The digital art display that hangs on my dining room wall is more than just a decoration. I’ve found that when I take a few minutes to browse through the online library and change the picture every day, it gives me insight into what’s going on in my subconscious mind, guiding me toward whatever I might need at the moment.
The image I chose for Sunday was a quiet pond with bare trees. I don’t know where it is; the caption simply said “Pond.” The idea that it could be anywhere in the world fits the mood quite well, though—silent and reflective as winter holds on, not yet ready to give way to springtime.
Soon enough, there will be busy days again, exciting new adventures and explorations. But for now, all that I needed was a peaceful, meditative day of rest—and the picture on the wall gave me that message as clearly as if it had spoken.
When I was little, I enjoyed the Curious George storybooks about a pet monkey getting into mischief. My dad saw how much I liked them, and he started telling me bedtime stories about a mysterious creature named Goosey Poosey who secretly lived in our basement and got into things when we weren’t looking. Although I investigated the basement pretty thoroughly and never found anything, my dad assured me that Goosey Poosey was very good at hiding.
I recently thought about those stories in relation to the “monkey mind” that gets in the way of meditation. The monkey mind is the part of the mind that just can’t sit still and be quiet but is always full of distracting chatter, like a monkey making noise. However much we try to keep the focus on peaceful feelings, there’s a mischievous little part of the mind that keeps peeking out and wanting attention.
(Creative Commons image via flickr)
Usually people think of the monkey mind as an annoying obstacle that needs to be pushed aside through willpower. I wonder, though, if perhaps there’s a worthwhile message from the subconscious in there somewhere. Maybe our inner monkey pops up to let us know that we’re being too serious and not giving ourselves enough freedom to let our thoughts wander along creative paths.
Quieting the mind through meditation helps to set aside worries; but humans, by our nature, are a creative, storytelling species. Our brains were never designed to be in full control of every thought, but instead to make random connections and intuitive leaps, often through play. When we impose too much structure and discipline on our everyday lives, we’re likely to turn to meditation as a way to relieve the stress—but maybe, sometimes, what we need more is just to let Monkey Mind out to play.
I wrote this post in draft with my favorite pen, on the first sheet of a new notepad on a cool, damp morning. That seemed appropriate after a week when I hadn’t felt at all like writing, or indeed doing much of anything on the computer.
Instead of trying to force the muse to get busy when she was nowhere to be found, I decided to reflect quietly on what benefits, if any, there might be in days without writing. At first the very idea that there might be something positive going on seemed a bit of a stretch; it was hard to wrap my mind around it. After all, in our culture, anyone who is audacious enough to claim the identity of “writer” is expected to scribble away daily and produce enough material to be worthy. Bursts of inspiration should appear regularly; and if not, we must go forth on a brave quest to slay the evil dragon of writer’s block.
The underlying fear seems to be that if a day goes by without feeling motivated to do any writing, many more will follow, and soon the dragon will be found gleefully gnawing on the poor failed writer’s bones. That’s a silly fear, of course—for those of us who process our experiences mainly through written words, putting down our words on paper (or the computer) is as natural as breathing. Sometimes we may get so busy with other things that we lack sufficient processing capacity, but it always gets freed up after a while.
Coming back around to my original question, then, a day without writing would be a day when the subconscious mind requires more mental CPU space to process other things; and the benefits, in general, would consist of a better understanding of whatever else is being processed. So, after meditating on it for a while, I concluded that “writer’s block” is not really an evil dragon to be feared—it’s a perfectly normal response to the human need to make sense of our experiences, in one way or another.
The world felt soft and quiet when I looked outside this morning. We had snow last night—flurries were forecast, but it was enough to cover the ground. Formless gray clouds still hugged the horizon tightly, blurring into the gray tops of leafless trees. The air had gone completely still, without even the slightest wind stirring the neighbors’ flag. All down the row of houses there was only silence. Like a child yet to wake, a young Earth pulled her comforting blankie closer around herself and settled more deeply into her slumber.
Sometime yesterday afternoon, I had changed the image on my digital art display to a church window. I don’t know where it came from—the person who uploaded the photo simply titled it “Quiet.” The foreground is a wide expanse of dark textured floor; it leads back to a nook under a tall window, where a narrow desk sits empty, the chair pushed into a corner. Sunlight slants through the window to the right of the picture, barely illuminating the first few steps of a black staircase. An electric lamp on the desk is turned on, as if inviting a passer-by to sit and read a devotional text. There is another light that hangs from the ceiling, but it looks tiny and insignificant next to the window.
When I sat down to write this post, I could hear birds chirping; they know spring is not far away, even though today’s monochrome landscape gave few hints of it. The weather app on my phone said “cloudy,” which was accurate enough. I would have liked to see “cloudy with brightening skies,” but I doubt I ever will, as that phrase would be too long for a busy person’s quick glance. Occasionally when the forecast calls for a dark day with a thick, heavy cloud cover, it uses the word “dreary.” I wish it wouldn’t, as that comes across to me as more of a value judgment than a weather term. Sometimes we need life’s dark spaces with their peaceful stillness, reminding us to pause and reflect, to fully appreciate the present moment of grace.
I don’t ordinarily attach long subtitles to my blog posts; but if I did, this one would be subtitled “How to Manage Your Brain like a Kindle.” I’ve often thought that what we encounter in our everyday lives goes a long way toward shaping the world as we perceive it. Though we may not think much about what’s in and around our homes and workplaces, often the small details have more subconscious impact than we might expect. Clearing away physical clutter can leave us feeling that life in general has fewer obstacles and is easier to navigate.
The same principle holds true for the clutter in our minds. We’d rather not have useless old worries and bad memories taking up space in our brains, but somehow we end up mentally tripping over them anyway. In meditation, we might picture ourselves calmly breathing out the stale negative energy, disposing of mental garbage in an imaginary bin, or something similar. Those are tried and true methods handed down for many generations. In the modern world we also have plenty of computer metaphors available—an imaginary Delete key, a data dump, and so forth. It’s often said that the computer age is changing how our brains work, and I am curious as to how computer-inspired meditations compare to the old-fashioned variety.
My latest exploration along those lines is to picture my brain as a Kindle. Rather than having all the books in view like an actual bookshelf, a Kindle (or other ebook reader) generally contains only the items that are currently being read, while everything else in the owner’s library is stored in the cloud. That way, the Kindle’s home screen does not get cluttered. After reading a book or other item, it’s quick and easy to take it off the Kindle by selecting “remove from device.”
Recently I’ve been making an effort to do the same with unwanted thoughts—when I notice them popping up, I do an imaginary “remove from device” and send them back to the “cloud” of whatever does not need my attention in the moment. This approach seems well suited to dealing with past drama such as rehashing old arguments. I remind myself that I’ve been finished with this story for a long time, and then I reinforce that message by picturing its removal. Maybe I’ll find a worthwhile lesson in it someday, but for now it can just go back to the cloud with everything else that’s not currently useful.
Meditating on emptiness can be unsettling. Because our busy modern-day culture associates emptiness with lack, loss, and not getting things done, the idea of voluntarily inviting emptiness to pay a visit—even if it’s only for a few minutes of meditation—can get scary. Sometimes it feels like walking out into the desert alone, with nothing but sand dunes and clear sky in every direction, and having no landmarks to find the way back.
(Creative Commons image via flickr)
All those busy thoughts flitting about in our minds have become so much a part of our identity, how can we possibly just set them aside and then reassemble ourselves later? Won’t all those balls we’ve so carefully kept in the air come crashing down? Meditating on an imaginary scene, such as a quiet bike ride or a walk in the woods, seems easier. That gives the mind a peaceful focus, but the background mental chatter still goes along for the ride, if more quietly than usual.
Although contemplating emptiness can be scary at times, I suspect that’s when it is most needed. Today’s world is so full of noise and random stuff everywhere, we might believe that is the normal way of things if we don’t pause to reflect. Emptying the mind of clamoring thoughts and worries doesn’t really mean nothing is left; rather, it makes space for awareness of life’s smaller details—such as what breathing feels like.
Even in the desert, it’s not really empty. A hiker would notice such things as gentle breezes, insect sounds, a hawk soaring far aloft, sand shifting with every step, a snake sunning itself on a rock, and a cactus at the edge of a dry gully. The world is full of spaces that only seem empty until we take the time to look more closely at them.
If peace could be held in the palm of one’s hand, what would it feel like? I sometimes meditate on this question, imagining that I am holding peace in my left hand (because it’s nearest to the heart). This is a stream-of-consciousness exercise focusing on the sensations, images, and words that come to mind, however randomly.
It might go something like this: Peace feels soft. Although peace fills the hand, there’s almost no weight to it. Like a handful of fluffy little cotton balls—or maybe cotton candy. Pink cotton candy, like soft pink clouds at sunrise. Or blue like the sky.
(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)
But peace is not sticky like cotton candy. It shapes itself to the hand and stays in place naturally, so there’s no need to keep a tight grasp. Peace won’t run away either. Like a friendly puppy, it wants to cuddle up and stay close—best not to squeeze too tightly!
Peace glows with a happy light, giving a pleasant warmth that travels all through the body and radiates out to the Universe. Peace is for sharing—it doesn’t need to be hoarded because there’s always more where it came from! Sometimes it dances too, just for the joy of existing—like the Snoopy Dance, maybe, with that cheerful piano music playing.
Even after ending the meditation and letting the images fade, peace is still there invisibly, as though it evaporated into the surrounding air while leaving a fresh, natural scent—like a summer afternoon when a gentle, cleansing rain is about to fall.
Do you have particular meditations that you do regularly? I’ve decided to share one of mine after reading the Meditation Mondays series on the blog belovelive, which is always full of lovely photos and inspiring ideas. Its author, Liz, says that “regardless of who we are, finding ways to get in touch with our souls, in whatever way works for us individually, is something that can make life much more rich and bring us a deep sense of peace.”
Sometimes when old negative emotions from long-ago events surface, I work through them by doing a meditation that I call “Recycling.” First, I imagine myself walking along a peaceful forest or prairie path, surrounded by nature. The scene changes each time I finish working through one topic and begin another. Recently I’ve been picturing my starting point as the path shown in the photo below, which I used to illustrate one of my blog posts last month.
(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)
The path leads to a riverbank that would be a lovely place if it hadn’t been littered with plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other trash that needs to be picked up and recycled. Each bottle or other item of trash has stagnant water inside it, so I have to pour that out before taking it away for disposal. The stagnant water looks icky, and sometimes a cold rain starts falling; but I know that I am making at least a little progress toward getting things cleaned up.
While disposing of a piece of imaginary trash, I consider an aspect of the troubling situation. Let’s say that someone involved made an unkind remark. Setting aside my previous judgment that the person was nasty and hateful, I think about other possibilities. Maybe the person felt angry and defensive after having been a target of someone else’s bullying and, as a result, misinterpreted my words. Or maybe I was the one who misunderstood something in the conversation. If the remark was indeed meant to be unkind, the person might recently have lost a job or had a death in the family.
Just reflecting on the fact that there might be other explanations can go a long way toward taking the sting out of the memory; and it also helps to make clear, through this very simple imagery, the burden that results from carrying around old grudges.