Over the last few weeks I stopped listening to music. Well, to be honest, I had to stop listening to a specific piece of music - the debut album from Florence & the Machine, called - Lungs. Now it's a good album, but no more addictive than countless others I've owned. It is, however, new music, and I've never been able to resist the fresh sense of discovery as you become acquainted with an album, as the artists style and distinctive way with song structure emerges. In the past this was something of an addiction, constantly listening to a CD until I'd know every nook and cranny of it, then there was a brief pause before I sought another musical kick. I'm more discerning these days, and have some understanding of how this cycle of craving for musical innovation disguised a whole load of dukkha that I was completely unaware of until I became a Buddhist. Music still remains a great source of pleasure, one that I get a form of life enhancing delight from. With Florence & the Machine I did, however, hit a little difficulty.
Sometimes you can't get tunes out of ones head, that's almost a universal experience. They'll also crop up in unexpected venues, like in ones meditation. In meditation I've usually been able to gently train my attention to move away from it, to focus on the practice in hand. With Florence & the Machine, it just would not go away. I would be meditating, doing Mindfulness of Breathing, Metta Bhavana, even my Sadana, and tracks from the album would be playing in the background ALL THE TIME. They never stopped playing, no matter how much I focused on the practice, stayed relaxed and un-flustered by this background accompaniment, it persisted. I began to notice some aspects that were contributing to this; if I listened to it on headphones it was ten times worse; and the frequency I plied it. The longer the time I left it between playing the album the intensity of this Muzak effect began to fade, but would return with a vengeance the moment I gave it a spin again. So I've been experimenting with a few days music free, and then a week, ten days and the difficulty passed, from internal hearing.
Sangharakshita advised that in our noisy world filled with mindless chatter, we need to reduce input. Input these days comes from all directions and media. Its not just music we can be bombarded by. I've also recently decided to stop listening to Radio 4's Today programme. This daily breakfast dose of John Humphries, and the tone of cynicism and derision that pervades the programme, I found this was a far from ideal set up for the day, particularly so after a double sit of meditation with senses attuned to subtler nuances. As some one who can be easily prone to cynicism, I hardly need outside influences reinforcing this not very pleasant tendency. We feel obliged as world citizens to be well informed about so much, otherwise we aren't performing our duty as human beings. But as Quentin Crisp succinctly describes it - 'People see so much more going wrong with the world over which they have the same meagre control as before'. So however much we are better informed about the world, the large majority of news is just input, which we can do very little to resolve externally, so it hangs around like sediment in our psyches. The responsibility to our hearts and minds to hold all this clutter weighs heavily upon us. Information can cultivate concerns over which we have no real power to take effective action. To hear of other peoples suffering and be unable to ameliorate or heal it, is a painful experience, however potentially insightful it possibly may be.
Besides ceaseless input, there can be the equally seductive activity of ceaseless output. The desire to keep busy, to always make productive use of leisure, as well as work time. In this way I can find it difficult to just stop, to do nothing, and tune in with myself in a totally unstructured way. Its yet another aspect of restlessness and worry - what happens when I do nothing for as long as possible? - nothing untoward is usually what happens. Taking in all that input is one form of output, reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, watching TV etc. The rest consists of a wide range of activities, ranging from meditating, to domestic chores, spending time with friends and painting. Sometimes these things compete for space, and my life can feel overcrowded with the 'things I need, must, or want to, do'. The demands of modern life are not an externalised, but an internalised coercive force, bound up inextricably with our sense of who we are, or would like to be seen as.
Maintaining a simple life appears to be founded on keeping these activities in a reasonable perspective. To make good honest judgements; what is important,what is just an unreasonable expectation, or a wild imagining, what would be reasonable to do in the time available? Sometimes it remains a bit of a juggling act, even when I am clear what my priorities are. It depends what sort of output activity it is. By its very nature ironing is never going to be as deeply satisfying as reading the Dharma or meeting a good friend, but it still has its own intensifying level of necessity, that needs to be dealt with at some point. The lawn at Abbey House, is quite large, and during the summer it needs a regular weekly mowing. I watched this week as the rain fell, and the sun shone soon after, the grass rapidly shooting up. Cutting the lawn began to rise up my must do list, but time available to do it was limited. Yet did I really want to spend an hour and a half of a weekday, after a long days walking up and down a warehouse aisle, walking up and down a lawn? I could only put this off only for so long, before I would have to adjust my priorities.
If everything does come at you with guns blazing for attention, then perhaps you are asking too much of yourself. What we think of as important or not important is largely subjective. In the greater scheme of things whether we hoover carpets or paint pictures are equally meaningless or meaningful activities. We chose, and bring our subjective judgements to these activities, our likes and dislikes, and rapidly turn them into fixed objective needs. However mundane the task, sometimes there is a simple necessity to just keep on top of things, whilst not ignoring ones personal need for creative activities that sustain you. If we turn around our viewpoint,a mundane practical task can also be a good space for thinking or processing or planning the day.
To be alive, to be able to do anything at all, is a joy in itself. If our needs of life were to become simpler, could we be satisfied with any activity? What we want from our life and whether its easily attainable lies at the root of most suffering - because not getting what one wants is objectively painful. But as Sangharakshita observes, sometimes the deeper problem is when we do get what we want - because the dukkha of this is concealed beneath a healthy surface of vibrant pleasure. Sometimes, whether its output or input, we are just trying to block out that existential pain - what could be wrong with that?