When the mind is not crowded
By imaginary things,
It is the best season of your life.
I just chopped twelve hundred needless words from this article, which is fitting, because the point of all that blathering was to warn against getting lost in abstractions.
I think too much. Virtually all of us do, it’s no secret. Anyone who even once experiments with meditation discovers in seconds how difficult it is just to sit and experience the physical only. We don’t think our thoughts so much as they outright assault us, so it’s no wonder we have a tendency to fall into resonance with our thoughts and lose sight of our physical experience.
You can take a ten-minute walk to the grocery store, and spend the whole walk with your attention completely hijacked by a line of thought that has nothing do to with walking or groceries. A foreign war, a past relationship, or an internal dialogue about fuel prices easily becomes more demanding of your attention than the boulevards, birdsongs and urban infrastructure that actually comprise the experience of a ten-minute walk.
This seems to be the default for modern humans, to let one’s attention settle on abstract things that consist only of thought: situations, worldviews, predictions, worries, beliefs, regrets, analyses, mental positions and opinions. These are the “imaginary things” in Kabir’s verse.
They are ghosts, all of them. A whole lot of eerie noise and moving air, but no substance, and rarely any consequence. To have your attention captured by one of these formless, imaginary constructs is an altogether different experience than to have your attention firmly captured by a voice or a face, for example. There is something so beautiful and truthful about the concrete — skies and walls and artwork and sunshine — that is utterly absent whenever you’re dealing with thought alone.
When you are able to experience the concrete without the interference of imaginary things, it creates an effortless, lackless pleasure. We are very much drawn to it, whether we realize it or not. The pleasures people seek — food, music, sex, movies, travel, drugs, sport — all of them are so appealing because they have the power to wrest our attention from our mental preoccupations and hook it onto an actual, concrete sensation. They all achieve the same thing. They crystallize our attention. And they can do it because they are real. Sensations are exacting and unambiguous — the opposite of the free-associating soup of unchecked thought.
Think of going to the movies. We pay to sit in a room where all the distractions are darkened out, people are asked not to speak, and bright, loud story is played out on the screen in front of us, with such physical intensity that our attention would have a difficult time wandering anywhere else.
And it works. Unless you dislike the movie and get lost in your internal dialogue about its derivative writing and vapid actors, it is effortless and gratifying. When’s the last time you were lost in your thoughts at a decent concert?
As I travel, I’m constantly planning and adjusting, wondering and worrying a little about how the next day or week or month is going to shape up. I think about my budget, possible employment scenarios, what I’m going to do with myself when I return home — anything that is unresolved, which is everything.
Sometimes those abstract considerations really begin to shoulder in on the enjoyment of my trip. I’ll be overlooking a spectacular valley or standing on a magnificent beach, physically right there where I’ve been aching to be for months, yet I’m being pulled from it by a nagging thought about money, or keeping adequate touch with people at home, or maintaining my blog.
All of those considerations are peripheral and could only possibly be useful if I act on them right there. If I stop in the middle of my walk to the store to physically whip out my notepad to plan or decide something, then the thoughts have actually served me, but otherwise, they only steal. They buzz around like bees and wedge themselves between you and direct contact with the moment as it really is.
The simplest remedy I’ve ever heard for that familiar conundrum is to remember to chop wood, carry water. In other words, when in doubt, put your attention on the physical. Where should your hands be? What should your body do about this? How should you spend your energy here, physically? Put it in motion.
A physical response gets the world turning again and brings you out of the realm of thought. Trying to fend of thoughts by thinking about them is something like trying to shoo flies away with other flies.
An example: my only pair of shoes, through either defect or mistreatment, or some combination, have become unusable. The heels have worn out and exposed an abrasive bit of plastic that cuts into my skin. A five day walk in them would be murder, so today I went out to find some wearable outdoor shoes that won’t cost an arm and a leg.
I’d poked around in stores before, and found that footwear can be incredibly expensive in New Zealand. Shoes that might be 150 dollars in Canada might be 300 or 500 dollars here. During the entire walk to the shoe store I was thinking about the economic reasons behind how they could possibly be so expensive. I know it’s an island nation, but I reasoned that a shipping container could hold thousands of pairs of shoes, so the cost of it would presumably be distributed thousands of ways. The cost of shipping couldn’t add hundreds of dollars to each pair, so how could the cost of getting them here double the end-consumer price over Canada’s price? I figured there is some middle man out there making himself rich at my expense, which triggered minor worries about other unexpected expenses and so on.
Of course I know nothing about shipping or economics or even shoes for that matter, but my brain sure thought it was worth spending some serious time and energy analysing it. So it obliged, only because I forgot to tell it not to bother.
When I arrived at the outdoors store, I was already vaguely angry at it, for conspiring with the secret shipping middlemen in order to shrink the amount of money I have for traveling. Thoughts of traveling led to thoughts of the life I left at home, which happened to contain an image of my refrigerator, which happened to sport a note I wrote to myself months ago: Chop wood, carry water.
So I did. I dropped the whole swirling mass of imaginary things and walked in. I picked the shoes up, felt them. Tried on a few pair. Looked at the prices, regarded the figures unemotionally. Walked around the aisles a bit, asked what my feet said. They said “Buy these ones.” I did, and they were 50% off. One hundred dollars.
I had built a whole teetering mess of thought on top of my afternoon, and in that one moment of clarity I blew it away like a dandelion puff. I lost nothing for it. It was all imaginary. If I’d continued the internal rant about shoes being so hideously expensive, I probably never would have even considered the inexpensive pair.
Those teetering messes grow so easily, in my life anyway. Luckily they come with a red flag: the telltale sign of unease. If you notice enjoyment has given way to an ambiguous unease, chances are a network of imaginary things has drifted in. They are very needy, always demanding your attention.
Concentrate on the body’s role in the moment and bring your attention back to it whenever you notice it is playing with imaginary things. It really is nothing more than meditation in action, but without the formality of a proper sitting session.
It won’t solve your problems for you, but it may remind you not to bother with problems unless you are actually sitting down to bother with a solution.
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
and stand firm in that which you are.
From December 23 to December 28, I will be hiking the Abel Tasman Coast Track here in New Zealand, which means I will not be online at all during that time. I can’t respond to your comments or emails until I return but I hope that won’t stop you from leaving them. Enjoy the holidays.
Photo by Anemone Nemorosa