Leaving the Toddler Mind at the Porch of the Church

An art historian with a spooky and potentially kinky relationship

I was just reading a lovely article by the New York composer Nico Muhly in the London Review of Books. He was describing his method of composition – which seems to involve a dizzying array of folders and layers and copies and projects which he works on simultaneously as he jets around the world. He’s an elegant writer – of words as well as notes.

While describing the architecture of a composition, he describes it thus:

“What is key for me about creating this sort of emotional and sonic architecture is the possibility of listeners having simultaneous but radically different experiences. Picture a relatively famous church somewhere in Northern Europe: you’ll find tourists there, ticking it off a long list of important sites, being vaguely underwhelmed by the frescoes. You’ll have a local worshipper, lighting a candle for a long deceased relative, you’ll have a verger going about his weekly maintenance, you’ll have a couple whose lifelong fantasy was to see this space in the springtime, you’ll have a Dutch art historian with a spooky and potentially kinky relationship with 16th century depictions of the Annunciation. The building’s architecture allows each of these simultaneous experiences, and no one of them is more ‘correct’ or well informed or meaningful than the others.”

For a toddler, it’s impossible to imagine that anyone else could be experiencing things differently

This struck me as a very egalitartian and open-hearted view for a composer but it also really resonated with what is happening in my heart over the last few months.

That ability to tolerate startlingly different versions of the same reality seems to be the underpinning of what the Buddhists call bodhicitta or the awakening heart.

When we are young (and for many of us when we are ‘grown up’ too) our version of the world is all that matters. For a toddler, it’s impossible to imagine that anyone else could be experiencing things differently to how we are experiencing them right now. Hence the spectacular nature of toddler tantrums.

These shocking disappointments knock back our toddler-shaped assurance

Grudgingly, as we get older, we have to accept that other people’s experience might have some slight validity. For example, not everyone in our family may share our teenage obsession with rap music; or – most painful of all – that the boy that we love may not love us back.

These shocking disappointments may irritate us or knock back our toddler-shaped assurance that the world is there just for us, but generally many of us sail along through into middle aged still assuming that pretty much everyone sees the world the way we see it. It’s just they’re not smart enough to realise it – yet.

However, there comes a point where a slew of insistently ‘other’ life experiences start to make that assumption shudder. Things like the death of a friend, the birth of a child, a life-changing illness or a catastrophe at work: all these, start to perforate our certainty about the world being essentially ‘shaped like us’.

I have lived like a toddler for a lot longer than is comfortable or elegant.

I should probably drop that generalising ‘we’ and speak personally.

I have been guilty in my life of living like a toddler for a lot longer than is comfortable or elegant. My experiences with meditation, with therapy and with Ayahuasca, have all shaken that – bit by bit – but left quite a lot of toddler-mind in place.

I could go into a slew of psychological reasons why that is, but the long-and-short of it is that I have been ‘trapped in the dark prisons of ignorance’ as the liturgy I chant each morning has it. My mind has not – until recently – grasped the reality of other people’s minds. Instead I’ve been using a ‘working-model’ of other people which is – to all intents and purposes – a clone of my own experience.

I am projecting my love of my two, recently deceased dogs

This is what the Buddhists call the illusory nature of ego projection. We don’t really see other people. We simply see a projection of our experience sprayed onto an ‘other-person-shaped’ space.

So, for example, instead of seeing the unique mindstream of that old man and his two dogs waiting at the bus stop with me, I might be projecting my love of my two, recently deceased dogs on to him and feel a bit gooey about them all; or, conversely, be in a hurry to get to work and project the view that he and his two dogs are getting in the way and are, therefore, an obstacle to be manouevered around.

This explains a lot of the depression and lifelessness  in my life.

Practising seeing things as empty of ego projection is the thing I’m attending to now. This has something of Muhly’s North European church.

Meditation points us towards the big spacious architecture of open awareness – within which many sparklingly different mindstreams can be existing simultanoeusly without contradiction. Just as Muhly’s church can have people who are bored, or exulted or kinky and contain them all, so the mind that has learned to relax and become more spacious can make space for the freshness of other people’s reality AND my own reality.

This is the kicker. Being trapped in the toddler-mind where everyone is essentailly an extension of my mood or my plan means that nothing surprising ever happens. Even unexpected ruptures get quickly subsumed into my overbearing habit of mind. I quickly assimilate them back into my ego project. This is very boring. And it explains a lot of the depression, ennui and lifelessness that cropped up in my life.

However, when I start to dissolve the tunnel vision of that ego mind then two things happen.

I can be in my art historian shoes AND in the space of the church at the same time.

One, other people’s reality becomes much more vivid, more surprising, more fascinating. I can see them as they are and their freshness is startling. (And if I stay open to it – this is how inimacy arises.)

The second, for me equally important thing (and this is the thing I overlooked again and again in my meditation practice) is that my own experience is freed also. Instead of being that obsessive art historian that is locked into his story about the single painting in the church, my mind becomes much, much bigger. I can see that kinky obsession in the same way that I can see the bored tourists or the verger, and I know that that mindstream is nominally “mine” but I don’t feel so constrained by it. I can be in my art historian shoes AND in the space of the church at the same time.

To drop my rather tortourous over working of this Muhly-metaphor, I could also say that – latterly, – I have been occupying a space that is simply more spacious and delighted with things: other-things and my-own-things.

When I squash my mood to match my husband’s, I’m erasing my reality.

There is a tendencey when we focus on others to ignore ourselves. Or when we focus on ourselves to ignore the other people in the room. It veers towards EITHER/OR. What I’m discovering over and over in this portion of my spiritual journey is the prevalence of AND/AND.

When my husband is upset and I’m feeling happy, I don’t have to cheer him up or bring myself down. There is space for both moods to be right and present at the same time. When I project my desire to for him to be a ‘bit more upbeat’ on to him, then I’m denying his reality. But likewise, when I squash my mood to match his, I’m erasing my reality. The skill – and indeed, the exhilaration – of ’emptiness’ is that both moods can exists along one another and also alongside birds singing outside and all our neighnours being in their houses, having their experiences.

All the people can be in the church and the church remains sacred. This is the magic of bigger minds…

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  • Jane Davis says:

    When I read the first paragraphs of this blog, since we in the U.S. have have just gone through election season and are headed into more than a month of holiday season starting with Thanksgiving, I thought about such things as “confirmation bias,” the need for acceptance of diversity of ideas, the pressure many people feel during the holidays to mask their emotions and put on a front to make others happy. As I reflected on the blog, I thought about its focus on relationships…You raise a very valuable but surprisingly tough subject. Perhaps because you’re going into vulnerable places where it’s hard to begin to see how misguided we can be in deeming something/someone–even ourselves–‘wrong’ in fundamental ways and thus becoming directive or thinking we can ‘fix’ ourselves/them or it “rather than do what is infinitely more difficult–accept it” (James Baldwin). As the family “people pleaser” when I was growing up–a pattern I carried many years afterwards–it was ages before I realized that mode was primarily a way of trying to escape my own anxiety over others’ unhappiness. (And thus not being able to let the anxiety become the “serving spirit”…) Anyway, this blog took me back to a time when I was in a relationship rocked by…very intense emotions and mismatched moods! Somehow, at precisely that time, I came across something I’m sure you’ve read–R.D. Laing’s little book “Knots”–and realized the patterns he illustrates in relationships are some of what I was experiencing (and doing). At least I could laugh at myself while reading it–but he’s dead serious and I think completely on point in supporting what seems to stand behind what you say about accepting others’ emotions/moods and perspectives. Since you inspired me to find my book which was hidden deep within my bookcase, though you certainly know this, I must quote this snippet that sums up what I think many of us unwittingly do. I find it hilarious and poignant because it’s so recognizable:

    “I’m happy you’re happy
    I’m unhappy you’re unhappy

    Jack’s unhappy that Jill’s unhappy
    Jill’s unhappy that Jack’s unhappy
    that Jill’s unhappy that Jack’s unhappy
    that Jill’s unhappy

    Jill is guilty to be unhappy
    if Jack is unhappy that Jill is unhappy
    Jack is guilty that Jill is unhappy
    because he feels that he should make her happy

    Jill feels guilty
    that Jack feels guilty
    that Jill feels guilty
    that Jack feels guilty

    He can’t be happy
    when there is so much suffering in the world
    She can’t be happy
    if he is unhappy…

    He feels guilty if he is happy
    and guilty if she is not happy

    She wants both to be happy
    He wants her to be happy
    So they are both unhappy…”

    Of course, we can figure out where this mood-entanglement, for lack of a better phrase, leads:

    Jack: You are a pain in the neck
    To stop you giving me a pain in the neck
    I protect my neck by tightening my neck muscles,
    which gives me the pain in the neck
    you are

    Jill: My head aches through trying to stop you
    giving me a headache (p. 30)

    In any case, thanks for inspiring me to think more deeply about these issues and sparking new insights. You always add valuable knowledge to my perspectives.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Ah ‘Knots’! How wonderful to be reminded of them. It’s a hilarious but heartbreaking thing to see how we make each other so unhappy whether happy or sad. What is the solution? I think it is AND/AND rather than EITHER/OR. I can be happy AND you can be unhappy and that’s a richer place than us both pretending to be the same thing.

      I went on a wonderful training weekend with Nick Totton this weekend and he said that ‘Being the same is a very defensive strategy.’

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