Invisible Signposts in the Mind

One of my granddaughters momentarily gagged on a sticky piece of Mozzarella on her pizza when she was eight years old and even now as a young adult does not eat cheese of any kind. I have also heard people say, “When I was in the second grade the music teacher said I should just mouth the words of the songs we sang because I could not carry a tune and even now I do not join a sing-along.”  I recently overheard a luncheon table-mate at a conference I attended explaining her passing up all the vegetables: “When I was a child, my mother forced me to eat vegetables.” The person who had noticed replied, “That was a long time ago.” The fact that emotionally charged situations leave powerful signs in the mind, “Never eat cheese!”, “Do not sing out loud!”, “Defend your right to refuse vegetables!” whether or not the situations were actually life threatening (like chocking) or now relevant (like singing in key) seem beside the point. They endure in our instinctive memory as protections against feeling threatened. Our nervous systems, for complex reasons that certainly include genetics as well as life experiences, mark certain situations as dangerous and we respond as automatically as the foot goes onto the brake when the light turns red up ahead.

I’ve also recognized other patterns in my mind that the Buddha would have named as the affliction of Nervous Worrying and Fretting. I imagine signs in my mind that say,“When in doubt, worry. This might be a catastrophe.” I am glad to have the opportunity to teach about my experience because it reassures people that whatever afflictive habit they struggle with—lusting, raging, doubting, or surrendering too easily to despair—is workable. Recognizing an afflictive mind habit as just a habit—an annoying and painful one, certainly—but fundamentally just a habit is what makes it workable. I tell people that I am a Recovering Fretter. I am still easily startled: “Why doesn’t she call me back?”, “Why is he so late?”, “What if [anything] happens?” Alarmed responses still arise in my mind in situations of ambiguity. What is different now is that I recognize the signs of alarm. I can say, “There goes my fretting response again, just ready to take over my mind. I do not have to do that. I can wait and see what happens next.” The more I practice that, the better I get at it.

It often happens when I teach about afflictive habits of the mind that someone suggests, “Of course you have fretful genes. You have Jewish genes, inherited from generations of people whose lives were imperiled because of their identity.” I don’t know. My parents were not nervous people. And, when I poll any large group of people I’m teaching about their most afflictive mind habit, about half raise their hands and they aren’t Jews. It’s mysterious.

In situations of terrible trauma, like battlefields, some people come away with long-enduring signs in their minds, “Fall to the ground when you hear a loud noise!” That life-saving injunction in battle becomes a painful life-limiting reminder in peace circumstances that often requires trauma psychotherapy and loving communal support as well as compassionate mindful awareness. The awareness, “This is a habit and so it can change,” is a crucial step in recovery.

Sometimes the source of a sign in the mind is obvious. Knowing it is there is important. Compassionate mindful awareness begins the de-activation of limiting signs in the mind, regardless of their origin. Erasing signs entirely might not be possible. I am hoping to accustom my mind to noticing when a painful response is about to fill my mind so that I can say to myself, “Relax! No need to feel frightened [greedy, angry, exhausted, or insecure]. You can choose otherwise. Take a breath. Now is now.”

Tidying as a Spiritual Practice

When I learned that “Tidying” is currently the subject of several best-selling books I remembered with pleasure that in the book The Vision of Dhamma by Nyanaponika Thera, one of the definitions that the Venerable Mahathera offers for Mindfulness is that it functions as a tidier of the mind. At the time, I thought of the word “tidy” as being quaint and probably reminiscent of the meticulous housekeeping of his German Jewish mother. I recall teaching about it and extending that furniture metaphor to saying that if I tidied my mind I would know what was in it and where it all was so I would not trip on anything and cause pain.

What I am thinking about now is that tidying, more than knowing what and where everything is, includes knowing what I no longer need to hold on to and what I am better off not having. And, it includes taking steps to disencumber.

De-cluttering closets and minds are both spiritual practices, interrelated of course, but one visible and one invisible.

My daughter Elizabeth, when I discussed my idea with her, said I should use the rubric WWTBGA, What Would The Buddha Give Away. Traditionally, Buddhist monks and nuns have only the bare necessities of clothing which they keep with them and rely on others for supplying food and medicine and other basic care items. I know that what Elizabeth means is using discriminating awareness to discern wise life choices. My friend MaryKay Sweeney who runs the homeless services of the county we live in once gave me a magnet reminder for my refrigerator door: “The sweater in your closet that you have not worn in a year is not yours. It belongs to a homeless person waiting for you to return it to them.” I think about how many pairs of socks I actually need given that I do laundry once a week. How many anything do I actually need? Do I need to keep the sweatshirt with the cute logo on it just because my adolescent child gave it to me as a Valentine gift 30 years ago? Do I really need the contents of numerous plastic bags of half-knitted sweaters that I might someday finish or aren’t they better off as a gift, with extra yarn and needles, to the senior residence nearby that has a knitting group? And the tiny plastic bag of mini-cassettes with scratchy barely audible conversations I had with my 98 year old grandfather 35 years ago? I do not have a player for them. I hear his voice in my mind. Who else, other than me, needs or wants to hear them? I once had a reel-to-reel tape of a conversation that my mother and my husband’s aunt Celia had 59 years ago when my son, Michael, was born and every time I go through certain old boxes I have the hope I’ll find it again. I surely won’t. It positively does not matter. I remember what they said and I hear them in my mind and I am always happy when I think of them. I do not need the tape.

The Buddha’s central teaching is that imperative in the mind, the sense of needing something to be different from how it is, is suffering.

(Check my blog in three days. There is a lot more to say about un-cluttering. Next we’ll move from the closet to the mind where finding clutter and addressing it becomes more complex.)