This post is dedicated to my first born. Katherine is brilliant and creative – a budding actress with many talents including writing and photography (she took the photo for my banner above). She is the artist to my scientist. Her flare for the dramatic sometimes clashes with my love of peace and calm and she has absolutely no interest in Buddhism. Fortunately, we do share some similar tastes in music. Occasionally, when I am in a philosophical mood, I will point out themes from Buddhism hidden in the lyrics of various songs (cue eye rolling from Katherine). As a fun exercise, she suggested I write a blog post based the song “Car Radio” by Twenty-One Pilots. So, here goes.
I have these thoughts so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence
This is a song that practitioners of Vipassana meditation can really relate to. The musician is stuck driving a car with no radio and has no way to escape his own thoughts. The difference, of course, is that we meditators do this to ourselves on purpose.
Many people mistakenly believe that the goal of meditation is to get rid of thoughts. They’re quite surprised by how busy their mind is the first time they try to meditate and may think they’re incapable of meditation because they are not able to calm their thoughts for more than a few seconds. There are many types of meditation practice. Some use chanting mantras or other techniques to focus the mind. In Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, the practitioner places the attention on the breath. When a thought arises, the instruction is to simply notice it without getting caught up in it and then return the attention to the breath. Over the course of a meditation session, you will notice many different thoughts and emotions come and go. This is natural. Tara Brach says, “Our mind secretes thoughts like our body secretes enzymes.”
Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream
Reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
The artist’s thoughts are disturbing and he yearns for a way to escape them. We live in a culture of distractions – smart phones and iPads give us access to immediate streaming of any song, movie, or TV show, any time, anywhere. My Kindle lets me download almost any book I want in seconds. When we are forced to notice our mind, we are frequently alarmed by what we find. We have become uncomfortable with silence and will do just about anything to avoid being alone with ourselves.
I ponder of something terrifying
‘Cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it’s that we’re all battling fear
Oh dear, I don’t know if we know why we’re here
Please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound
It’s the job of the mind to think in the same way that it’s the job of the lungs to breathe. We have some control over both processes, but most of the time thinking and breathing happen all by themselves. Vipassana is the Pali word that means to see clearly. When we sit quietly and just pay attention to what arises, we begin to see how much of the drama of our lives is self-created. We begin to see the stories we create. Henepola Gunaratana says,
“Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation they have not.”
In the song, the artist comes to a different conclusion about the nature of thinking than what is traditionally taught by the Buddha.
There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win
And fear will lose
There’s faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think
In Vipassana meditation, we are not trying to do anything – we are only noticing what is already happening without identifying with it or rejecting it. When we clearly see the true nature of the mind, we begin to realize that we don’t have to believe our thoughts and that they do not define us. Rather than trying to control the process, we simply open to it. We see everything – what my teacher Anita Gribbin likes to call “the good, the bad, and the ugly”. Don’t push any of it away. Embrace all of it. Come to understand that we are, all of us, a great mixture of love, hate, confusion, compassion, anger, and joy. All of these things arise at one time or another, and then pass away of their own accord if we let them. In this way, we can stop running from ourselves. We can learn to accept and love ourselves – just as we are – no matter what our crazy mind comes up with next.
There’s a Monkey in my mind swinging on a trapeze, reaching back to the past or leaning into the future, never standing still.
Sometimes I want to kill that monkey, shoot it square between the eyes so I won’t have to think anymore or feel the pain of worry.
But today I thanked her and she jumped down straight into my lap, trapeze still swinging, as we sat still.