What Music is Playing in Your Head?
by Debra Ross
What music is playing in your head?
You know what I mean by music: That channel of the subconscious that seems always to be playing in the back of your mind even when you're focused on something else.
Often, it's literally music. For me, this week, it's the music of The Jungle Book. That's because my daughter Ella will be in that show at musical theater camp for the next two weeks. The CD is in the car, and Mowgli and Baloo are in my head.
Trying (and usually failing) to dislodge "Bare Necessities" focused me on something I had only dimly grasped: There's always something playing on that mental channel. (Give a listen to your own head and you'll see what I mean. It's sometimes loud, and sometimes a whisper, but rarely absent.) I realized it's not effective simply to tell The Jungle Book to go away; something needs to be already there in the queue to take its place or else back it comes.
I'm finding that the more engaged I am in actively trying to understand and appreciate the world, the easier is to change the channel to something interesting; it's much easier, certainly, than when I'm running at a breakneck pace through life, concerned only with work or with my family. When I deliberately prime my mental pump with a variety of beautiful experiences or profound emotions or fascinating ideas, that's what my mind tends to play in quieter moments on that mental radio. I find that the more active the engagement in real life, the more pleasant are the available channels that I get to listen to.
Give your brain something to think about
Lately, for example, I've been reading the book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, by Neil Peart, who is the longtime drummer for the rock band Rush. Peart is the band's lyricist, and his writing is filled with gorgeous imagery; the book describes the journey he took on his motorcycle through Canada and the U.S. after his wife and daughter died. It's a simple matter, really: When I prime my mental pump with Peart's writing, those images and his discussion become part of the confusing mess of stuff my brain sorts through even when I'm not focused on it. The same thing happens when I surround myself with other kinds of positive and beautiful things: When I attend an orchestra concert (or, of course, a Rush concert), when I head out to my favorite hiking trail for a walk with the kids, when I go to the art museum, when I listen to a This American Life podcast, when I have dinner with intelligent and interesting people, when I attend a history or science lecture, when I try to learn a new skill. Then, my brain has lots of neat material to churn through even when I'm focused on other things, so living inside this head is more fulfilling.
Unfortunately, I find that the times when it's most important to program my mental channels productively are when it's most difficult. Sometimes the "music" is stuck in a terrible, screechy groove: The channel can get stuck on rehearsing the endless list of things on my to-do list, keeping me up at night. Or it can be worries about things I can't control, or, during low times, the negative self-talk that we all succumb to now and then. So forcing myself to experience something fulfilling is critical at those times.
Simple, but not easy
The hardest part is that no one can program your mental radio channel for you; that's something that you and you alone must accomplish. While the solution seems simple (pick up a book! see what's on KidsOutAndAbout.com and get out and about somewhere interesting!), it's not always easy to motivate yourself to fit it in with the rest of life. It's a habit you have to get into... or, maybe, I should say, get BACK into (little kids seem to do this naturally). Balance passive activities like TV or computer time with things that get you "out and about" in your imagination. Get out of your comfort zone a little. Here are some suggestions: Write some poetry (Joe Sottile has suggestions getting started writing poetry for both you and your kids). Listen to a variety of music, especially music you love. See a play. Read a novel that gets at some truth about the human condition, or a popular science magazine, or a parenting book, or a gardening guide. Learn to draw. Paint your dining room. Build a model airplane. Cook something new for dinner. In other words, try to cultivate the spirit of always being on the lookout for the new, the intriguing, the absorbing. Push away from passivity in favor of getting "out and about"... in your imagination. Play, play, play.
And, of course, play with your kids. Show them how darned interesting everything is. Show them that learning never stops. Imbue them with an inquisitive spirit. After all, most of us would argue that a rich, fulfilling inner life trumps material success any day. You might even say it's a Bare Necessity.
© July 2011, Debra Ross