As a teenager I was a good girl and a dedicated student and yet sometimes my behavior puzzled my father. He loved to listen to classical music and wanted me to sit quietly and enjoy it with him. But I found it frustrating and intensely difficult to listen to music without words, without knowing what the intended meaning and story was behind the sounds.
Learning to be interested and even curious about what is here in my awareness right seems to be my life-long practice. My worried mind thinks that if it knows the who/what/why/when of the future and the past, then I’ll be relaxed and content. It’s so busy inventing new stories or retelling the old ones that I feel even more anxious because I miss what’s going on right now. I find myself living in the past and future in every part of my life: with people I care about, eating a meal, walking the dog, at my job.
I work in a hospital and have the challenge and privilege of facilitating a support group for teenagers with debilitating health problems. Recently, we did a mindfulness of sound meditation. We used the sounds around us as the focus of our meditation, trying to hear sound for what it is: pitch, tone, volume, rhythm, texture and duration. I encouraged them to let go of labeling the sound (cough, car, heater, etc.) and drop the judgements (good, bad, neutral). So they tried to hear sound for what it is – just a sound – without the judgments, labels & stories automatically attach to it.
Once our sound meditation ended, the group began sharing what they had noticed. One person spoke about bracing her body at the sound of the clock. “Ticking clocks are really annoying,” she told us. Another person spoke of his irritation at the talking outside the room, hadn’t they seen the “Meditation in progress” sign?
Everyone talked about how hard it was not to name and label every sound. Yet when I asked them how this experience might be relevant in their everyday life, these teenagers began to make remarkable connections for themselves.
One young woman said she frequently avoided taking her medication and having blood tests because it reminded her of “being ill”, of being a “patient”. She never just took the medication without running the “sick” story in her head. Another young man said that he avoided talking to new people about his condition because he had made up the story that “it would be embarrassing for everyone”, even though no one he had told had ever been anything but interested and kind. Now having done this sound meditation, both added that they found themselves wondering what it might be like to drop their well-rehearsed “story line” and be present with how their life is right now without judging it, the same way they had with the sounds.
As I enter my fifth decade, I can’t help but wonder how my life might have been if I had been able to drop the critical stories of not being good enough, clever enough and thin enough. All those stories kept me anxious, restless and unable to tolerate my own body. The stories kept me reaching for more food to comfort my heart and calm down my distress which in turn led to me feeling worse about myself, which triggered me eating more and then hating myself even more. It was an endless cycle of misery.
Now I keep coming back, again and again, to my intention to drop those old story lines and enjoy the present moment. Can I always do it perfectly? No, but I do it the best I can and I see the difference it is making in my life. And that’s enough.
Is the story line something that gets in the way of you living the life you might want? Is it possible for you to the let go of the labels and enjoy the moment?
Jackie Doyle, UK