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Open Loops and Closed Mouths
Dr. Andy reflects on the work that we attend to, but never complete, in our dreams.
I once heard a comedian say, “Unless your name is Martin Luther King, Jr., I don’t want to hear about your dream.” Freud, astrologers, image-hungry poets, and new significant others are interested in a dream from the previous night, but most of us zone out, perhaps starting to check our mental “to do” lists, when someone insists on telling us their dream.
Ironically, I review my “to do” lists in my dreams, and then get to work solving absurd problems. Just last night, for example, I asked former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky to run to the deli to pick me up a sandwich, I enlisted my students to come up with pub quiz question topics in choir practice, and I was so late for a meeting that I didn’t realize that my bicycle had no brakes.
I suppose some people have short, or even absent, lists of action items, and thus they don’t have what some productivity specialists, such as David Allen in his book Getting Things Done, call “open loops.” But those of us who foolishly try to remember in our heads everything that has to get done, instead of depending upon an air-tight system, such as what David Allen espouses, will find ourselves haunted by symbolic representations of our various practical obligations in our dreams.
Perhaps this is why Wallace Stevens said, “A pension is the salary we earn for all the work we do in our dreams.” Of course, other poets resented Stevens for his insurance agency vice president salary and his pensions, for he was the most well-off of all American poets, meaning that he could afford to say that “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
So with a busy life and a busy dreamlife of errands and obligations, I find it such a relief to join a group of friends in Chestnut Park in Davis every Sunday morning at 9:00 for an hour of meditation. While walking the one and a half miles to the park, maskless, near no one, I seemed to inhale every known allergen that the stiff winds could blow my way. But when I sat down amidst (but at least six feet apart from) a group of meditators, the mask I wore protected my closed mouth not only from unlikely Covid 19 exposure, but also from whatever was making me sneeze so violently during my travels.
The feeling of relief, of sanctuary, was mental, as well as physical. Beneath the swaying trees, I heard the gong sound and then settled into myself, finally able to breathe easily, and to focus on my own sense of attentive belongingness. Noting and slowing my heartbeat, I began to count my breaths in cycles of 21. This may sound like an easy task, but in my first months of meditating, my mind would inevitably wander off before I got to ten or even 15 breaths, resulting in my having to start over. These days, I notice when my mind wants to go somewhere – to attach itself to some past or imagined moment of delight or anguish – and then I gently usher it back to the task at hand, observing the breath, and adding one more incremental respiratory step towards 21.
The time is fleeting, but I appreciate these rare moments of equilibrium, and relief from the attention one pays to the world’s woes, and to one’s increasingly complex duties. When one can’t realize true respite, even in sleep, the meditator’s cushion becomes a life preserver.
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