I was inspired to write this while speaking about my experience in India.
One of our first group processes (psychologist term for group dialogue) took place on the floor of one of the temples at the Gandhi Mandapam (memorial) in Chennai. I remember vividly the feeling of the cool black slate against the soles of our feet after we removed our shoes to enter the temple. Twenty-two bodies sat down to take a moment to breathe… and feel… then share.
I remember sitting there with my eyelids pressed together and breathing deeply. As always, whenever I sit down to meditate, I noticed my racing thoughts and spent most of my time getting lost in them, berating myself for my lack of mental discipline and attempting to bring myself back to the moment. When I reached the place where I could detach from cognitions and focus on the present, I naturally attended to my senses. I didn’t have sight, so the next was sound. I listened to the sounds around me. The horns of India toot with constancy to inform those around that one exists and just exactly where one is existing in space and time.
The tooting can be amusing at best, and infuriatingly annoying at worst (particularly when you are sitting in the autorickshaw and watching your driver force the auto between slits of automotives). The horns sounded as though the city streets were communicating in Morse code. And then I heard the chirping of the birds. It was a sweet, waking-up-on-a-Sunday-spring-morning kind of a chirp. You can almost picture the fluttering wings and the pastel colors painting a sunny landscape. So there it was – humans communicating with sound on one side, and animals communicating with sound on the other. I watched my mind switch from focusing from the horns to the birds, annoying to cute, loud or sweet… which would I choose?
Oddly this seems to be a metaphor for life. Often in the U.S. I feel stress and it can seem as though my day-to-day is following a number of prescriptive behaviors meant to keep my sanity by fulfilling duties, completing tasks, and addressing responsibilities. Leisure behaviors can almost seem prescriptive too given there is such little time to be-in-the-joy ->enjoy. Toot toot…tooooooot!
The birds chirp how lucky I am to work in a setting where I genuinely enjoy the work, like the people with whom I work and feel that I am making some difference in the lives of others. Gratitude fills me as I remind myself of the beautiful place where I am sheltered, the comforts I have earned, and the privileges I have had to be an educated woman of color.
I can choose every day whether I pay attention to the horns or the chirps – both exist and will continue to exist. Too often in self help literature we are taught to focus on the positive – change our thoughts so we can change our behaviors and emotions… and yet, I can’t help but wonder if the answer truly lies in ignoring the other half that exists simply because it’s uncomfortable, painful and undesirable. What would it be like to live life knowing at every moment that both exist and learn to cope with all that this truth brings? Would that make us less naive? More tolerant? More resilient and less likely to fall apart when things don’t go well?
The desired and expected response may be that in the end, I choose the birds – the pleasantry of the springtime morning chirping. But I’m not convinced. I think my answer right now is in doing exactly what I did as I sat there with my eyes closed paying attention to both sounds… and just being in between them.