Blog post for Applied Mindfulness Training, published October 9, 2018
Despite having two English professors for parents, I’ve always struggled with reading. In elementary school especially, it would take me forever to read a single page. I’d get lost in thought and have to restart the same paragraph over and over. I was terrified to read out loud in class. I’d stumble over words, flip their order, skip lines, stop and try to orient myself, all the while growing more aware of the eyes and ears trained on me (and what I knew they must be thinking.
Looking back, I realize I probably had an undiagnosed learning disability, although I compensated for it by being good at another kind of reading: picking up on context as I listened to people talk. My dad liked to tell a story about bringing me to one of his college literature classes when I was four years old. He sat me at a desk in the back of the room with office supplies to play with while he proceeded to teach. At some point he asked the class, “What’s the term for when someone says or writes something that actually means the opposite of what they’re saying?” After a moment or two of silence from his students, without looking up from my pens and stickers, I chimed in, “Ironic!”
In spite of my precocious vocabulary, it took me a long time to grasp how to interpret a text beyond its surface level meaning. I remember a 10th grade English essay assignment to discuss the themes in Silas Marner. Having only some vague sense that theme could be detected from imagery represented, and recalling numerous mentions of light, I scanned every page for images relating to light. The paper I turned in was essentially a catalog of those instances. I received an F. I wish my teacher had told me that I was on the right track; visual motifs do tend to hint at the larger themes. I also wish that later that year, when I wrote a very bad poem about how depressed and anxious I was, she had asked me what was going on. But this too received a simple F and no further attention.
It wasn’t until a college history class that the key to real reading clicked into place for me. My professor discussed the approach of “reading against the grain”— looking at a historical text and asking, what is the writer not saying, either because it’s taken for granted or because it’s counter to their argument. Reading a text involves excavating layers of meaning. The meaning of words could be changed by the words they’re placed next to. Meaning could even hide in the empty spaces between the words. And sometimes the real meaning is the opposite of what is said.
As I’ve started studying mindfulness with Carol and AMT, I’ve begun to notice that thoughts are the same way. Carol speaks of human beings as vehicles, carrying different parts of ourselves that we could think of as passengers. And she’s encouraged me to get to know my own passengers. She said I would start to recognize their voices by the things I hear repeatedly in my thoughts, and suggested a journaling exercise to create a “passenger manifest.” The resulting document has echoes of that failing high school English paper, only instead of a catalog of images, it’s a catalog of characters and their catchphrases:
There’s an inner voice that says, I’m over it. When someone hasn’t texted me back fast enough, and I start to think they’re no longer interested. (Often I find out that they’re just really busy, or offline, or just slow—independent of me.)
There’s an inner voice that says, they’re mad at me. When someone is less talkative than normal or retreats. (Usually I find that they’re feeling tired, or sick, or sad—also independent of me.)
There’s an inner voice that speaks with urgency, saying you have to respond right away. (I’m learning to read this one as its opposite: This is important. It calls for consideration, time and space, for a measured response.)
I see these as motifs hinting at a larger theme: hard voices obscuring, or perhaps trying to protect, a softer feeling or intuition. I react with anger and dismissiveness when I feel abandoned and vulnerable. I worry someone else is angry when they are unwell. I think I have to act now, when I need time to reflect. I also tend to make harsh assumptions about what other people are thinking. Seeing these examples laid out, I think, my mind is pretty tricky! My thoughts, like a text, need to be approached with curiosity and even skepticism. I need to learn to read my mind against the grain.
The term mind reader implies paranormal powers, though many people claiming to be able to read minds are really just extremely good at reading people. They pay close attention to context and subtle cues that most of us fail to notice. If you apply that same type of close reading to your own thoughts, you begin to see the layers of meaning in your life.
It seems worth mentioning that word clairvoyant comes from two French words meaning clear seeing. Having turned this clear sight inward, and started the practice of reading my own thoughts, it’s relief to discover that, despite a penchant for picking up on context and being a close listener, I’m not actually that kind of mind reader.
As with learning to read texts, when it comes to reading your mind, the more you work at it, the richer your experience becomes. I find that reading does get easier with practice. I’m trying to get more disciplined about it. An essay a day; a book a month. And I’m getting more disciplined about mindfulness. Daily meditation, weekly mindfulness group, and regular coaching from Carol.
Incidentally, I read aloud at my weekly mindfulness and dharma discussion group last month. I didn’t volunteer by any means, but when a Lojong (mind training) book was passed to me, I took a deep breath and let go of the inner commentary about how many eyes and ears were on me and what everyone might be thinking. I put my attention instead on simply pronouncing the words. And to my surprise, I didn’t stumble. In fact, I spoke quite clearly.
This version has been edited slightly since publication. Original Post: http://www.appliedmindfulnesstraining.org/2018/10/05/mind-reader/