When I watch highlights of the Tour de France and other grueling sports contests, my primary reaction is usually, "That looks painful. Thank God I don't have to do it." Although I have a penchant for cycling, I also have a bratty and distractible brain that seems to operate on the same set of principles as most 3-year-old children. No matter what else may be going on, my impetuous brain demands my attention and simply cranks up the volume if I try to pacify it with, "Not now, sweetheart; I'm having a nice bike ride." It's quite the alarmist, this bratty brain (BB for short); it seizes every opportunity to alert me when it thinks I am the least bit tired or hungry, or to chide me for not being as able-bodied as Lance Armstrong (or even Louis Armstrong). Grasping at the sometimes frayed and fragile notion of mind over matter, I'm always looking for ways to put BB in its place and to will myself onward when times get tough.
Recently I took up meditation. After a short period (two years, which --trust me-- is like barely being out of kindergarten in meditation time) in which I couldn't sit with my eyes closed for more than 5 minutes without entering that blissful state that some purists call "holy dozing" and the rest of us call "resting our eyes for just a minute," I finally moved past that barrier and discovered that meditation was great for rearranging the molecules in my brain that were out of sorts. Sitting and focusing my mind for 20 minutes every morning had a way of making every little thing seem less important and more tolerable than it did at other times of the day. It was sort of like BB had transformed from a demanding child to one of the nice neighborhood cats I encounter on a walk to the local shops -- content to simply meander alongside me, purring quietly, happy to get my attention momentarily and equally happy when I moved on to something else. But because city ordinances and common sense both frown upon closed eyes and lotus postures while riding a bike or doing other strenuous physical activity, I soon came to realize that a sitting meditation was not the answer for these situations.
I tried counting my breaths while riding. This is one of the simplest ways to focus the mind under any kind of trying circumstance. But BB was not so easily fooled. "You're just counting your breaths; I don't like it," it would observe matter-of-factly. "Aren't you tired? Isn't this boring?"
I switched to repeating mantras silently as I rode. No good, as every mantra somehow slowly morphed into BB's whiny voice saying, "Snickers bar!" or some such nonsense. On a particularly long and tedious bridge section of my morning commute to work, I tried focusing on words from a Deepak Chopra meditation, "Love, Knowingness, Bliss....Love, Knowingness, Bliss...Love, Knowingness, Bliss..." This worked well for a while, and I found I could extend the effect by combining all my tricks: count breaths to 10; repeat mantras from mid-bridge to the war memorial; recite Deepak's inspiring words from the war memorial to the train station, etc. Sort of like moving BB's attention from sock puppet to piggyback ride to picture book before the newness of any of them had time to wear off. I worried a little (with lots of help from B that my methods were tantamount to trading one set of incessant voices in my head for another, and that I was utterly failing to apply whatever progress I'd made in meditation to a perfectly fertile area of my life that could use a mindshift. But unable to identify a better strategy, I kept up my litany of positive counter-commentary. One morning, between the cemetery and the water treatment plant, and apropos of nothing at all, really, I thought I'd refurnish my mind with a review of my basic Spanish vocabulary. For each letter in the alphabet, could I think of one Spanish word? Turns out I could (although I had to resort to Dos Equis beer as my candidate for the pesky letter X). Discovering this new game was oddly satisfying, to me and even to BB.
In my sitting meditation practice, I had been devoting lots of time trying to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude. It wasn't hard, as long as BB stayed quiet about all the things that were wrong and didn't insist that I was wasting my time. I tried transferring the ABC game to this idea of gratitude, bringing to mind one thing I was grateful for for each letter from A to Z. In the early stages, my list admittedly had lots of items in it that a 3-year-old might have generated, but something important started to dawn on me: in spite of this annoying sense that my mind simply could not shut its trap for any significant length of time, the ideas that populated the place were starting to get better. My little bratty brain was growing up!
Since then I've developed a few more tricks to keep BB at bay. Singing aloud the Stephen Stills refrain, "Everybody I love youuuuuuu...... Everybody I doooooooooo!!" is a great one for those days when I'm feeling less than 100% connected to the rest of humanity. I just keep singing (with volume control judiciously applied, particularly in the cemetery section of my route) until it gets too hard to breathe; then I sing it to myself. An amazing transformation takes place: I start to feel that the words are true. Even BB likes it.
But no matter how many good strategies I can invent for taming my mind, I think Gratitude ABC will remain one of my favorites. And I never get stuck on the letter B.