Fixations, Fears, and Focus

Galveston, oh, Galveston,

I am so afraid of dying,

Before I dry the tears she’s crying,
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun, at Galveston, at Galveston.”

People in Galveston, Texas have alot of genuine things to fear right now, as does much of the rest of Texas. As I write this, we are in the midst of one of the worst floods in recorded history.

People are trapped and stranded, fearing for their safety and that of their children and loved ones. It is truly terrifying to face your own mortality at the hands of nature, and there is nothing abstract of philosophical about it.  The poor town of Galveston and many like it, are under water.

The fact is underscored by the loss of the great musician Glen Campbell, who famously recorded the song in the 1960s.

I remember hearing ‘Galveston’ by Glen Campbell on the radio one night as a child. I was about 6 or 7 and fixating one part of the lyric “I am so afraid of dying…”.

With that idea firmly planted, I went to my parents that night just before bed, telling them that I was afraid of dying – maybe because I was truly scared, or maybe I was just trying to get out of going to bed like I did every night. Not even sure I told them I got the idea of being afraid of dying from the song, which was probably reinforced by our nightly prayers:

 

And if I die, before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.

 

Scary concepts for a kid who barely has a grasp of how to ride a bike yet, much less deconstruct poetic song lyrics and form a healthy philosophy about death.

There was also the fact that my new baby sister had also just gotten over a serious illness, and I remember my parents later telling me they were afraid she might die, though they hadn’t told me this directly at the time. I think I probably sensed it based on their seriousness however.

In any case, I remember my parents’ response was kind of patronizing, telling me not to worry about my fear, that everyone dies at some point, and just to go to bed…  Hardly a solid, comforting, reassurance needed by a 7 year old not-yet skilled at self-comforting. However, I was determined to be heard, and this patronizing treatment made me even more committed to the idea that I was afraid of dying.

This, regardless of the rest of the song lyrics of Galveston, which actually paint a colorful portrait of a man in a moment of reflection of his desires. The death reference was a metaphor for his sense of emotional urgency I saw later, as an adult. It wasn’t actual fear as the 7-year-old me was playing it out.

Real fear is a part of our built-in survival mechanism, that runs on the biological chemical cortisol. The natural (or artificially induced) release of this chemical controls our Fight/Flee/Freeze automatic responses. Once true fear is invoked, it creates a primordial response that is, for our protection, essentially uncontrollable. It’s nature taking over the controls, focusing all our resources and energy on the fastest path to safety, be it stopping an attacker with force, hiding, or running away.

Part of Vipassana meditation (and many martial arts) training involves short-circuiting these lower-brained responses for when we truly don’t need them, so we become less inclined to react due to stress or fear.  This skill becomes stronger with each continuous meditation practice, though the level our abilities to focus may wax and wain by the day.

When meditation is working in a flow, this is more what I would call a state of focus where we maintain awareness of ourselves and our state of mind. A mind completely full of awareness might be called “mind fullness”. This, as opposed to fixation, which is a looping pattern of the mind.  During meditation we continuously drop from focus to more of a ‘fixation’ state. The state of mind that generates maximum stress in our body during extended meditation sessions.

The nature of this fixation loop is the default mode of the brain that can occur at the lowest level of functioning – when we are most tired and stressed.  The part that repeats all that negative self-commentary in the brain endlessly, encouraging us to give up — until you wake up enough to stop it’s negative droning and go back to meditating. This is the process toward faster enlightenment.

If only I had Vipassana as a 7-year old! The fear I had created about death in my young mind lasted for a few days, and is probably why that memory stuck with me.  It makes it clear now, how much fear we create ourselves on the basis of nothing, except for an abstract idea we’ve committed to. Fear created from something as ephemeral as a song lyric, or a political talking point, shows how powerful music in particular can be, and how our minds can be influenced by something simple or trivial as a mere suggestion, at the right times.

Our response to fear has a net effect in the real world, regardless of whether the object of the fear is real or imagined.  If the objective is peace, then address the elimination of the deadly emotions of anger and fear. They are emotional residue left over from the instincts of our animal-selves, which still exist and will never go away completely regardless of practice.  If we are to be human, we need to learn to live with them peacefully. Through that act alone, we gather wisdom.
Peace and harmony to the people of Galveston, TX.  May wisdom comfort your sorrow and minimize your suffering.  May all beings near and far be happy.
Galveston, oh, Galveston,
I still hear your seawinds blowing;
I still see her dark eyes glowing.
She was twenty one, when I left Galveston.
Galveston, oh, Galveston,
I still hear your seawaves crashin,
while I watch the cannons flashin’.
I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston.
I still see her standing by the water,
Standing there looking out to sea.
And is she waiting there for me,
On the beach where we used to run?
Galveston, oh!
Galveston, I am so afraid of dying,
Before I dry the tears she’s crying,
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun, at Galveston, at Galveston
Songwriter: Jimmy L Webb
RIP Glen Campbell 1936-2017
8/28/2017