Rain, Cat Tails, Buttons, and Thinking

It’s rainy this morning and a little bit cold. Very much like it often was when I was in high school in the Pacific Northwest. But, although rainy and a little bit cold perfectly describes most of the mornings when I was in high school, the chill and the sound of the rain here now in New York in 2020 is very different than the chill and the sound of the rain in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. In the same way that if you are somewhere else, in Ithaca or India or Japan or China or Africa or the Netherlands, when you think of the chill of the rain, it means something different to you.

In New York in the summer, it gets hot and humid. When I was little, we used to spend summers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on my grandfather’s farm, where it was also hot and humid. But the hot and humid of a New York City summer day is not the hot and humid of a Florida day in the 1970s or even now. In Florida, it rains at lunch time, regular as clockwork – or at least it did before global warming, I don’t know about now. After it rains, the air is lighter, easier to breathe, as if the earth and sky had sighed and relaxed. When it rains on a hot summer New York day – which it does mostly on Fridays, when people want to escape the city, and business travelers want to come home – it rains with thunder and lightening and the rain comes down in huge buckets and the streets flood so that you are sure to get splashed with hot, muddy water. After it rains, the air is thicker and even more humid, and even harder to breathe. Summer rain in New York increases the pressure instead of decreasing it.

A few years ago, I visited a friend in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I recognized the feeling of the air there, the drone of the insects, the smell of the hot sands and the heat on the mesquite trees, from previous visits I had made there and from living in Tucson, Arizona for five years, although that was not quite the same. Yet this was different from the sounds and the smells, and the feeling of the air, in Culiacan, Mexico, where I spent several weeks on business a couple of years ago, although to many New Yorkers, all three places conjure up “the desert,” a generic place of heat and sand and cactus.

It’s easy, when assessing situations, to make the mistake of assuming that, because this is like that, it is the same. When you feel the chill of morning rain, to assume that this is the same type of morning rain that you grew up with.

Cats do this a lot: they are eating peacefully and suddenly there is a noise – perhaps a truck passes by with a noise it’s never made before – or a clumsy human nearby steps on their tail and they feel pain. The next time they are eating, they remember that and they don’t want to eat in that spot anymore or they don’t want to eat that same food. The sense memory is too great for them – they equate the taste of that food with being startled or hurt.

A few years ago, I read about a study that some scientists did, where they sat people in a room with a board that had buttons and lights on it. Each person was told that their job was, when they saw a light come on, to turn it off, and then they were left alone in the room to do it. A light came on and the person pushed a button and the light went off. A few seconds later, the light came on again, and the person pushed the same button and the light went off. Ok, they understood their job, it seemed kind of pointless and they could do it. The next time the light came on, they pushed the button again, and this time the light did not go off. Hmm. They pushed a different button, and the light went off. Then the next time the light came on, they pushed that button and the light did not go off. So then they pushed the first button and then the second button, and the light went off. Ah, there was some kind of pattern here. If they could just figure out the pattern…

The scientists observed them from outside the room as they tried to figure out the pattern. Some people varied the speeds with which they pressed the buttons, some people the force with which they pushed the button. Some people, knowing they were watched, altered whether they stood or sat while they pushed the button. Some people made up little dances: first I lift my right foot, and then my left hand, and then I push the button.

None of them figured out the exact button-pushing pattern that always turned off the light.

The lights were random; there was no pattern.

Sometimes when we find ourselves in a situation that feels familiar – morning rain with a little chill – we remember the morning rain with a little chill that we experienced before and, like our cat, we think we know that this rain is associated with some kind of physical or emotional experience that we’ve experienced before.

It’s like when someone says to you, “We’ve got to talk.” If a guy says that to you, you know you’re about to get dumped. Or if your boss says that to you, you know you’re about to get fired or at least severely reprimanded. The second you hear those words, you brace yourself for what is coming next and all your hackles go up. You mentally plant your feet and prepare to engage in fight or flight.

“We’ve got to talk” are trigger words that everyone recognizes.

But what other trigger words do you have?

And are they accurate?

Or are they, like the cat that gets stepped on when she’s eating chicken-flavored food, a false association? Just because she’s eating chicken-flavored food doesn’t mean that she’s going to get stepped on again.

We spend a lot of time trying to find the button-pushing patterns that will turn off the random lights in our lives, looking for the pattern that will generate happiness or turn off pain.

Can we get familiar enough with ourselves and our reactions, to recognize the triggers as they happen, and learn to slow things down, to separate the trigger from the situation and from the reaction? So that maybe we can eat the chicken-flavored food without associating it with pain in our tails? And maybe recognize random patterns in our lives that we’re not going to be able to control, and recognize them with humor instead of frustration?

That is what I am practicing when I meditate. I am practicing recognizing when I am thinking.

I am practicing slowing things down.

I am practicing humor.

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