Early every morning I take my dog, Oona for a long walk along the paths that outline the fairways of the golf course I live next to. We walk before the golfers hit the trails with their electric carts and colorful outfits. The birds of Central North Carolina are pleasantly lively so we are accompanied by a symphony of tweets, trills, whistles, screeches, and caws along the way. Much to Oona’s delight, we encounter scores of squirrels that she carefully stalks from a menacing crouch. They enjoy the encounter as much as she, remaining where they are, perhaps holding an acorn on which they casually nibble it as if to feign indifference and accept her challenge. Still, their eyes are fixed on Oona as their tails twitch seeming to transmit coded signals to their companions that this morning’s game is on. I relax the leash a bit so Oona doesn’t feel helpless or mocked and she lunges toward them as they skitter behind a nearby tree; not climbing it but merely hiding behind it. This is part of the game they play. The squirrel lures the dog to come after it as it ascends in a spiral that keeps the tree between them. Oona is on to this trick but the squirrels are experts at keeping just enough distance between them and their hunter to keep the dog’s attention. Then it’s on to the next.
For the past few days, these morning walks have been something of a challenge for me. Instead of enjoying the bluebirds, the early morning coolness, and the opportunities for musing about a whole raft of pleasantries I might normally ponder, I have been plagued by several profoundly annoying earworms, Earworms are typically songs or jingles from a TV or radio commercial that you just can’t get out of your head. They play themselves over and over in the most maddening fashion. Conventional wisdom suggests you introduce a new song into your thoughts or paradoxically sing the offending song out loud, as if doing so would appease that part of your brain that insists on pestering you. Perhaps the worst feature of these earworms is the song your brain chooses to play and replay. Mine seems to latch on to an especially annoying jingle and then plays it over and over again. I saw on the news the other day that the charity Kars for Kids was in some sort of trouble for exorbitant administrative fees. I think the greater crime is the annoying jingle they have unleashed. As the name “earworm” implies it seems to have a life of their own, replicating itself like a cell gone mad it repeats itself over and over until it has drained all of my attention for the length of our walk. I don’t even know if I have the words right or if it has mutated to something even more sinister than the original jingle. “One eight seven seven kars for kids. One eight seven seven kars for kids…” Today I was tormented by a floor covering commercial jingle. “Call One eight seven seven fifty floor, pick up the phone and we’ll be knocking at the door.”
These melodic demons have so possessed my thoughts, that on occasion, I have awakened in the middle of the night, only to discover they have been singing quietly in the background while I slept. And then as if noting my wakened state, they return to full volume, running on a loop until it seems, the jingle and I have mystically become one.
Losing one’s self in a repetitive phrase or physical activity is something of a time honored spiritual tradition. Mantras chants, rosaries, prayer beads, and even earworms help get “the self” (ego) out of the way, filling one’s mind/heart/thoughts with the intention of the repeated phrase. They all seem to be rooted in the same premise which is if you repeat anything over and over enough, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get rid of it, be it pious thoughts or a phone number for a floor covering store. Christians, since the earliest days of the Church, have looked for a way to honor St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing”. An anonymous Russian work entitled THE WAY OF THE PILGRIM tells the story of a sojourner who goes off on a spiritual quest to discover how he can pray without ceasing. In his encounter with a holy man, the pilgrim is taught what has become known as the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me.” The holy man tells him that it is a prayer with no beginning and no end and that he must pray it over and over, thousands of times each day until his tongue hurts. He must align the words with his breathing and ultimately the beats of his heart. In time, the holy man promises him, he will awaken and discover that the prayer has become one with him repeating itself with each beat of his heart. Indeed, the prayer has been praying itself. It has, so to speak, taken on a life of its own.
No doubt, the pilgrim’s task would have been dramatically streamlined if the holy man had set the Jesus Prayer to a catchy tune.
The interesting thing is, these repeated words or pesky jingles do seem to take on a life of their own, eventually establishing a heartbeat, as it were, and claiming independence from you, the host organism. I have experienced more than once a catchy jingle seeming to require absolutely nothing from me to keep it rolling over and over in my head. “It’s alive! It’s alive!” I want to shout. I suppose it would be better for me to claim I’d rather have the Jesus Prayer played on a loop in my head instead of Kars for Kids, but the truth is, I’d prefer a clear path to the blue sky- no mantras, no prayers and no earworms. But alas, the world is full of jingles, good ideas and bad ideas, doubts, and dreadful thoughts that buzz around us like mosquitos looking for a host; and when they alight they want your juice.
Then there is the matter of invasive thoughts which like earworms can too seem to have a life quite independent from our own. I have a couple of invasive thoughts that I generally don’t talk about because my wife says I sound crazy, but allow me to unburden. I don’t like heights. I especially don’t like heights where the barrier between me and a fall is less than chest-high. A balcony, a bridge, an overpass where the barrier is only waist high seems to invite an intrusive thought.
“What if you had a sudden impulse to leap over the edge?” it asks.
“Where did that come from?”, I wonder.
Involuntarily, I see the scene unfold in my head, where I casually leap over the wall and then think, “Good God, what did I do that for?” I don’t really think I’m in any danger, but to be on the safe side, I step back putting some distance, and preferably a person between me and the wall in order to feel at ease.
And, if you are wondering whether I have had a similar intrusive thought concerning giving that person next to me a little push?
Wait, you think I’m not being completely honest, right?
Then you might think twice about walking between me and the wall. I understand.
Where in the world do such thoughts come from?! Did I manufacture this thought or was it sent to me from somewhere in the cosmos?
There was a lady I knew many years ago who used to come to church with a pot on her head. She insisted that the pot protected her from invasive thoughts raining down on her from above. Nobody at church ever said anything to her about the pot on her head. I guess we all understood the logic behind her millinery tastes.
I also dislike gas stations and having to stand out where people are pumping gas. An uninvited thought lands like like a mosquito which I feel only after I have been bitten. Everybody is pumping highly flammable gasoline, flowing in gallons through big hoses and the thought occurs to me how incredibly dangerous this exercise is. What if someone pulled the hose out of their gas tank…maybe someone unstable… and just let it rip, like a firehose dousing the whole lot of us with gasoline and struck a match?
What a thought! You want to know if I have ever had an intrusive thought of hosing someone else down?
You think I’m lying again? I’m not.
I don’t dawdle while filling my gas tank. I’m in and out as quickly as possible. Now, unlike an earworm such intrusive thoughts readily disappear when I remove myself from the perceived potential danger. As soon as I’m on the other side of the bridge or back in my car and not covered in gasoline, I’m free from the pesky hypothetical. These are not much more than fleeting thoughts, but enough to generate a sense of mild anxiety that suggests I move away from low fences protecting high places and remain vigilant while filling my car with gasoline.
Where do these thoughts originate and how do they find a way into our consciousness? It is as if like pollens they are carried along on the psychic winds landing willy nilly in the minds of the vulnerable where they create their mischief. Or are they more aptly understood as residing in our minds and awakened by some sort of external trigger. In the various recovery communities, perhaps you have heard them speak of “the committee”. These are the influencers that sit like a committee around a big conference table in your head poised to weigh in on the actions we take. It is a powerful metaphor especially as you identify the various members of the committee, their relative importance and their modus operandi. Anyone who has ever sat on almost any sort of committee will understand that the various members take up different roles capable of rendering even the simplest of decisions nearly impossible.
Committee member: “You know gasoline is highly flammable and very dangerous to handle.”
Me: “Thank you. I’ll be careful.” I answer.
Committee Member 2: “You watch the news, Pal. There are a lot of deeply disturbed people out there and you hate to see them handling this volatile fuel unsupervised.”
Me: “Yeah. I hadn’t really thought about that.”
Committee Member 2 (now a little irritated): “Well, maybe you better think about it.”
With this, I do a quick survey of the individuals fueling their cars.
Committee Member 3: “Remember that video they showed on the news about the guy using his cell phone while filling his car with gas. Boom! He just exploded into flames.”
Me: “Hmm. I do remember that.” I answer tucking my cell phone into my back pocket and stepping back from the car.
And of course there’s another member of the committee whose job it seems is to ridicule the others.
Committee Member 4: “Oh for God’s sake! Don’t be silly. You are all being paranoid!”
Committee Member 5: “Hey, I’m just saying.”
Years ago, a psychologist friend shared a story about a client who was struggling with alternative ways to resolve a problem he had. The psychologist, in his most empathic voice, suggested the man was feeling ambivalent.
“Ambivalent!” the man bellowed. “I’m a goddam civil war!”
In William Styron’s touching book on depression, DARKNESS VISIBLE, he spoke of how insipid the term depression was to capture what he was going through. Instead, he preferred the term brainstorm to describe “the veritable howling tempest in the brain”.
Still someone else casually commented to me once that “my mind is a very bad neighborhood and I try not to go there.”
All apt descriptions, these capture the noise and conflicts our minds endure creating a sense that we are sometimes under siege either from without or within. It’s a busy place, the mind is with lots of traffic incoming and outgoing. Imposing some order seems as futile as posting a traffic cop in an intersection in Delhi. But if not order, maybe we can learn to develop a greater capacity for letting go of certain thoughts; even those that seem to have a life completely their own. And to more fully understand what it means to let go, perhaps we need to recognize the level of effort required by holding on to almost anything. So the theory goes- holding on consumes energy while letting go consumes none. And even knowing that when all is said and done, we are unable to hold on to nothing at all, letting go of even the simplest things sometimes seems impossible.
So, for now, I treat certain jingles with a great deal of caution. I walk at some distance from unprotected high places, and fill my gas tank quickly. And I try to respect the reality of my mind being a place of sometimes turbulent activity, a civil war, a bad neighborhood but with some very pleasant areas. Listen, overall it’s a bit of a circus. But there we are.
One eight seven seven Kars for Kidz….One eight seven seven kars for Kidz……