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Watching experience as if it were a film

The other day I was jogging / hiking and listening to an audiobook.  Or maybe it was a podcast.  I don’t remember, and that is telling.  It was just noise in my ears, not quite reaching my brain.  Occasionally some sentence would register meaning, but mostly it was like an annoying fly buzzing.  A nuisance.  I switched books, or podcasts; I don’t remember.  Same feeling.  I probably switched several times before reluctantly disconnecting the wireless earbuds from my phone and putting them away in my home-sewn waist pack.

“Looks like it’s just you and me, brain,” I thought.

A more accurate statement would have been, “looks like it’s just you and me, body, heart, and brain.”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve had this occur.  It’s the feeling when you realize that you’ve been eating food for emotional comfort at the expense of later indigestion for the past 10 minutes.  It’s like when 4 cups of coffee no longer gives a buzz and instead just rises you out of caffeine withdrawal to a temporary baseline of normality.  It’s like when you look at the people around you and realize you hate the conversation and are only there to not be alone.  It’s the time to pay the piper, to settle the addiction debt, to face whatever it is that we’ve been avoiding with our addiction’s flagging power.  It’s the point at which the gravity of our existential and experiential pain surpasses the propulsion of lift off from our escape methods.

I know the next step by now.  I know what I need to do.  It’s like turning the shower knob to 100% cold and waiting those few seconds for the shock to follow.  It’s like that moment when the dentist says, “this is going to pinch a little.”  It’s like hearing that alarm clock 2 hours before your body has finished it’s final sleep cycle, knowing that going back to sleep isn’t really an option because there is something important that needs doing (e.g. going to work) that can’t wait.

Here’s my process, during a run:

  • Set the intention to run continuously and sustainably (easy pace but constant).
  • Prepare for difficult thoughts and emotions.
  • Keep breathing and jogging when the emotions and thoughts hit.
  • Be ever-vigilant for the moments of forgetting this whole process.
    • Do this until the unpleasant “waves” have passed.
  • Enjoy the space, clarity, and creativity that ensues

I’ve noticed a pattern of when I tend to stop jogging, without even realizing it.  It isn’t so much when my body is tired.  Sometimes there will be a steep downhill and I’ll walk to give my knees a break, but for the most part I stop when I think about something challenging and feel some sort of tough emotion, like fear or shame.  This is what happens for me when I turn off the damn earbuds.  This is what I realize, again and again, that they are an escape.  It becomes obvious when I turn them off, and almost inevitably, some memories from the past or some fantasies about the future arise, that bring up repressed material I’ve been unconsciously staving off.

But that repression comes at a price, and the price tends to be either chronic unease or a mild depressive dullness.  Either a subtle emotional idle that is set too high, or a subtle shut down of the nervous system.  Either way, the preferred states of insight, creativity, ease, and joy, are blocked and obscured by the repressed feelings that are knocking at the door and want out.

The inner movie theater

A metaphor I find useful is the “movie theater of the mind.”  I haven’t been to a movie in quite a while, but I remember arriving early enough to find myself in a well lit room, looking at a screen with some boring local advertisements and elevator music, before the movie previews and service announcements have even started.  This is what it feels like for a few minutes – that brief purgatory limbo period between putting away the earbuds and getting a glimpse of what I’ve been repressing.  That’s also the time when I am most vulnerable to bailing out and going back to the earbuds.  It’s as if I am not totally convinced that a movie will even play, and I’m highly resistant to spending the next 2.5 hours watching these boring local ads, and am at risk of walking out of the theater, leaving the work ahead of me undone.

But if I hang in there, the previews start.  Seemingly unrelated and disjointed thoughts begin to emerge.  It is a little frustrating that I can’t quite make sense of them, but at least they are vivid and interesting.  Often, the main feature starts, and over time it becomes more and more coherent.  But, like with some complex movies (and even more so with many fiction novels, but that’s a different metaphor), some discipline and patience is required to hang in there and tolerate the confusion from being asked to keep track of many different, seemingly unrelated characters, subplots, and events.  With a good movie, the loose ends are tied together over the course of the film until we get a reasonably satisfactory coherence (although certain directors have a reputation for increasing incoherence over the course of the film).  Similarly, the movie of our psyche tends to make more sense the more we devote our undivided attention to it.

I find running outdoors away from people and distractions to be a great time to do this, although simply sitting and turning inward is an even higher-skill method.  I find it more challenging because it’s easier to either get lost in fantasy (rather than observe it objectively from a distance), or to simply stop and get up and do something else.  At home, there are so many options for switching up the addictive behavior.  We can make a cup of coffee, eat a meal we don’t need yet, get on high-speed internet, or busy ourselves with an “urgent” but unimportant task.

What I’ve observed about the mind theater is that almost all full-length features start out as dramas or even suspense flicks, but transition to inspirational pictures.  I’ve come to expect this, and it’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or the treasure past the dragon’s den.  Once the repressed feelings are allowed to emerge and manifest as challenging thoughts, and be released, what follows tends to be a more empty emotional and cognitive landscape, dotted with creative ideas and the occasional deeper insight.  Once I’ve gotten past the beginning (often anxiety, irritability/anger, and sadness/loneliness in that order), I reach a transition of terrain and notice more peace, quiet confidence, strength as an individual, and clarity of what really matters to me and how I truly want to be spending my time.

Despite coming to terms with this process I’ve outlined here, it always surprises and amuses me how resistant I am do going through it.  It’s like getting used to tough physical exercise workouts.  They aren’t easy, and no matter how good they feel at the end, it’s easy to feel some aversion to starting them, because we know that the short term discomfort is going to increase, and we’re afraid of that short term discomfort.  I’ve been coming to see these emotional and spiritual workouts in the same light, realizing that I need to do them daily if I’m going to live my best life and enjoy the treasures to be found beyond the dark and scary woods of repressed existential, collective, and personal pain.

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