Play it Again, and Again

Getting a piece of music stuck in your head is a fairly common occurrence and largely unproblematic, but when you turn your mind to learning to meditate this background noise can suddenly turn into a serious distraction. Yet still this unwelcome pest can prove to be a useful guest as we learn how to deal with it. Earworms, the name given to a song or a piece of music that gets stuck in our mind for hours and days at a time, can be incredibly annoying. I spend much of any given day with one or another earworm repeating on an endless loop in my mind, in fact it would be more unusual for me to not have an earworm than the other way round. But I could say that earworms are quite central to my practice, because they have been there the whole time and learning to work on them has helped me to understand a lot about how the mind works. The first stages of my practice were marked by the abiding presence of one particular Prince song, which popped into my head for literally every meditation sit I did for the first six months of my practice. It wasn’t the only song that popped into my mind, but it was the only one that turned up every day without fail. Who knows how my practice would have developed if it hadn’t been there?

I know that some (lucky) people never get any music stuck in their head, but I also know that I am not alone in having an internal jukebox that seems to be on constant shuffle. Ajahn Amaro recounted once that the early days of his practice were also blighted with mental musical outbreaks. I remember him saying that for the first couple of years things people said would endlessly remind him of some song or another, which would then play in his mind. I have also noticed that my mind has this ability too, and I often find myself hearing a song in my mind wondering what triggered it, only to go through the lyrics and find a particular word or phrase that related to something I had been thinking about. A recent example of this was I found that the chorus of “Merry Christmas Everyone” was playing in my mind. Being January I wondered why I was thinking of a Christmas song, then I remembered that the verse starts with “snow is falling, all around us”, which happened to be the weather forecast for that day. I read the weather forecast, the song started in my head, simple really.

It can be easy to be frustrated with the things that come up in our mind, but I find it useful to recognise that many of the features of the mind that cause us so much aggravation are also the same qualities that we often delight in, or deliberately try to cultivate. The ability of the mind to connect a song to a brief thought can be incredibly irritating when you are trying to meditate, but it is only an output of the same ability of the mind to bring up strings of associated memories when given a trigger. This ability is at the heart of creativity, the ability to be able to generate rich and complex ideas starting from just one idea, and it is the very same quality that we consciously tap into when we want to learn or remember something. If you want to learn vocabulary for a new language, or retain a lot of information for an exam, it’s common knowledge nowadays that one of the easiest ways to do this is to make associations between things you already know and the new thing that you want to learn.

So this ability to make connections between ideas and memories is a powerful and important function of the mind, but it isn’t uniformly useful for us, in fact often it can be quite detrimental. Earworms are pretty innocuous unintended side effects of the way the mind works, but papañca as I wrote about last week, is a more serious disturbance of the mind that is facilitated by the way the mind works. One small thing can trigger an avalanche of memories and connections, and can build into an unstoppable tornado of thoughts and feelings that overwhelm us.

In general, one of the key ways that we can learn to work with thoughts is to understand that thoughts are not-self. This isn’t an easy thing to do, and it can take many different ways of looking at thoughts and thinking before we start to see how it works in real life. But just accepting that thoughts are not-self on an intellectual level doesn’t usually have much of an impact on how we experience thought; you only have to sit in meditation and try to tell an earworm that ‘this song is not-self’ to see that this approach rarely pays off.

Earworms are marvellously frustrating, bewilderingly random, and admirably dogged in their persistence. Trying to work on them can feel like trying to catch air, but even if we never find a way to make them stop they are still amazing sources of practice. For instance, if you want to talk about developing patience and acceptance, then having the same song in your head on a constant loop is an amazing tool to work on this. Trying to beat the song out of your head doesn’t work, it just ends up like a game of whack-a-mole, no sooner have you stopped the song than it starts up again, often louder than before. So you learn very quickly that another approach is needed. Just letting it be there, and not letting it annoy you, seems to be the most consistently helpful thing to do.

I remember being at a group where Ajahn Amaro came along to do a Dhamma talk, and after it he invited some questions. One woman told him that when she was meditating the same Britney Spears song would pop into her head, and did he have any advice that might help. He recounted a story that he often tells about a demon that had impudently sat himself on the throne of Sakka, the lord of the gods. In Sakka’s absence, the other gods scolded the demon, and tried to shoo him away, but the more they remonstrated with him the more he grew in size:

“Suddenly a bright glow appeared at the other end of the hall and it grew into a dazzling light from which Sakka emerged, the King of Gods. He who had firmly entered the undeflectible Stream that leads Nibbana-wards, was unshaken by what he saw. The smoke-screen created by the gods’ anger parted when he slowly and politely approached the usurper of his throne. “Welcome, friend! Please remain seated. I can take another chair. May I offer you the drink of hospitality? Our Amrita is not bad this year. Or do you prefer a stronger brew, the vedic Soma?”

While Sakka spoke these friendly words, the demon rapidly shrank to a diminutive size and finally disappeared, trailing behind a whiff of malodorous smoke which likewise soon dissolved.”

The moral of the story is nothing to do with Britney Spears of course; the demon was an anger eating spirit, so the more the other gods got angry trying to get rid of him, the more he grew in size. But Sakka recognised he was an anger eating spirit, so instead of feeding the demon he reacted with kindness and cordiality, which took away the demon’s food supply and sorted out the problem. The story points to the fact that sometimes when we don’t want something to be there we actually create the conditions that allow it to persist, our fretting and fussing about it actually feed the situation and keep it going when it might have just petered out of its own accord if we had just let it be.

Thoughts, and earworms, often fall into this category, and the refrain ‘try not to think about it too much’ isn’t as glib as it can sound; sometimes what actually works is to not give the issue too much attention. But something else we can learn from earworms is the difference between not giving something attention and actively trying to ‘not think about’ it. As the Hsin Hsin Ming points out:

“When you try to stop activity to achieve quietude,
your very effort fills you with activity.”

Ajahn Amaro’s advice to the Britney bothered woman was to treat the song as a welcome guest, just as Sakka had done to the anger eating demon. Let the song be there, don’t do anything to try to push it out of your mind. Let it sit on your sofa and drink tea, don’t watch the clock and wonder when it is going to leave, just allow it to be part of your experience and don’t fight with it or interfere with it. Now granted with earworms this can lead to playing a very long game, but what better way to cultivate patience than to allow the same song to play in your head over and over again for the entire length of your sit? Obviously when you are doing this there is always the nagging doubt that the song might never go away. It will, eventually, but this can take weeks sometimes. In the meantime you get to learn something else important – the aim of practice isn’t to make everything annoying and uncomfortable go away, it is to be unperturbed by whatever end of the stick we have been handed. So in the process of being a genial host to your earworm, you can also experience that when you aren’t as bothered by it then it isn’t as much of a problem any more.

Once you learn to be relaxed in the face of the fiftieth rendition of that song, you can also learn that attention can be put where you want it to be, and even though that song is still playing it doesn’t have to stop you from keeping your focus on your breath, or the body, or feelings, or whatever it is that you are using as your meditation object. Attention plays an important part in the persistence of earworms in my experience. When I look very closely at what happens in that little quiet gap between the end of an earworm and it going back to the beginning and starting again, what I often see is the earworm starts again and attention goes towards it and picks it up again. When an earworm stops, the experience I have is like there is an echo that follows it and if I can leave this echo alone, just let it fade out, then the song goes away. But if my attention grabs hold of the echo then the song starts again.

This can be both a useful and a frustrating insight, because we often feel helpless in the face of earworms. Knowing that there is something we can do to make a difference is like a welcome light at the end of the tunnel; but at the same time we can still feel at the mercy of the earworm because even though we know that we must be putting our attention on it and clinging to it, it is incredibly difficult to see this lightning quick movement of the mind, and it can still feel like something that is happening to us rather than something we are making happen. But in the same way we try to not feed the earworm with our wanting to get rid of it, we also need to not feed our frustration at ourselves when we can’t see where we are making the mistake. By staying calm we will eventually start to spot that moment when the mind grabs the song, and having seen that we’ve picked it up, we will then be able to let it go. There is a story that has been attributed to several people, but the Ajahn Chah version of it is one day someone pointed to a big rock in the grounds of his monastery and said ‘do you think that rock is heavy?’ to which he replied ‘only if you pick it up’. Likewise that earworm wouldn’t be quite so heavy if we didn’t pick it up in the first place.

It can be useful too to understand the when and why of your earworms. We largely take it for granted that some songs are really catchy and they just get stuck in our head, but if we dig a little deeper we might find that there are other conditions at play that make it more likely that an earworm will appear. Do you find meditation boring, for example? If you do then you shouldn’t be surprised that earworms keep turning up. Under normal circumstances if you were sitting on your own in a room with nothing else going on you might want to listen to some music, or read perhaps, so it isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to see that just because you call that sitting with nothing else to do ‘meditating’ your normal habits won’t be triggered. Look out for discomfort in your meditation too, physical and mental discomfort can often be the source of the mind looking for a welcome distraction. Pay attention to how you feel when you are experiencing an uncomfortable meditation and a piece of music starts playing in your mind. You might notice a feeling of relief, or a slight lift in your energy levels. This kind of response would be indicative of the earworm being a comfort tactic. So if the earworm is there to take your mind off discomfort, then the way to make it go away is to deal with the source of the discomfort – or to at least stop fighting with the feeling. If you can be cordial to the discomfort then you might find that both the discomfort and the earworm both go away.

The thing that seems to work for me most consistently with earworms is to cultivate patience and acceptance towards it, and then to apply insight to it. What makes the earworm feel like such a powerful adversary is that it doesn’t feel like a thought, it feels like ‘a song’ and it feels like ‘it is playing in my mind’. For me finding ways to recognise the earworm as being just the same as any other object in my mind has helped me to deal with them better. I know that the earworm isn’t me, or mine, it is just a function of the mind doing its mind thing, but of course just saying ‘this earworm is not-self’ doesn’t make a dent in it. What has worked for me is to see more and more that the contents of the mind are just processes, and what comes into the mind is just the outcome of these. The song that pops into my head isn’t ‘the song’, its just a memory of ‘the song’, and it is often not a particularly good one either – there might only be one verse, or just the chorus, or just the bassline and some backing vocals. So ‘the song’ isn’t somehow being magically ‘played’ in my mind, I’m actually just experiencing a memory, and when you have watched the mind for a while you might notice that memories can be like the dishes on the conveyor belt in a sushi restaurant, just the same things turning up and going away again. You might also see that every other memory eventually goes away on its own if you don’t pick it up, and so will this earworm if you see that it is just a memory. When I can trace it as being part of a string of associations, such as snow in the weather forecast, then it makes it really obvious to me that it is just a memory, and if I can spot that quickly then it often seems that it is much easier to put it down before it gets too established in my mind.

But I concede that at times earworms are just impossible: they turn up unannounced, they make themselves at home, and they don’t leave for days, or even weeks. Perhaps though the most important thing that I have learnt from earworms is that the mind has thoughts in it, and there is nothing we can really do about that. Our lungs have air in them and there isn’t much we can do about that either, but we don’t get upset by our lungs continued insistence on breathing all the time, and this is a comparison that we can apply to the mind too. When we start our practice we can get quite fixated on wanting the mind to be quiet, and we can even believe that our suffering will end when the thoughts stop. But as we learn to live with the thoughts that do come up in our mind we can learn that our sense of peace isn’t dependent on our mind being silent, it is dependent on our attitude towards the things that come up in our mind, welcome or otherwise.

Image by blitzmaerker from Pixabay

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