Leaving “the Little Lightless Caverns”

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I waste too much time in the little lightless caverns of my own mind.”

—Christian Wiman

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            My first wife used to say to me, “Rick, you think too much.”

            It pains me to say it, but she was right. I can turn anything into a problem to be solved: what I want for breakfast, what clothes I want to wear for the day (I’m retired, for godssake, who cares what I wear?), where I want to go for a morning walk, whether I want to go first to the grocery store and then to the hardware store (well, the grocery store is closer and if I get delayed there, I can always wait until tomorrow to do the hardware store) or go first to the hardware story and then to the grocery store (but because the grocery store is closer, I need to get the refrigerated items home before they spoil).

            So that by lunchtime I’m tired out (and then do I want a nap or should I read?).

            Minor stuff, I know, but as I look back at my life, I see that overthinking has caused me and those around me serious problems. Part of the reason I almost flunked out of college was because I waffled about not only what career path to follow, but also whether I wanted to join a fraternity, ask Ginny out or Pat, hang out with jocks or artsy types, take a year off.

            In later years, I agonized over if I should get married, go to graduate school, take a college or a high school teaching job, join a church (what denomination?), join the Rotary, or tell my first wife I was unhappy in our marriage.

            After my daughter died, my mind became a prison. When all my efforts to understand why a previously healthy and happy 18-year-old should suddenly die from a rare cancer—radon in our water supply, McDonald’s cutting down rain forests, accident, fate, God wanting “another angel in heaven,”(all reasons people gave me)—failed, I decided I had to be the one to blame, either because Laurie’s mother and I divorced or because we didn’t divorce soon enough. For several years, the only relief I could find was through alcohol and anger, both of which threatened not only my life but the lives of those close to me.

            As I’ve written before in these blogs, I credit meditation with first helping me see the destructive nature of thoughts and to unload much of my anger and shame—give it to God, as one of my first mentors suggested.

But meditation can become its own “little lightless cavern,” as poet Christian Wiman calls his mind: a place to escape an argument or a fear or a resentment by retreating into old patterns of thinking. (What will I have for breakfast, what shall I wear today…)

            So, what else has helped?

            Seeing myself as the Geriatric Pilgrim has become more than a literary conceit. Looking at life as a pilgrimage has taught me to be curious, to look for surprises, to live without planning every single detail, to put myself in uncomfortable situations (even if it’s just going for a walk and having no destination or closing my eyes before grabbing a shirt to wear for the day). I’ve learned to embrace the unknown—including a Higher Power totally outside my understanding, and to look for evidence of that Higher Power—what I would call grace—all around me.

            A pilgrimage always involves some type of movement, whether it’s walking Saint Cuthbert’s Way or walking downtown. Despite having grown up playing sports, I’ve never paid more attention than I do these days to movement. Yes, regular exercise has long been known to improve and maintain key aspects of cognitive function such as attention, learning, and memory, but neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert posits that our brains evolved, not to think or feel, but to produce adaptable and complex movements. He points out that it’s a lot easier to create a computer that thinks than to create a computer which can move anything like we do. (If you’d like to learn more see https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.)

For the last year and a half, I’ve been practicing the Feldenkrais Method of exercise therapy, learning to reorganize connections between the brain and body, which has improved both the way I move and the way I think, helping me pay less attention to my mind and more attention to my heart and my gut—my instincts.

            The slogans of Al Anon, the 12-step program for families and friends of alcoholics, have become my roadmap on this pilgrimage out of the caverns of my mind. When I first started attending meetings and saw slogans set out on the floor, I thought, “God, how simplistic!” Another example of how thinking can mislead me. Try following a few of these slogans and see how simple they are. To give just one example, let’s look at “One Day at a Time.”

            What’s so hard about that? Well, for someone like me—and, I find, many people who’ve grown up in alcoholic families, who continually try to anticipate and resolve every problem they think they may encounter, attempting to make decisions on information they don’t have—it’s damn hard. Instead of responding to what’s in front of me, both the challenges and the gifts that come my way, I’m obsessing about all the possibilities (most of them bad) that might befall me, even though, looking back over the almost 80 years of my life, I can say that not once did any of this preparation spare me a single moment of pain. In fact, it just lengthened my suffering.

            Still, at my age, it’s hard for me not to think about—which in my case means understand, anticipant, awfulize—my death. It was helpful this week to hear a podcast in which Ariel Burger, protégé and friend of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, talk about Wiesel’s teaching that there are no answers to life’s big questions, only responses.

            So, I’m trying to respond to these questions by breaking them into small daily tasks. Instead of trying to answer the question, how can my grandchildren survive in a world that seems to be hurtling toward destruction, I focus what I can do with them today. If I’m worried about the Supreme Court or the swelling in my jaw, what can I do about either one today? Call my senator? Pop into the walk-in clinic (which I did this weekend. It’s “an obstructed parotid gland”)? Then it’s time to go for a walk, pick up a banjo, write a poem or a blog. Get out of my head.

            In other words, as one of the AA’s oldest slogans puts it, “Move a muscle, change a thought.”

            And leave a little lightless cavern.

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