North Platte of the Mind

In the late 60’s or early 70’s, for some reason my mother drove on her own from Philadelphia across the Midwest. She happened to be in North Platte, Nebraska at dusk, so that’s where she decided to spend the night. As she settled into her motel room, she realized that for the first time in her whole life no one knew where she was spending the night.

The cell phone hadn’t been invented yet and to make a long distance call for most people was costly. So Mom would have felt no need to call my father to tell him where she was or even that she was okay. He would have been alarmed to receive a phone call, assuming something bad must have happened.

How different from today! As long as our loved ones have their phones with them,we figure we can get in touch with them. Which is comforting, right?

But imagine my mother sitting in her motel room in the very center of a vast country, considering her solitude. Did it make her feel afraid or lost? No. She told me later that it made her feel wonderful to be so completely unaccounted for. Part of her feeling was the sense of not having anyone anywhere expecting anything from her in that moment. She could eat whatever she wanted, or not eat anything. She could go to bed early or go to bed late. She was free to simply be. She could simply sit in silence without explaining ‘what’s wrong’. (The word meditation wasn’t a part of daily life in most of western culture either.)

I thought of this the other morning in meditation when I realized that in this moment no one anywhere expects anything from me. There was still a to-do list and later in the day there would be certain expectations from others. But IN THIS MOMENT no one anywhere expected anything from me. Tension I didn’t even know I had began to soften and melt away.

So we might say that meditating, or even just pausing in the moment in the midst of busyness, creates a kind of North Platte, Nebraska of the mind.

But the key is that we have to acknowledge it, the way my mother did. She could kept her mind busy with worry about what was going on at home in her absence, or speculation about how the traveling would go the next day, or wondering about what would happen when she got to her destination. There were a million places her thoughts could have gone. But she let them rest in the awareness of being at ease in her body and mind.

When we don’t take the time to acknowledge it, the mind operates under the assumption that we are still on duty, or at least on call, that there is something we should be doing, planning, reviewing or stewing about.

The mind relies on our cues to let it know when it is off duty. So learning how to send these cues is very important for our well being.

In meditation class there are simple common rituals that tell our mind we are switching gear here. We arrive, we find our spot, we turn off our cell phones. Our mind understands that we have made this choice. The very sight and feel of the room where all we ever do is meditate is a cue that our body-mind understands. (When we do these things on auto-pilot, the mind fails to notice the transition and we have a difficult time settling in.)

What about when we are not in class? Hopefully we have a time and place we set aside to meditate on a regular basis. But what happens when we are traveling? What happens throughout the day when we very much need a sense of ‘North Platte’? What are the cues we can give the body mind to let it relax?

First and always, we anchor into physical sensations. Pleasant and unpleasant sensations make themselves known. With mindfulness practice, we can simply note these preferences, and return to our focus of the breath, rather than following the lure of associated stories, judgments and physical reactions. The more we can see this process, the more we can stay present in this moment in all the senses.


Exercise
Notice the next sensation that comes up in your body. An itch, twinge, or restless limb perhaps. Quite naturally you will have the urge to react in some way, ‘to fix the problem.’ This might be scratching an itch, adjusting a strap, or clearing the throat. Now try NOT doing whatever the urge is to do, at least for a moment. Just be still with the sensation. This is not torture. This is an opportunity to notice that the sensation changes over time on its own whether or not we react to it.

If the urge is still there after sitting with it for a bit, feel free to go ahead and act. Sometimes the denial of the ability to react will make the sensation more pronounced. The mind gets worried and tension sets in. Maybe the whole body gets itchy or squirmy. But when the mind is relaxed and we simply notice the sensation, it generally transforms into some other sensation or disappears altogether.


When we do this kind of practice during meditation and throughout the day whenever we think of it, and especially when we notice tension arising in the place our body chronically holds tension, we create a spaciousness and ease, a place where nothing is required of us in that moment except to be here, present for whatever arises. A kind of North Platte of the mind. Thanks Mom!

2 thoughts on “North Platte of the Mind

  1. indi

    “The mind relies on our cues to let it know when it is off duty.” This line, itself, is so helpful! I didn't realize the mind needs these cues. How simple and powerful!

    Like

    Reply

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