Popular psychologist Oliver Sacks did not coin the phrase “earworm” — the snippets of popular music that repeat themselves over and over in one’s mind — but his book Musicophilia offers a fascinating look at the relationship between the environment of sound and the mind. Awareness of “earworms” is now familiar but the discussion is not original. Advice on getting rid of earworms ranges from simply replacing the earworm with a new snippet, or ignoring them, but the logical question is why they occur in the first place.
Most of the discussion concentrates on sound and its reception in the brain. But a larger analogy is more instructive. Earworms occur in the same manner as thoughts.
Thoughts can embed themselves in the mind as obnoxious little refrains, but have the ability to spawn off more thoughts, producing a mesh of mental entanglements. Most people do not notice “thought-worms” because they fill their time with busy work, conversation, self-commentary, and noise. Silence brings them to consciousness. Meditation instantly reveals the presence of thought-worms, like an unerring diagnostic. But there is no easy treatment for thought-worms other than meditative practice applied consistently.
As with obnoxious sound, advice for breaking the clutches of thoughts ranges from replacing annoying thoughts with benign “thoughts” such as numbers or words. Meditation advisers suggest “in breath-out breath” or “one-two,” etc., or other mantras and prayer formula. These methods are the equivalent of replacing earworms with new snippets of music, different earworms, more innocuous ones re content, helpful at first but inadequate in the long run.
Another method of getting rid of thoughts during meditation is allowing thoughts to dissipate, like floaters before one’s eyes, or looking at something fixedly, either in the mind’s eye or physically before us, such as a statue or the floor or a point in space, or looking at nothing at all, with eyes closed or nearly so.
Perhaps the optimum meditative state, regardless of method — and the simplest, emptiest method seems best — is achieving a sleep-like consciousness or awareness wherein the body becomes rested and autonomic by design, a state wherein the meditator watches the body as from afar — but not too closely or the “spell” is broken and the meditator “awakens,” if ever so delicately.
This is not self-hypnosis, for consciousness remains clear, available, independent, and autonomous.
The dream states of sleep are forms of rest wherein the conscious part of the mind, the part which guides our conscious actions throughout the waking day, is unraveled and helpless in its needed state of non-intervention. This state parallels the calm emptiness and attentive silence of meditation, except that at this point the phenomena of dreaming begins.
Dreaming repairs the damage of thoughts and articulations of emotions (fear, anger, love) transmuted into suppressed feelings during waking states. We may well have acted on our feelings during our conscious state, but the bulk of feelings lies deep within our mind and remains unseen by the conscious state. Deep sleep allows these feelings to express themselves, to unravel and dissipate themselves if our mind is in a healthy state, or to intensify and spread if our minds are not healthy. We awaken refreshed, resolved, and capable — or we awaken uneasy, fearful, and uncertain. It is not the uncertainty of philosophy but rather the animal instinct of fear and uncertainty of one’s plight and situation. Like an animal without its habitat, we instinctively waste the function of sleep when we enter it with thoughts afire. Thus are thoughts called “poison” in the Buddhist tradition, for any thought is a concession of sorts.
Sages and saints have often been described pursuing austerities such as little sleep. Such a practice is not to be pursued by the average, or even advanced, person, for the function of sleep is biological, intrinsic to health and well-being. What is the advantage of sleep deprivation among the saints and sages? We must speculate that at their point of mental control, their short sleep is not deprivation after all. For if sleep repairs the damage of conscious thoughts, of thought-worms, then an advanced meditator has achieved significant control of the mind, has a mind already at subconscious rest, so that the detoxifying function of sleep is not needed, and only the physiological function of physical health is required.
Meditation mimics the positive function of sleep by allowing the mind to achieve a respite from thoughts, a respite that can form a practiced understanding of balance and health. Sleep then is freed to complete its function of scavenging for bad effects in the mind. Dreaming becomes creative and playful rather than instrumental and function. In the latter state, the subconscious mind needs to work with projections and symbols of repressed fears and anxieties. Constructive dreaming demonstrates the potential of all of us to create, to maintain a convivial relationship to our environment, to our world, and to the natural world especially.
The whole of dream interpretation remains too embedded in Freudian typology, which reduces dream content to representations of specific objects and meanings. While we cannot take Freud’s symbolism literally, the notion that certain objects represent certain emotions is now taken for granted, especially after Jung. Situational presentation of the symbols is what counts, however. A bear in a dream, for example, may represent a menace or may represent innocence, clumsiness, or naivete. Though books offer dream interpretation as how-to manuals, most of what we dream and what the objects represent have to do entirely with our own situations.
Art and creativity is lucid dreaming. They express what is within through a channel of emptiness within the mind, like an aperture in our otherwise conscious and tight mind, like sunlight behind the mask or masks we may be carrying. The artist is someone who has discovered the aperture from which creativity can bypass the masks. The aperture widens as the masks shrink. Art is so often pursued in privacy and solitude because the creation of art is an intensely subjective activity, intensely personal, like a dream not to be interrupted, like meditation not to be interrupted.
Yet this creativity, the potential to express the deepest feelings and perceptions, exists in every person. This creativity is not expressed by every person not because of shame or guilt over its content or a sense of humility in relation to other. In part, the skills and aptitude will never be discovered because most people take socialization as a terminus to creativity, a vast conforming to and pursuit of what society and culture demands, a constant chase after its design and presentation of reality. The suppression of self and potential becomes a necessity not so much for social function but for civil order and cultural conformity and control. The waste of creativity is the extinction of individual potential, regardless of whether potentially expressed as art or other self-expression. Few people ij life even perform the work that they like, let alone express creativity of any sort.
To rediscover creativity in the self is to discover potential. To express that which will develop potential in the self requires first access to the tools of the mind, combined with the tools of the environment. To begin this process one cannot assume the gift of the artist, which is the gift of accessing the aperture in the subconscious mind. To begin this process requires the detoxifying of the mind’s accretions derived from society, culture, and the baggage of self. At the heart of this process cannot be mere belief or hope or desire but simply practice, meditative practice, in whatever form the individual discovers it to be most efficacious.
Even if our potential seems to dissipate in the passage of time and responsibilities, the moments of contentment that result from meditative practice will filter the mind, the emotions, the instincts. Practice brings the respite of solitude and silence that permits moments of insight and contentment.