If your brain flits around a lot, like mine does, it’s easy to see life as very complicated. And it is, of course, in so many ways. But occasionally something occurs that reminds us of its basic simplicity. Last week, in a meditation titled “Impermanence,” I had one of those moments when several things fell into place and cleared a simpler path in front of me.
I should start by saying that I am not particularly drawn to the word “impermanence.” It makes me nervous when I first hear it. I start to think about how we don’t get to hold on to the great parts of our lives forever. So, when I saw the title of that day’s meditation on my Calm app, I kind of grimaced inside and figured the meditation leader would be guiding me through the best ways to let go of everything I love. But, I sat anyway, and let myself listen as she talked about how we need to remind ourselves that “this too shall pass,” whether our experience is grim or lovely. It was actually a good point but, as I closed the app afterwards and went back to my office to work, I figured this wouldn’t be the session I would get an “A” on—if we were being graded on our mindfulness.
I don’t want to spend the next 20 years in the same ridiculous thought loop I’ve let myself live in so often in my life.
But the idea rolled around in my head for a while, and I thought back on what she had really said. It wasn’t that I had to let go of everything I adore, or even that I had to immediately loosen my annoyed grip on things that bug me. What she was saying is that if a thought comes to us, we can notice it and move on. I’m not talking here about regular thoughts related to work or driving the car or doing chores. It's the random thoughts that come to us like when we’re worried or scared. I am so masterful at carrying a haphazard negative thought to its extreme that I can be eight steps ahead of time and reality in a matter of seconds. Moving on could be a tremendous relief.
What if I was aware enough of my thoughts and feelings that I just took notice—even acknowledging why I might have had the thought—and let it go? My brain might just move to the next scary notion, but when I tried it that day, it didn’t. I went from worrying about something out of my control to really liking the taste of the coffee I was drinking. I just didn’t give the worried thought much room on stage. The result was freeing. I didn’t immediately become an expert at it, but it was like suddenly having a super useful tool. Instead of getting carried away, I could just go with the regular ebb and flow of the thousands of things that zip through my head in a day.
As I’ve told practically everyone who will listen lately, I am feeling the weight of being nearly 70. My body feels young enough and my life is lovely, but unless there is a major scientific miracle soon, I’m probably only going to live another 20 years—if I’m lucky. In the past, that idea itself was enough to practically explode my brain with worry. But more than anything, I know I don’t want to spend the next 20 years in the same ridiculous thought loop I’ve let myself live in so often in my life.
It would be funny if a pre-recorded, guided meditation were the thing that stopped that loop, but frankly I don’t care where it came from. I’m just glad to feel clear about the meanderings of my musings and that they aren’t anything more than that. Thoughts come and go, and I don’t need to spend any more time on them that it takes to have them. In the many years that I’ve lived, I’ve had a wonderful share of experiences and some hard situations to navigate. As with most people, it often feels more complex than I have the energy to navigate. And yet, all these years into it, I’ve learned a very basic step—one that can bring me peace and a broader view, all at the same time. A simpler path, for sure.