Remember that annoying tune you couldn’t get out of your head? It might have been some inane advertising jingle, or a pop hit from the 80s you thought you’d outgrown long ago. Even if the tune was a little loftier, there are only so many times we want to hear the ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th before we get tired of it!
Sometimes our thoughts can be just like those tunes – they get caught on some repetitive loop which can range from being slightly irritating to becoming so obsessive they seriously interfere with our lives. These thought loops are different from reflecting intelligently on some important issue. They are more like muzak – annoying and distracting, without adding much value to our lives. When we meditate regularly, and especially during meditation retreats, we become aware that many of our thoughts fall into particular patterns – what the American meditation teacher Jack Kornfield calls the Top Ten Tunes. Just as with music, we all have our individual Top Ten Tunes, but becoming more familiar with our patterns, and the often insidious way they prevent us from being present in the moment here and now, can help us loosen the tight grip they may have on our minds.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and I was on my way to the Buddhist summer school held at Melbourne Uni. As I drove along Royal Parade past Princess Park, the clear early morning sunlight was streaming through the majestic elm trees lining the road. Some dogs were playing in the park, birds were singing, the air was fresh with a light summer breeze. I, however, was taking very little notice of all this. It was a lovely morning, to be sure, but I was anxious about getting a car park. Would I get a car park, my mind wondered? Would it be easy to find a parking spot? True, there was a small sensible voice which was trying to remind me,
‘It’s Sunday morning, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding a place to park, why don’t you enjoy this gorgeous morning while you can and worry about the parking when you get there’, but my anxious planning mind wasn’t having a bar of it – it was far too busy being anxious. Then when I arrived, there was an empty parking spot just outside the venue. In fact, I probably couldn’t have found a better park if they’d reserved the No 1 VIP spot for me. I saw it as a sign from the universe, to try to live more in the moment! The fact this had been happening on the way to a Buddhist summer school only added to the irony of it all.
Unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the anxious planning mind; it is probably my top tune out of the ten. Some days, I can get up from my meditation cushion having spent most of the time planning the next week to the nth degree, instead of paying attention to watching the breath or whatever the object of the meditation was supposed to have been. I’ve also become more familiar, through meditation, with the underlying anxiety beneath the relentless planning – the delusion that, if I plan enough, I might have more control over my life. A certain amount of planning helps us to be organised, of course, but, like any of the Top Ten Tunes, there is a big difference to the quality of our lives between constructive thought processes, and persistently repeated thought loops.
Weekly practice idea:
Whenever you find yourself caught up in a thought pattern, try to give it a name – for example planning mind, daydreaming mind, plotting mind, anxious mind, ‘if only’ mind. Naming the thought patterns, and seeing them for what they are, can take away much of their power over us.