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There is a handy tool of the Buddhist trade that suggests that when one is meditating and stuff pops up, stuff we wish hadn’t popped up just when we were trying to empty our minds of that sort of stuff, it is useful to look at this stuff and name it. “Oh,” you might say, “there’s frustration,” or perhaps “Oh, look there, uh huh, insecurity.”The idea is that naming it will help you to detach from this visitor (and the invasion of your meditative privacy), and simply watch with a passive eye as these feelings, anger, fear, and resentment, get bored with you not paying them any attention and toddle off.
I have such a visitor that haunts me on my morning walk through the woods. I can be noodling along, dreamy, feeling like the most fortunate being on the earth, when a thought arises, like a creepy guy popping out from behind a tree. My first reaction is to shudder, and grow irritated, and wonder why he’s visiting me in this of all places, in my lovely woods.
The thoughts that typically make surprise attacks on my psyche are of the “why bother” variety, those feelings that try and convince me that nothing will ever come of any idea that I ever manage to dream up, and so why not give up now, save myself the anguish. I have wondered what to name this frequent visitor. No single word seems to encompass all that this feeling suggests, and so I have decided to name him Bob. No associative reason for this, it’s just a name.
Bob likes to show up at the most inconvenient times: at the birth of a new idea, the moment I sit down to write, as I reach for the phone. He delivers the same message, always. The language might be varied, but the message is the same “Give up now,” he warns, “don’t get too attached to the idea, you’re headed for heartache. Remember heartache? Ouchy.”
Bob, it seems, has a little alarm next to his bed. Whenever I have a new idea, one over which I am feeling a degree of enthusiasm, the bell goes off next to Bob’s head. He doesn’t waste any time, he leaps out of bed, throws on some clothes and dashes over to see what he can do to discourage me. If the idea is one that requires some perseverance, some confident resolve, Bob starts plotting his attack. The cynical approach is his favorite.
Let’s say, for instance, I decide that I would like to move from writing plays to writing nonfiction. “Puh” he snorts, “You?”
And, let’s say, that I would like to collect some stories on faith. “Hold on,” warns Bob. “Back up a minute,” he sneers. “You?”
And let’s say I imagine that eventually I might be able to find an audience for these stories. Bob’s in a sarcastic lather by now. “And how big are your britches? Huh?” He scorns, “Last I looked you were a nobody.” Now he has my attention. “Everybody’s a nobody before they are a somebody,” I counter.
Bob’s got me now. He loves the somebody/nobody argument. Maybe he can squash the idea before it sends down the tiniest root. “What if everybody who thought they were a nobody stopped at nobody and never tried to be somebody?” I sputter.
I’m hooked. Bob’s got me where he wants me. “Oh, so you want to be a somebody, do you?” Bob is so sneaky. “Damn!” I shiver, now he’s going to pull out the bloated ego warning, the one that equates all ambition with narcissism. “There wouldn’t be a single book to read if writers had no aspiration.” I’m starting to yelp. “There wouldn’t be any improvement in the world if people with fine ideas didn’t have goals.” I look around to see if anyone can overhear us.
Bob has me now. I see him planning his final, lethal blow. “But those are winning people, you’re talking about, dear, (Bob can be so condescending) those are people who win. W.I.N.” (Bob likes to spell things out). He leans in, his hot breath directly in my ear. “That doesn’t happen to you, does it?”
I stare at him, feet shuffling, panting, wondering what that Buddhist advice was that I had read about, that thing about naming. “Bob,” I suddenly spurt, “I didn’t recognize you at first. So it’s Bob again. Bob, B.O.B.” (I give him a little taste of his own medicine) “Bob… Bob, Bob, Bob, you know what you are? You are a big, unattractive liar.”
“Really?” he counters, unflinching, “Let’s take a look at your history.” Now, I know better than to take him up on this offer. It won’t go well. We’ll be wallowing around in resentment before we know it, bad idea.
No, no, no, it’s like that staring game when you were a kid. You try and stare at the other kid until he blinks. You stare and you stare. Your eyes are beginning to dry up. Your eyes are totally drying up, they’re starting to feel like little raisins inside their sockets. Everything it drying up, all of your good ideas, all of your enthusiasm, all of your chutzpah. It’s up to you to do something. “This is stupid,” you think. “Why am I even engaged in this inane game?” you ask yourself. “It’s pointless.” You blink. Turn your head. Take a deep breath, and walk on.
I have to say that Bob’s not looking so robust lately; he’s lost a lot of weight. If he gets any punier, I’ll be able to knock him over with a pointed glance. What a day that will be. I’ll level him with look, flatten him with a flick of the eyes.
What a sweet, sweet day that will be.
Margaret Dulaney is a playwright and essayist, and founder of the spoken word website Listenwell.org. Culled from a lifetime’s study of the ancients and mystics of all traditions, Margaret’s writings employ the ideas of Emerson, Lao Tzu, Hafiz, George MacDonald, Richard Rohr, Emanuel Swedenborg, Lorna Byrne, Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, Rudolph Steiner and many others.