by Dan Nussbaum
Something unusual happened to me 35 years ago, the first time I went to Hawaii. People listened to me. I don’t mean that what I said had a great impact on anyone. I just mean that the people I talked to listened to me.
In Hawaii I found that when I began a sentence, I was allowed to finish it. I remember one time when I confidently started a sentence, realized I didn’t know where it was going and felt disoriented when the people I was with patiently waited for me to end it. While I scrambled for a conclusion an inner voice said: How peculiar! They’re not rushing me to get to the point!
I was trained in the New York-style of discourse, where conversation is a free-for-all. Attention goes to whoever can grab it, the most insistent speaker or the funniest. Somewhere behind the scenes of the melee implicit rules exist but they seem to have to do with upholding the right of anyone to break in at any time.
I had become so inured to interruption that when I got to Hawaii it felt odd to get permission to take my time. Now much more than then, most of us live in an environment so filled up with irritating jump cuts, demanding voices and rude intrusions – even our telephones cut us off in the middle of a thought – that we don’t even imagine another way. As I’m writing this my email program barges in with a ping to tell me a message has arrived.
Barging in seems so normal that we can easily miss that meditation instructions can also foster this tendency. If we’re taught to start out with an object of meditation and whenever we have a thought or feeling to come back to the object, then we’re doing an interrupting practice. Labeling and noting techniques cut off experience by having us assign a single word to wrap up complex mental events. Even an instruction that says “be aware of your thinking when it comes up and then when you’re ready gently bring your attention back to your breath” is an instruction to interrupt, although the suggestion here is to do it civilly. Pardon me, madam, would you mind terribly if I direct your attention to the touch of your breath on your upper lip? Perhaps madam would be willing to postpone the examination of her relationship with her daughter until she’s not on the cushion.
When we hear our own thoughts in meditation, when we allow them to go on, we’re like the kind Hawaiians I met. Verbal thoughts are inner speech. We don’t need to interrupt ourselves. In fact when we have non-interrupting experiences in meditation, we can understand that the annoyance we feel when someone else interrupts us is not that different from what we feel when we interrupt ourselves.