My mind has, over time, collected some recursive thought patterns, accumulated and rehearsed over the years, thought patterns that have become ruts, demanding my focus even though it’s my desire to set my attention elsewhere. My personal ruts are usually attached in some way to little relentless character flaws, like anxiety, or, uggghhh, the desire for control.
This morning I found myself wrestling with these old ruts, trying to violently, but unsuccessfully, force the wheels of my apple cart to go in another direction. Entranced, stuck, in unproductive circular thinking, I remembered the famous tale from The Odyssey about the Sirens’ song.
The Odyssey tells a classic tale of the brave-but-weary warrior Odysseus who, dreaming of hearth and home, is thwarted by the gods as he is trying to make his way his way back from war. The story is in many ways a solid metaphor for the human experience, a Hero’s Journey, and in it we are reminded that our battles and boons are meant to lead us ultimately back home where our newly acquired gifts and hard won wisdom can not only help us to see our previous lives in a brighter light, but also serve the higher good.
The Sirens’ Song is the part of the tale that depicts some enticing but threatening ladies who attempt to waylay (and ambush) the hero Odysseus with their song:
“Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians, and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing; for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well-pleased, knowing more than ever he did…” (12.184–196)
The Sirens sing their song in an alluring way that mesmerizes passing sailors, promising both pleasure and knowledge, but sadly, fulfillment of either promise is a lost cause. In reality, their end goal is to sink ships and absorb them, and the men on board, into the sea.
Although the story has taken on different themes over the years, having been manipulated to instill fear as a cautionary tale against a variety of perceived vices, the Sirens are still a ready metaphor for whatever threatens to sink our ships in real time.
The way I see it, I’m convinced the Sirens are all in my head.
This morning, wrestling with my ruts, I happened to be pulling out of the garage to go pick up my grandson Finn when I noticed the changing colors on our Fire Maple, peeking over the top of my house from the back yard. Suddenly, the mesmerizing translucent leaves on that tree had my attention, and I realized I had been reminded of a powerful tool.
I had inadvertently lept over the ruts onto a new path in a matter of seconds.
I am aware of the unproductive tendency I have to force my brain to study blisteringly painful problems that are actually unsolvable in the moment. So, instead of fighting with a mind that was clearly intent on continuing to do what it was doing, nature had given me something else to focus on by simply allowing myself to see what was happening right in front of me.
In a matter of seconds, I was able to do something I couldn’t do before; I let go of a negative thought cycle to fix my attention on a positive one.
Since this morning, my pulsing, rhythmic song of the stressors has called to me, pounding against my amygdala, inviting me to engage in an exhausting-but-hypnotic fight-or-flight dance, and in different moments, I have both resisted and succumbed. It seems to be based on whether or not I am able to simply remember the lesson. This is going to take some practice.
James Taylor wrote a song called “Home by Another Way” that refers to another Hero’s Journey, the biblical journey of the Magi, or “wise men,” that visit Jesus at the time of his birth. King Herod, afraid of the prophecies that a king would be born who would build a kingdom greater than his, sends soldiers to kill all of the children born within a certain time frame, and the wise men rightly assume that Herod’s men would be less than kind to any visitors venerating the potential Messiah.
The original “wise guys” decide that to return the way that they came would not only lead the soldiers to the child, but they might not even survive the journey themselves, so they seek out another route. We trust they made it through on their way home.
“Maybe me and you can be wise guys too and go home by another way.” (James Taylor)
Fear makes us do crazy things. It can make a powerful king like Herod, frantic about keeping his power, kill a generation of children. Fear can feed war, greed, denial and addiction. And it can enslave the likes of me with a bitter, debilitating loop that forces me to witness imagined nightmares again and again without resolution.
We don’t get somewhere new by doing what we’ve always done. So, how do I finally get home by another way?
I fell into this first rut-jump by accident; it just, happened, and I noticed how the maple tree’s orange and red firelight seemed to match the intensity of my stormy inner dialogue. So, how might I replicate that leap? It’s not just about self-care. My brain has been digging in these patterns of thought for decades, so this shit needs to have impact, to pack a punch.
So, here’s the list of rut-jumping fodder I’ve tested so far:
Nature: Watching snow fall, listening to the ocean, sun peeking through tree limbs, dogs. Definitely dogs.
Dance: Silly, child-imitating dance, like Bruno Mars or Justin Timberlake with my 3 year old grandson. (He twerks)
Affirmative words: “I love my life,” or “This day is going to kick ass.”(My rule: profanity that makes you smile is OK.)
Meaningful pictures or videos: Family, the grand babies, my daughter’s baby shower, vintage pics of my dad and mom in their glory days.
Warmth: Long hugs, sweet kisses, hot baths and massage. My gentle husband has been doling out all of the above since the day I met him, which brings me to…
Yes, gratitude: It’s is on everyone’s list for a good reason. It shifts my focus, and when it doesn’t work, it’s because I’m not doing it right. It isn’t just an exercise; it works best when it’s authentic and true.
I know this won’t come easy, and it’s a process.
One thing I know for sure; nothing, absolutely nothing, has come from trying to force my apple cart out of the ditch. I’m going to have to go home by another way.
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“Home By Another Way” by James Taylor