What Comes Next?
I had one of those Aha! experiences last evening. Iíd been meditating with a small group, and we were discussing our experiences. As our teacher pointed out, each of us is likely to have some experiences that are unique to them and others that are shared by nearly everybody who practices this "insight" meditation. One of the group said that he often hears music playing in his head, both during his meditation practice and at other times. Sometimes the music is what he enjoys, but sometimes itís not. The obsessive character of the experience is what he was asking about. It rang a bell with me, for Iíve had that experience as long as I can remember. Other people, it seems, seldom or never do. As I thought about it in relation to meditation, I began to sense something that hadnít occurred to me before.
Neurologists tell us that memories arenít stored in our minds like rolls of movie film. Thereís no place you can point to in our brain that contains a particular memory. I wonít pretend to understand the process exactly, but it may be more like the files we store in our computer, often fragmented but with address links between fragments. My experience with music memories is that a fragmentóa chord or a piece of melodyówill enter my awareness, seemingly out of nowhere. I often wake up with some piece of music going through my head. It may be a song that I havenít heard for years or even decades. The fragment runs up to a point, then somehow waits. Iím drawn into the process as I try to remember what comes next. Iíll "play" the piece in my head, over and over, until the missing pieces fill in and it flows by itself. With a large composition, such as classical music, I may run into a blank wall at some point where I cannot remember what follows. That usually doesnít stop the music from playing by itself, over and over.
In my adolescence, I worked hard to memorize the popular songs of the day. Lord knows, I heard them enough. (More than enough, according to my parents.) I did this to a certain extent with classical music as my tastes changed. Itís a big job, though, to memorize the sound of a full orchestra. After years of playing my favorite records and tapes, however, I have come to the point of knowing some of them intimately enough that I can recognize a different recording or a live performance. A single note, or the timing of a particular passage, catches my attention instantly if itís not exactly like the one in my head. I take some pride in my ability to name a concert piece after hearing perhaps a short phrase, and sometimes a single chord. I suppose my ego keeps me practicing that skill, but the results, Iím convinced, are that I keep an awfully large amount of music "on the tip of my tongue." Notice that I am not a musician, except in my head.
Since I began meditating about five years ago, Iíve discovered some things about my mind (which of course is the point of the practice). As I slow down my thinking, there on my cushion, I begin to be aware of fragments of what I call "images" floating to the surface, seemingly in a completely random way. I describe the experience as like watching a murky pond, to which bubbles float to the surface and burst. The bubbles, or images, may be visual or aural. Mostly, Iím aware of the latter. For example, I might "hear" a female voice speaking a phrase such as "as long as weíre here." Nothing else. No association to any events that I can remember. Just those words, spoken distinctly. I figure that I must be spontaneously remembering something from, say, a television program. Itís not necessarily anything that I was paying attention to at the time. Very seldom can I recall the origin of the fragment. And there are many of these fragments; indeed, during a typical sitting, I am aware of a continuing stream of them. Itís interesting to me that sometimes my mind goes off on some story line, which might be a replaying of a memory or a "I wish I had said" kind of fantasy. In those cases, I almost never can put my finger on the original fragment from which the story develops. I assume, however, that thatís what happened. A fragment comes to the surface, and thereís an easy link to the next part, and Iím off and running with the story. Eventually, I notice what Iím doing (that is, thinking), and bring my attention back to my breath, from where I can again begin to observe the workings of my mind.
The old psychoanalytic technique of free association attempts to get at buried memories and connections that affect our feelings and thoughts by threading through the links between memory fragments. The non-threatening ones are easy, so we make our way along these from perhaps different directions until we encounter the difficult or painful ones. When we meet a blockage, when no associated thought comes to us, itís a sign that weíve come upon an area that our unconscious mind doesnít want to deal with. With the therapistís encouragement, we examine it from different angles until we find a chink somewhere to open it to the light of day. The assumption is that these associative links are not random at all, that everything in our mind is connected, if we can only open the doors that our unconscious keeps closed. The mind may seem mysterious, but I suspect that itís only incredibly complicated, and that we can figure it all out eventually.
Last night what began to take new form in my head is my concept of the creative process. With a little effort, I can recall a lot of things, given some starting place. Usually. Sometimes as I try to remember someoneís name I seem to have it "right on the tip of my tongue," but it just wonít come out. As I age, such experiences seem a lot more frequent than they used to be. The number of times I hear a piece of music on the radio and think, "I know that pieceóbut what is it?!!" is becoming discouraging lately. Iím clearly losing some of the neural connections in this vast storehouse of experiential fragments that occupies my skull.
But thatís just the remembering process. What has intrigued me for some time is "where does this stuff come from?" When a composer sits down to create a new piece of music, whether a pop song or a concerto, where does it come from? Iíd expect that at least some of it comes from actual memory, even if itís a fragment here, a fragment there, perhaps rearranged into something new. But I couldnít compose even a simple melody from scratch. I have tried. The result has always been somebody elseís tune. Maybe itís the difference between remembering and creating.
I do write, however. And oftenóindeed, most of the timeóI donít know what is coming next. Like this very instant. I may start out with an idea, such as the one in the title of this essay, and begin "freely associating" until I come up with words for the opening paragraph. Then the piece more or less takes off on its own. I simply record the process with my fingers. Sure, overall, I provide a kind of guidance. Iíve had enough training and experience to sense the logic of whatís being written, and try to keep it more or less on track. And afterward, naturally, I go back and edit. I read it for continuity and relevance, and make changes to improve the communication of my theme. Thatís what they call professionalism, I suppose. The first draft, however, writes itself. Where does it come from?
I used to dabble in film production. Iíd go off and shoot a lot of footage, choosing subjects from what was available according to a dim notion of a theme. Then, Iíd sit down at the editing bench and review the film clips over and over and over until "something" began to emerge. Two clips might just seem to fit together, and then others might share some bit of relevance to them. Eventually, Iíd become aware of the whole thing, what it all seemed to say to me, and then Iíd arrange and rearrange the pieces to contribute to that overall meaning. It was a long process, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. My films seemed to create themselves.
With writing itís similar, in one way, but different in another. The two processes are similar in that what I call the creative part of them often seems out of my hands. If I try to impose my will on it, it crumbles into nothing. My experience is that Iím just watching it unfold. However, as I write, I donít have a sense of a bunch of words sitting there waiting for me to pick from them. I donít go over and over my vocabulary to find out how it fits together. Words just come.
Where do they come from? Do the words arise out of the soup of my unconscious, along with the music and the images, and I just grab the ones that seem to fit the sentence Iím writing? Itís not how it feels as I do it. It feels as though thereís someone inside my head, someone who knows what comes next. Itís unnerving sometimes. But itís also like watching a good movie or reading a good book. Thereís satisfaction in things turning out, even if I donít know how.
This is part of why I continue to meditate. "The puzzle that is me," as Paul Simon put it in one of his early songs, is fascinating to study. Thereís a whole world here inside my head, and I have barely scratched the surface. I donít seem to be able to explore it directly by poking and prodding. So what I do is sit and watch the bubbles in the pond rise and burst, one by one, telling me something. If Iím lucky, Iíll live long enough to understand it, maybe just a little.
Donald Skiff, June 20, 2002