoughts.
The contemplative tradition in all major religions emphasises the discipline of getting used to observing our thoughts without judgement. As we practice meditation we gradually get to know the familiar pathways down which our unobserved mind loves to roam and thus we begin to have some choice about where it goes.
Here’s an example of something that happened to me yesterday morning.
The following sequence was triggered by a slight contact between my heel and the foot of another pedestrian walking behind me.
Phase 1. A slight feeling of annoyance erupts in me.
Phase 2. As the man overtakes me, I give voice to the feeling by saying with a hint of sarcasm, “excuse me!”
Phase 3. He turns and says, “You stepped straight in front of me!”
Phase 4. As he continues on his way I continue the exchange in my head, thus amplifying the original trigger feeling. “Do you thing I’ve got eyes in the back of my head?” “How could he have been so arrogant?!” and so on.
Phase 5. I realise that I am off on this fruitless internal dialogue which is keeping the original rather minor feeling going and thus continuing to amplify it.
Phase 6. I add to my affliction a feeling of guilt that I have succumbed in this way to a simple temptation to retaliate. I berate myself for not practicing present moment awareness. So far the process has occupied perhaps 15 or 20 seconds during which I have crossed a busy road.
Phase 7. I finally get into a non-judgemental listening to this racket in my head, just a straightforward acknowledgement of it all, and find that I have returned to a degree of centredness in the present.
That primitive part of our brains, the amygdala, provides hair trigger responses to most situations by asking, do I eat it, mate with it, fight it or run away from it? You can see how useful it must have been to our very earliest ancestors and it still has its usefulness. It proves troublesome however when we lose the capacity to monitor it or when it triggers other bits of our brain so that we rush or roam down well trodden pathways. Eventually I could become a cantankerous old man, always ready to take offence when someone intrudes upon my personal space.
The practice of meditation and contemplative prayer is in part, the discovery of fresh (neural) pathways leading to the great open vistas of love, joy and peace. As our practice deepens, those other distracting paths are less used. The pathway of love becomes clearer. The road less taken becomes a highway to the present moment in which we are free from all that unnecessary, unexamined mental chatter and distress. But let’s not talk about progress here: that’s another bit of alluring mental distraction. Always the secret is to come back to this present moment because this is the only place where Presence, what Jesus called the kingdom, is available.