All These Things

It’s Monday afternoon: late afternoon, really. I’m feeling restless and lonely. I have all these thoughts in my head and I’d dearly like to have a conversation about them, rather than writing into the ether, but I’m not sure where to begin.

The time of day is a problem. At this hour, in this long, recurring air pocket in my weird freelance life, other people with normal jobs are responsibly working. I’m … you know. Washing the dishes. Debating whether I should eat something else. Doing a mental inventory of the laundry (Do I have a clean dance belt? Yes. Is it one of the good ones? Too late to worry about that now…). Letting thoughts arise and simply go on their way.


I say “percolating” rather than “thinking” because so much of what I’m doing isn’t thinking, exactly. Thinking implies some kind of volitional exercise; it is a thing one opts to do.

I am, instead, doing other things, and “…thoughts,” as the song says, “arrive like butterflies.”

Only, well, not exactly. It is very much a sense of bubbling up rather than descending from above. Not that it matters—either way it’s all a metaphor, really.

Often, it’s uncomfortable. When you’re busy doing something else, and as such not policing your thoughts, it’s really quite startling what floats up from the murky depths. At the moment, for me, it’s a lot of self-hatred and memory and sudden flights of insight into the harshest segments of my own past which I hope to retain but sometimes don’t.

This is, now that I’m thinking about it, not unlike the difficulty a great many of us run into with zazen[1]. You just sit, and while you’re just sitting, everything that’s In There Somewhere finds its way to your consciousness to feck about with your ability to, like, just sit.

  1. The trouble I run into is the whole sitting bit. If I can sit still for five minutes, it’s basically a minor miracle. I struggle to make it long enough to get to the point at which the Monkey Mind pipes up. I do fine with walking meditation and stuff like that, though.

Which, of course, is part of the point.

As it is, I suppose, part of the point in Just Washing Dishes. You find yourself accidentally meditating, as if Thich Nhat Hanh has teleported in and is standing at your shoulder, saying to you, “Breathing in, I am washing this dish.”

Oops, I guess?


Ironically, whilst ballet is an exceptionally fine way to enter a flow state as far as I’m concerned, it requires so much presence of mind that there’s not really much room for the percolation of stray thoughts.

I used to think that, for this reason, it constituted an ideal form of meditation, or at least that it did for me. Now, I’m not so sure. One of the strengths of zazen (and of its cousin, kinhin, and similar exercises) is precisely the fact that things bubble up from the depths in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.

I constantly run from uncomfortable thoughts without realizing that I’m doing it. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of the time, I don’t even realize it: if I did, I suppose my self-respect would plummet. I believe in trying to face things that scare me.

(Then, I suppose I also believe in choosing my battles, and I could perhaps regard this automatic deflection of uncomfortable thoughts as a kind of unconscious method of doing exactly that.)

And yet.

So I stand at the sink washing dishes, because our dishwasher is an ancient beast that is both inordinately loud and almost entirely ineffective, which means that if you choose to use it (which, generally, I don’t) you must first wash the dishes anyway before allowing the dishwasher to think it’s doing its job.

Thoughts arise.

I am uncomfortable, but I can’t just plow them back under before I’m aware of them. Nor can I, it seems, usually bring myself to attempt to find someone to talk to in the middle of the afternoon.

The curious thing is that this has, in many ways, been the best thing that could happen to me.

For many years I lived my life on high alert; constantly hypervigilant. Invading thoughts and emotions could and often did provoke a five-alarm response.

For many years I felt that I would, I don’t know, catch fire or something if I neither spoke to someone about the thoughts or did something in response to the internal klaxon.

Yet, so often, talking made no real difference. In fact, I suspect it often made things rather worse.

I wasn’t therapeutically processing thoughts and feelings and memories; I was simply externalizing them as a way of avoiding really wrestling with them. Sometimes, rather than deflecting the thoughts, it only made them shout louder and stick faster. I became caught in storms of fight-or-flight level arousal. Talking about the source of the arousal (or what felt like the source) often seemed only to crank up the perception of danger.

And yet, somehow, uncomfortable as it is, as I persist in attempting to wash the dishes (or just this dish, as is so often the case—when I’m in that place, it’s too much to focus on anything but the immediate thing), I learn that if I remain in place, eventually the alarm bells will subside.

I’m pretty sure this has had a remarkable effect on my overall anxiety level—if ‘anxiety’ is the right word. Who knows? It seems good enough. Anyway, I spend less time than I used to in states of profound vigilance; less time with the warheads armed, as it were.

I become alert, aroused, because something inside me perceives some invisible danger: but the danger passes, and nothing really terrible happens, and each time my brain learns that perhaps the danger in question isn’t real in the immediate sense. My unconscious mind ratchets the Security Alert Level down just a little bit.

This is a thing I’ve learned through necessity. I have left behind the phase of my life in which most of my friends were other college students with giant gaps in their schedules. I now mostly know people with jobs and responsibilities. I have been forced to simply live with very, very wildly uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Interestingly, I have thus far survived.

I don’t know if I’ll ever live without the klaxons. I am still as wary as a wolf.

If you’d asked me ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of the way things are now, so it seems reasonable to think that, say, ten years from now things will once again be quite different.

There’s another thing, too.

When I don’t divert the thoughts, sometimes they give rise to creative work. I’ve struggled, recently, with the sense that nothing I’m doing as an artist is in any way actually original or creative (then again, how many minds over the millenia have given us some variant on the maxim, “There’s nothing new under the sun?”)—but I think what I’m really struggling with is that trying to create from whole cloth doesn’t work very well for me.

Rather, I do better to let whatever’s in there filter up and appear on its own, and then to build and refine from there.

I have never been a composer of music: when I try to compose, my compositions turn trite, bathetic, even schmaltzy. I play them later and they make my skin crawl.

When I just sit and play, or when I record the stirrings of visiting muses, things work out quite differently. I won’t say that anything I’ve set down will ever be great, but some of it is in fact quite good.

The same happens when I attempt to compose dances without reference to an internal vision. There’s nothing as depressing as the little passage in a half-baked ballet in which you can tell that the choreographer was thinking, “Rats, how on earth am I going to get the prince over to the punch bowl? All right, tombe, pas de bourree, something, something, just need a few more steps…”

That’s how essentially all my choreography feels (to me, at any rate) when I try to wrestle it into being instead of allowing something to surface, then building on that.

And writing is and has always been, for me, an exercise in hearing and recording the voices and stories of people and worlds that speak from within; a kind of visitation rather than an actual act of creation. The formal, authorial work generally comes after: I’m more of an editor, really.

Perhaps, then, it should be no great surprise that the same basic process allows room for healing of a kind that is, while it’s happening, very uncomfortable, but remains nonetheless crucial.

So I suppose that’s something to think about.

There’s a great deal more, probably, that I could and should say about this, but at the moment I need to put clothes on and go to class.

More, then, at some point in the future.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2017/12/11, in balllet, healing, life and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I can’t say I’m familiar with the theoretical underpinnings zazen or kinhin. In fact what little I know of Zen suggests to me that even believing they have theoretical underpinnings is missing the point; as is expecting them to have a point ;). But my understanding of vipassana is that it’s meant to show you thoughts are neither volitional nor imposed. They don’t arise internally or externally. The distinctions themselves are erroneous.

    I’ve gotta admit that the very meaning of the word ‘thought’ isn’t something I feel I’ve ever come to grips with. The more I attempt to approach it the further it recedes. Rainbow or mirage?

    Many people seem to equate thoughts with subvocalised internal monologue and believe the purpose of meditation is to silence it – thereby ‘removing’ thought. There is some basis for this in the Theravada notion of jhana (I suspect the Mahayana equivalent, dhyana, is a little different but I’m unsure of this), albeit more subtle, layered and nuanced. But as with so many Pali (or Sanskrit) translations into English I think a lot is lost in the definition of ‘meditation’. Most meditation techniques have nothing to do with silencing or transcending mental formations (nor going to a ‘happy place’ for that matter).

    Are there real lines between thoughts, emotions, beliefs, motives, etc? Between conscious, subconscious and unconscious thoughts? Probably more to the point, is there a division between subject and object? Self and other? Action and actor? Is it reasonable to assume with Descartes that the presence of thought implies a thinker?

    When you – er – ‘think’ about it, the idea of policing your thoughts is paradoxical. What can you police them with except other thoughts? And who is policing the police? And so on. I’d rather not have an endlessly receding/recursive array of cops in my head thanks.

    I’d like to be able to pretend my insights into ‘thought’ and ‘self’ come from the fragments of misapprehended understandings I sometimes call ‘Buddhism’, thereby supporting my conceit of being a scholar (or even a practitioner). But I suspect it owes more to my psychoses. When you try to analyse ‘the voices’ you soon despair of ever pinning down what’s ‘you’ and what’s ‘coming at you’.

    Which kinda leads on to the notion of ‘creativity’.

    It’s pretty hard to find creativity in an examined life I reckon. You can ‘see’ others creating – as long as you can’t see the ingredients and techniques they’ve borrowed – but you can’t see it in yourself because you’re too aware that it’s really just a regurgitation of what you’ve already swallowed. I suspect Freud would call it an ‘excretion’ rather than ‘regurgitation’ – hence the ‘About’ page on my blog.

    So if you want to be creative in your own eyes you need to cultivate lack of self awareness while still clinging to possession of a self. Then you can arise from the toilet, point proudly into the bowl and declare to the world “Look what I did!”.

    • I wasn’t really trying to comment on the theoretical underpinnings of meditation in Zen, anyway, but this makes me curious about how much I’ve forgotten. I don’t claim to be good at meditation or to know a great deal about it, regardless. And you’re correct—silencing the mind isn’t the goal. I hope I didn’t imply that I thought it was, but since I wasn’t intending to write about meditation in the first place, I doubt I’ve in any way succeeded in doing so 😉

      I think the goals are fairly similar within most of the traditional streams of meditation.

      Either way, I’ve found that the mental stillness I associate with dancing or, as I realized tonight, with ‘flow arts’ achieves a different end than kinhin or my unintentional dishwashing meditation. I’m still thinking about this. One (dancing) is like navigating: I’m tapped into sensation, and there’s a process that happens without volition in which my brain looks for matches in the pattern. I figured out not long ago that that’s why I find navigating to be such a singular pleasure. I should try to describe that better when I’m more awake, though.

      I’m out sure about verbal thought. I’m not much of a verbal thinker—I sort of put my thoughts through a layer of conscious translation to hammer them into language. I’ve met at least one person who was convinced that this meant that I’m actually unable to think, which sometimes feels like the truth but probably isn’t.

      On the other hand, I’m completely at a loss to imagine how D, who is a profoundly verbal thinker, does anything at all that involves manipulating physical things in space. He is, he says, literally unable to picture things in his head, let alone moving images in four dimensions (including time).

      He’s not a good navigator, but he still mostly gets from point A to point B, and I can’t imagine how he does it without array of visual, spatial, vestibular, and auditory images I use. I realize that someone who thinks mostly verbally must feel the same degree of bafflement towards people like me.

      …Which is ultimately somewhat off topic, I suppose. Just a lot of percolating, still.

      • I’m out sure about verbal thought. I’m not much of a verbal thinker—I sort of put my thoughts through a layer of conscious translation to hammer them into language. I’ve met at least one person who was convinced that this meant that I’m actually unable to think, which sometimes feels like the truth but probably isn’t.

        I’m the same, despite not being a very embodied person. It was quite an insight to me in my mid-20s when I discovered from my girlfriend that there are people who equate thinking with subvocalisation. I’ve since been bemused to discover there are even people who think it’s the same as consciousness itself (including some AI theorists).

        At first I thought it explained a lot. Like how I was ‘instinctively’ able to solve maths and physics problems at school while being unable to explain how I did it (“No teacher. I’m not guessing. Or cheating.”). But really everyone does it with different kinds of problems. Trying to symbolise it while you’re doing it can lead to the centipede’s dilemma.

        I think the inadequacy of language and concepts is even more stark when you consider memory (or rather ‘remembering’). Are narrative memories, emotional memories, body memories, etc really the same class of thing? I know ‘false’ narrative memories can be implanted – in fact we’re doing it automatically all the time – but what about bodily and emotional ones? Again I think Buddhism provides better metaphors than does computer science. If everything is a node on Indra’s Net then everything already ‘remembers’ everything else. My footprints are just as much a memory of my walk as the story I tell myself about it (as are the bugs I squashed on the way). Making memories ‘actionable’ is really a process of decoding and interpreting them and, inevitably, stuff gets lost in translation.

        I wasn’t really trying to explain meditation either. Just using whatever common ground we may have there as a basis for reflecting your observations.

        I quite enjoy washing dishes – as long as I do it and don’t think about doing it (“When procrastinating, just procrastinate”). In a sense I was practicing ‘dish washing meditation’ before I even knew there was such a thing. But when I lived with my family dishwashing was a chore to be divided between my brother and myself; often unjustly in my view. It was a constant source of resentment and something to be endured rather than enjoyed. It was only when I was living by myself during my first couple of terms of university that the competition drained out of it and I started using it to de-stress instead of the opposite.

    • Also, I’m right there with you in the meaning of “thought.” Meant to mention that.

  2. My ‘intellectually handicapped’ friend Kenny phoned a little while ago and reminded me of another aspect of the way words are confused with thought.

    He calls me two or three times a day and usually at least one of the calls deals with the big philosophical questions. Life, death, God, heaven, fate, faith and, at this time of year, Santa Claus. Today it was time. Kenny isn’t good with words so it took me a little while to get that he was asking why there’s so little time between when he goes to sleep and when he wakes up even though the clock says several hours have passed. His trouble with words means he relies more heavily on non-verbal communication cues (even over the phone), so I was unable to fool him that I actually have an answer to that one despite being able to discuss it at length.

    But it underlined something your post got me thinking about.

    Because he can’t speak well and has difficulty understanding what he’s told most people assume Kenny is stupid. Sadly this includes friends, family members and professional carers. It’s aggravated by his difficulty at learning and retaining things that are expressed to him as narrative. He’ll often ask the same question day after day even though he seems to understand the answer every time. I think it’s because he doesn’t retain much in long term narrative memory, though there’s probably also an element of security in hearing the same thing many times. It reassures him that reality isn’t shifting under his feet. There’s nothing wrong with his moral intelligence either, though sadly many assume he’s too stupid to know right from wrong and is therefore potentially dangerous. He has trouble grasping moral rules that he’s been told about but there’s nothing wrong with his compassion, sense of justice and fair play, etc.

    Kenny seems to handle abstractions well. Probably better than most people I know. He also has no trouble remembering complex procedural stuff when he’s shown rather than told. And he has a good and fairly subtle sense of humour that includes a well honed sense of irony, including ironical takes on the assumptions others make about him.

    There’s no denying his poor verbal skills are a major handicap to him. A heck of a lot of daily life is mediated verbally. But in several ways I find him to be more intelligent than most of the people who dismiss him as an idiot. And I think a lot of the prejudice he faces comes from people’s tendency to equate words with thoughts.

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