It’s Monday afternoon: late afternoon, really. I’m feeling restless and lonely. I have all these thoughts in my head and I’d dearly like to have a conversation about them, rather than writing into the ether, but I’m not sure where to begin.
The time of day is a problem. At this hour, in this long, recurring air pocket in my weird freelance life, other people with normal jobs are responsibly working. I’m … you know. Washing the dishes. Debating whether I should eat something else. Doing a mental inventory of the laundry (Do I have a clean dance belt? Yes. Is it one of the good ones? Too late to worry about that now…). Letting thoughts arise and simply go on their way.
I say “percolating” rather than “thinking” because so much of what I’m doing isn’t thinking, exactly. Thinking implies some kind of volitional exercise; it is a thing one opts to do.
I am, instead, doing other things, and “…thoughts,” as the song says, “arrive like butterflies.”
Only, well, not exactly. It is very much a sense of bubbling up rather than descending from above. Not that it matters—either way it’s all a metaphor, really.
Often, it’s uncomfortable. When you’re busy doing something else, and as such not policing your thoughts, it’s really quite startling what floats up from the murky depths. At the moment, for me, it’s a lot of self-hatred and memory and sudden flights of insight into the harshest segments of my own past which I hope to retain but sometimes don’t.
This is, now that I’m thinking about it, not unlike the difficulty a great many of us run into with zazen. You just sit, and while you’re just sitting, everything that’s In There Somewhere finds its way to your consciousness to feck about with your ability to, like, just sit.
- The trouble I run into is the whole sitting bit. If I can sit still for five minutes, it’s basically a minor miracle. I struggle to make it long enough to get to the point at which the Monkey Mind pipes up. I do fine with walking meditation and stuff like that, though.
Which, of course, is part of the point.
As it is, I suppose, part of the point in Just Washing Dishes. You find yourself accidentally meditating, as if Thich Nhat Hanh has teleported in and is standing at your shoulder, saying to you, “Breathing in, I am washing this dish.”
Oops, I guess?
Ironically, whilst ballet is an exceptionally fine way to enter a flow state as far as I’m concerned, it requires so much presence of mind that there’s not really much room for the percolation of stray thoughts.
I used to think that, for this reason, it constituted an ideal form of meditation, or at least that it did for me. Now, I’m not so sure. One of the strengths of zazen (and of its cousin, kinhin, and similar exercises) is precisely the fact that things bubble up from the depths in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.
I constantly run from uncomfortable thoughts without realizing that I’m doing it. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of the time, I don’t even realize it: if I did, I suppose my self-respect would plummet. I believe in trying to face things that scare me.
(Then, I suppose I also believe in choosing my battles, and I could perhaps regard this automatic deflection of uncomfortable thoughts as a kind of unconscious method of doing exactly that.)
So I stand at the sink washing dishes, because our dishwasher is an ancient beast that is both inordinately loud and almost entirely ineffective, which means that if you choose to use it (which, generally, I don’t) you must first wash the dishes anyway before allowing the dishwasher to think it’s doing its job.
I am uncomfortable, but I can’t just plow them back under before I’m aware of them. Nor can I, it seems, usually bring myself to attempt to find someone to talk to in the middle of the afternoon.
The curious thing is that this has, in many ways, been the best thing that could happen to me.
For many years I lived my life on high alert; constantly hypervigilant. Invading thoughts and emotions could and often did provoke a five-alarm response.
For many years I felt that I would, I don’t know, catch fire or something if I neither spoke to someone about the thoughts or did something in response to the internal klaxon.
Yet, so often, talking made no real difference. In fact, I suspect it often made things rather worse.
I wasn’t therapeutically processing thoughts and feelings and memories; I was simply externalizing them as a way of avoiding really wrestling with them. Sometimes, rather than deflecting the thoughts, it only made them shout louder and stick faster. I became caught in storms of fight-or-flight level arousal. Talking about the source of the arousal (or what felt like the source) often seemed only to crank up the perception of danger.
And yet, somehow, uncomfortable as it is, as I persist in attempting to wash the dishes (or just this dish, as is so often the case—when I’m in that place, it’s too much to focus on anything but the immediate thing), I learn that if I remain in place, eventually the alarm bells will subside.
I’m pretty sure this has had a remarkable effect on my overall anxiety level—if ‘anxiety’ is the right word. Who knows? It seems good enough. Anyway, I spend less time than I used to in states of profound vigilance; less time with the warheads armed, as it were.
I become alert, aroused, because something inside me perceives some invisible danger: but the danger passes, and nothing really terrible happens, and each time my brain learns that perhaps the danger in question isn’t real in the immediate sense. My unconscious mind ratchets the Security Alert Level down just a little bit.
This is a thing I’ve learned through necessity. I have left behind the phase of my life in which most of my friends were other college students with giant gaps in their schedules. I now mostly know people with jobs and responsibilities. I have been forced to simply live with very, very wildly uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Interestingly, I have thus far survived.
I don’t know if I’ll ever live without the klaxons. I am still as wary as a wolf.
If you’d asked me ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of the way things are now, so it seems reasonable to think that, say, ten years from now things will once again be quite different.
There’s another thing, too.
When I don’t divert the thoughts, sometimes they give rise to creative work. I’ve struggled, recently, with the sense that nothing I’m doing as an artist is in any way actually original or creative (then again, how many minds over the millenia have given us some variant on the maxim, “There’s nothing new under the sun?”)—but I think what I’m really struggling with is that trying to create from whole cloth doesn’t work very well for me.
Rather, I do better to let whatever’s in there filter up and appear on its own, and then to build and refine from there.
I have never been a composer of music: when I try to compose, my compositions turn trite, bathetic, even schmaltzy. I play them later and they make my skin crawl.
When I just sit and play, or when I record the stirrings of visiting muses, things work out quite differently. I won’t say that anything I’ve set down will ever be great, but some of it is in fact quite good.
The same happens when I attempt to compose dances without reference to an internal vision. There’s nothing as depressing as the little passage in a half-baked ballet in which you can tell that the choreographer was thinking, “Rats, how on earth am I going to get the prince over to the punch bowl? All right, tombe, pas de bourree, something, something, just need a few more steps…”
That’s how essentially all my choreography feels (to me, at any rate) when I try to wrestle it into being instead of allowing something to surface, then building on that.
And writing is and has always been, for me, an exercise in hearing and recording the voices and stories of people and worlds that speak from within; a kind of visitation rather than an actual act of creation. The formal, authorial work generally comes after: I’m more of an editor, really.
Perhaps, then, it should be no great surprise that the same basic process allows room for healing of a kind that is, while it’s happening, very uncomfortable, but remains nonetheless crucial.
So I suppose that’s something to think about.
There’s a great deal more, probably, that I could and should say about this, but at the moment I need to put clothes on and go to class.
More, then, at some point in the future.