When my thoughts wander, they don’t always frolic in fields of clover. Sometimes they stumble down a rabbit hole. When I realize what’s happened, I wonder how I got there, how to get out, and how to stop falling into rabbit holes!
‘Rabbit hole’ is such an accepted term for a downward spiral of circular thinking, I wasn’t sure how it fits into the developing metaphor of veils of thought and emotion obscuring our view of all that is. But in a three AM mental meander, I had an aha moment. I snuck my phone under the covers and wrote down these few words, hoping they would mean something to me in the morning: “Einstein negativity bias weighs down threads cause distortion rabbit holes”
Does that mean anything to you? No? Well, let me see if I can reconstruct my idea and elaborate:
Okay: “Einstein.” This was to remind me of that classic image of a sphere rolling around the inside of a concave field. Relax, it’s not physics that interested me, only that image. I imagined how that field could be one of our veils and the sphere is our attention. I realized how if any of the thought threads in the veil was heavily laden with emotional trauma, the veil would sag under the weight of it, wouldn’t it? Then our attention keeps rolling along the curvature of the resulting depression, following those painful threads around and around, reviewing the memory and reliving the experience. Our attention is propelled deeper into the vortex so our view of anything other than this painful set of thoughts is beyond the horizon.
How did we get here?
As with all threads of thought, it starts with a sight, sound, smell, or taste that reminds us of something. It prompts a memory or a worry, and our attention follows that thought thread. The thought thread might be benign or pleasant, but if there is a related thread that is heavy with, let’s say, regret, guilt, shame, or grief, the emotional weight of that thread will pull our attention into the sag in the veil. Once there, it runs in ever-deepening circles of thoughts and emotions about a painful experience or a fear.
How do we get out?
With our attention caught in the vortex, it’s hard to remember that this veil is not reality. Our mind reconstructs the past and the future so convincingly, we believe it to be true. Whether it once was or may in the future be, it is right now only a collection of synaptic brain activity. Still, it feels real, doesn’t it? So how do we get out? Fortunately, we have techniques to instantly bring our attention back to this moment. We just have to remember to use them. And that takes practice.
Even in the vortex, we might be aware of how this experience of thinking these thoughts feels in the body. Maybe there is heaviness. Maybe there is tension. This unpleasant sensation seems like a container for our misery, but if noticed it becomes a lifeline. Because now we are in this moment. Instead of making an enemy of the sensation, we open to it with awareness.
We can ask ourselves how is this sensation connected to the breath? Ah, the breath! Our lifelong trusty companion is still there with us, no matter what we are going through. Maybe the breath is affected by the thoughts and emotions we are experiencing, but it is still the breath. However short, long, deep, shallow, fast, or slow it is, if we focus on the natural breath, it centers our awareness and can calm us down, pulling us out of the cycle of thoughts.
If the breath isn’t compelling enough or just doesn’t feel right, we can focus on other sensations. For example, the inside of the mouth is an effective awareness anchor because it has all the elements to attend: the water element of saliva; the fire element in the warmth of the mouth; the earth element in the hard and soft surfaces; and the air element in the breath. Even if we’re not breathing through the mouth, there’s an awareness of it where the mouth meets the throat.
If we aren’t able to pause fully to do awareness practice, we can simply touch something. Sitting at a meeting, we can let a finger touch a texture to anchor awareness in the present moment.
Once we’ve come back into this moment, we can activate lovingkindness for ourselves, for anyone involved in the memory vortex, for anyone near us, especially if something they said or did activated our thought threads, and finally we can send lovingkindness to all beings. This realigns our attention with our core intention and brings us back into balance.
How do we keep from falling in?
The answer to that question depends on whether there is something in that sagging area of a veil that keeps drawing our attention for a reason. Is there something we need to explore? If so, there are skillful ways to do that, either with a therapist, a group, a friend, or on our own. My book Asking In, a companion guide to self-inquiry, has helped many to explore skillfully.
But sometimes it’s not that we need to keep investigating. We are just in the habit of ruminating and we end up in the same patterns of thought. Maybe it’s not distressing so much as tiresome. We’re ready to move on! So here are a few ideas of how to do that.
First, let’s remember that unless we value awareness, we won’t bother to cultivate it. But let me ask you, what situation in life is it better to daydream or see things through dense and tangled veils? When driving? No, of course not. What about when having a conversation with a loved one? If we’re tangled in the veils of our perception of them or worrying about their veil of perception about us, we won’t be able to listen to them, will we? Can you think of any situation where the veils enhance rather than blind us to the experience?
If not, then you understand the importance of practicing being present. Regular meditation is the core training. It’s not as an escape from reality, but a practice in how to be present for it. Practice mindful walks in nature, mindful eating, mindful listening. The Zen poet Jane Hirschfield says that if your meditation practice and your life are different, you’re doing something wrong. That statement surprises many, but it’s a reminder of the purpose of meditation: to learn how to be present in daily life.
When we are fully present, the veils fall away. Then we have the capacity for awe. And that inspires understanding of the nature of all life, how interconnected and ever-changing it is. The more we are able to rest our awareness in that clear understanding, the more the veils soften, lighten, lift, and fall away, even the ones with rabbit hole vortexes.
But even if a veil descends, we get distracted, and our attention starts rolling around down into a vortex, we know how to anchor our awareness in this moment and come into the light of being fully present in this moment just as it is.