I just finished reading Mark Epstein's Going on Being and he came up with a great metaphor for meditation. Anyone who sits knows how circular the mind can be--racing around in circles, obsessing over the same thoughts, over and over again. Epstein calls this Groundhog Day (named after the movie where Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, possibly forever). In a Buddhist sense, the mind runs on habit or karmic energy. Like wheel ruts in a road, the mind follows habit patterns, which explains why it's so hard for us to change our behavior--it's literally carved into the neural highways in our brains.
The mind tends to dwell on certain thoughts, or at least mine does. Like a dog on a short leash, it walks back and forth, constantly retracing it steps. And the more I pay attention to the workings of my mind, the more apparent my individual mental tics become. Meditation is perfect for this. For me, it's Buddhism itself that keeps popping into my head. It's a subtle form of obsession, for it tends to fly beneath the radar. I'll be following the breath and blam! off I go on a magic carpet ride: I'm thinking about the Buddhist book I'm reading, my blog, or worse, meditation itself. And it's hard to spot, for when I'm in the middle of a reverie about meditation, I often confuse the thought with the practice itself. Damn it! Talk about treachery--my mind will co-opt anything, even Buddhism, to avoid sitting still.
This makes me think of Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop. It's a dense, highly theoretical exploration of consciousness via art, mathematics, and music. Very dry, but good for dinner party conversations if you want to sound smart. Hofstadter posits that consciousness is like a perpetual feedback loop of sorts. He uses the brilliant mathematician Kurt Godel's self-reflexive equations (they actually contain themselves, creating a type of meta-mathematics that could go on to infinity) as a metaphor for human consciousness. Disappointingly, Hofstadter doesn't touch upon any Buddhist psychology in his exploration of identity, consciousness, or the self. But his incorporation of Escher's mind-bending, spatially impossible landscapes are dead-on for the kind of Groundhog Day maze I find myself in. Like Escher's famous two hands painting one another (see above), my mind runs around and round, infinitely. And always on the same subjects--chores, meditation, books. The thoughts feed off themselves; they don't need me at all.
I think this is what the Buddha meant when he spoke of anatta, or not self. For there's definitely an impersonal quality to thoughts, especially since I don't have to actively think them for them to appear. They often have a life of their own. And yet, when I'm mindful enough, I can tighten the dog's leash and rein the thoughts in. When I'm mindful, that is.