Pause for thought: The cocktail party in my head
I am very often at parties. In fact, as you read this, I am probably at a cocktail party. The trouble is, as with any good thing, it is possible to have too much of it. In fact, I have stopped being able to refuse invitations to these cocktail parties and I have realized only recently that this is because I am the host. I have been surrounded by constant chatter, circling, mingling, short and interrupted conversations all the while laced with the mild anxiety of whether everyone else is having a good time. It gets exhausting, and I never seem to able to stop these parties. This is because they happen in my head, and they are often more real to me than ones to which my body is invited. Only when I step back from myself enough to try to identify why I struggle to do something as simple as sit silently am I able to perceive what Martin Laird calls “…the inner chaos going on in our heads, like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host.”
I hadn’t realized that I have been the one hosting these continual cocktail parties. The whirling thoughts are like guests that stay too long, never picking up the hint that they have outstayed their welcome. As I circulate with them, wishing everyone including me could just go home, it never crosses my mind that as host I could stop holding these parties, stop issuing the invitations to discursive and analytical thoughts from every experience in life I have ever had, and therefore avoid being trapped in a corner with them with a glass at half mast.
Why does this happen? Martin Laird in his book “Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation” (London: DLT, 2006) describes the mind’s obsessive activity like the running in tight circles of an abused dog who had been kept in a cage for years. Even when freed to exercise in a wide open field, the dog simply runs in tight circles. Just as what the dog took for his reality was created by his mind, so our thinking traps us in the belief that our current exhausted experience is the only reality and God, if he exists, is outside our cage and far out of reach. As a result we believe we are “alone, shameful, stupid, afraid, unloveable. We believe this lie, and our life becomes a cocktail party of posturing masquerade in order to hide the anxiety and ignorance of who we truly are.”
But Jesus said “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). This doesn’t sound like a God far away, out of reach of our trapped, obsessive self. This sounds like a God not separate from us but one with us. Once we recognize we have all along been the ones hosting these parties at which we once felt helpless guests, we can turn our attention away from the whirling thoughts, leaving them be instead of believing we have to pay constant attention to them. This frees us to become aware of the deep silence within, the silence which, as R.S. Thomas puts it, “holds with its gloved hand the wild hawk of the mind.”
The truth is, Jesus Christ has already given us union with God. We don’t have to try to strive for it or think our way into it. A prayer word can be a helpful way of giving our racing thoughts an anchor to hold onto, a simple word or phrase such as “Lord Jesus”, repeated whenever our analytical brain is not required for some task. I need to learn to experience what is already mine, to train my thoughts not to chase unwelcome guests but to rest in inner silence in communion with God who is my true reality.
Rev John-Daniel Laurence