Lately Anthrax’s Among the Living has been in heavy rotation on my headphones when I walk. The album is just fun, and I love the gleeful way the band mixes heavy nerd stuff (especially for the 80s) with thrash.
There’s one song I keep coming back to on that album. Caught In A Mosh is a song that speaks loudly to me now, even though it’s written from the point of view of a sullen teen. Maybe I’m always a sullen teen at heart. Anyway, the film’s main metaphor – being caught in a mosh – really explains what it feels like when my mind is working overtime and I am trapped inside destructive, negative stories about me and my life.
If you’ve ever been in a mosh pit you’ll know that the experience can be amazing. There’s unity and connection in a good pit, and while it’s aggressive, it’s aggressive with positive intentions. Again – IN A GOOD PIT. Just like your mind. When your mind is really engaged and creative it can be amazing to have thoughts exploding like an infinite number of supernovas in your neurons. But when a pit is bad, holy shit is it bad.
Getting caught in a mosh is that feeling you have when the pit is bad, and you’re off balance. You’re careening from body to body, barely maintaining your footing. And some of the bodies you’re careening into are not aggressive in a positive way – they’re looking to hurt you. What had once been a comforting mass of humanity is now a suffocating, painful obstacle course. What had once been a community of people looking out for each other (I’ve been helped off the floor in so many pits) is now split into people who don’t care about you and people who are looking to hurt you. And because you’re out of control in this jumping, punching, headbanging sea of arms and legs you can’t seem to find your way out. You’re pinballing around, sweaty and scared and unhappy.
The same thing happens inside your mind. When things are bad it’s very easy for our minds to turn into unruly mosh pits. And we are well and truly caught in that mosh, getting pushed around by lots of thoughts that are unpleasant – shame and regret about the past, fear and anxiety about the future. We panic and lose sight of what’s happening right now, and we are consumed by the past and the future. We spin out of control and the inside of our heads become assaultive, unpleasant places to be. It’s exhausting and upsetting to be trapped in there, ping pong-ing from bad thought to bad thought.
I know you know the feeling. Hell, I’m writing about this right now because I got caught in the mosh this morning.
So how do we deal with this? There are a couple of steps that I take which help me get out of the mosh.
First, I acknowledge that none of this is personal. The other people in the mosh – they’re not out to get me. Some of them may be hurting me, but that’s because they want to hurt SOMEONE. They didn’t wake up planning to hurt me that day. This applies to the mind as well; we identify so closely with our thoughts that they feel very personal. But here’s the truth about thoughts (and it’s backed up by science): they think themselves. There are parts of your mind far away from your consciousness where thoughts originate based on ancient evolutionary survival programming. When you have a thought try to trace it back to where it started, and when you do that enough and get good enough at paying attention to your thoughts you’ll see that they’re self-generated. They just happen, like the beating of your heart or the digestion in your stomach.
When you acknowledge that these moshers in your mind aren’t personal, you can begin to look at them with some objectivity. I find it’s helpful to label them as they arise in front of me – ‘regret,’ I’ll say to myself when a regret thought pops up in my path. ‘Shame.’ ‘Fear.’ I’ll note not just the content of the thought, but I’ll also try to recognize where I FEEL that thought.
That’s the next step – becoming aware that the mosh pit in your mind actually is having impacts on your body. Feelings and thoughts don’t only exist in your head, they manifest in your body. When you notice fear throwing an elbow in your direction, try to note where you feel that fear. For me it’s in the chest and the lower neck, sometimes in the stomach. As I’ve spent more time noticing where I feel it I’ve been able to recognize OTHER places I also feel it – the chest and neck are like the obvious ones, but there’s also tension and fear in the back of my head and even my feet can feel it. I think my brain is telling my feet and legs to run, because I’m having a very primal fear response.
Once I recognize the places where I’m feeling these feelings and thoughts I am in a better position. A lot of tightness will release all by itself; the body was previously in a feedback loop where the brain was sending bad messages to the body and the body was responding in a way that told the brain things were bad. Sometimes I will very consciously stop and relax the places I know I hold tension – my jaw, my back, around my eyes.
That helps me find stillness. I’m still in the mosh – the moshers are still bouncing around me – but things are a little slower in my perception. It’s not quite Neo in the Matrix, but it’s that same idea. I can now see the spaces between the moshers. I can also see the movement of the moshers; they used to be blurs that were just flying at me, but now I can see them as they telegraph their next motion. This gets me to the next step.
Rather than fight my way through the moshers, I can now find the path of least resistance. I will still get hit and bounced and shoved, but I’m not taking that personally anymore. I let those moshers just go by me. Sometimes a mosher will really get up in my grill, but I just smile and move aside (it’s quite likely that I’ll get caught up with this guy for a moment – I’ll feel anger or fear – but I acknowledge that I got caught up, don’t make a big deal out of it, and move on. It’s so important to know that you WILL get caught up. You WILL still feel these things. That’s okay). The stiller I am the easier it is for me to find the empty spaces between the moshers, and one step at a time I make my way out of the pit.
The method I use to get to that stillness is mindfulness of breath, one of the core meditation practices the Buddha taught. It’s core because it’s really EASY – you’re definitely breathing, so your breath offers a fine object upon which to rest your attention. Here’s how the Buddha described it in the Anapanasati Sutta:
Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’
Know when you’re breathing in. Know when you’re breathing out.
The system I have been taught is that I focus my attention on one spot. Usually it’s where the breath enters the nostril, but it can be where the breath goes through the throat or the rising and falling of the chest or where the breath touches your upper lip – whatever feels natural for you. Wherever you most notice your breath.
When I have my attention there I then count ten breaths. When I’m in a hurry I just count ten inhales and exhales. When I’m sitting formally I like to count ten inhales and then count ten exhales. If my mind wanders during the counting – and holy shit, does the mind ever LOVE to wander – I just start over again. I am honest about my mind wandering (if I have to take even a moment to recall what my breath count is I know my mind has truly wandered) and I am not upset about it. This is what the mind does. I’m engaged in a practice to make it do that less, but the practice isn’t the counting – it’s the bringing the wandering mind back from its ambulations.
I do this in all situations, not just when I’m sitting on my meditation cushion. I do this when I’m sitting at the computer (I’ve had to do it a couple of time while writing this) or walking down the street or sitting in a movie theater or getting dinner with a friend. Any time my mind starts winding itself up – which is any time, any place – I try to take a moment to gather myself and count ten breaths.
Let’s be really honest: we’re never far from the mosh. I think that with intense amounts of meditation – like what monks do – we could get some real distance from the mosh, but even then, unless we’ve achieved enlightenment we’re always in danger of having that mosh start up again. And that’s okay. We can deal with it. It’s part of being alive and a human being. And while it may start up again, if we’re mindful of it, we can reduce the amount of time we’re caught in the mosh.