Taming My Inner Pigeon

Jack has a lot of books. One of them is Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems. In the book, the bus driver leaves you, the reader, in charge of the bus for a little while. As he departs, he gives very clear instructions. Three guesses what they are. (See above title.) Then the rest of the book details the ways in which this wily bird tries to fool you, the reader, into letting him drive the bus. Honestly, it annoyed me at first. But it is really a work of brilliance, in part because it’s interactive. The kid reading is supposed to keep yelling, “No!” to the pesky pigeon. Brian and I actually have a pretty good time trying to out-shout each other. We’re always laughing by the end. Jack just sort of rolls his eyes at us. I think he’s practicing to be a teenager.

So, this may seem like a strange segue, but this book reminds me of healing school, where my teacher told us (among many other things) that all parts of our selves, including the little itty bitty annoying parts, are allowed to have a seat on the bus. We let everyone ride. But not everyone can drive. The four-year-old part of you who feels abandoned and cheated because he has a new sibling has a place and must be heard. But he can’t be in charge. That’s your job. The grown-up you. The integrated you. The one who can reach the pedals and steer at the same time.

A dear friend of mine and I were talking on Saturday about the inner voice that tells you that you’ll never get married, never have children, never finish writing that book, never lose that weight. And we talked about how we need to tell that inner voice to fuck the hell off. In Buddhism, they call it “monkey mind” (as opposed to “Big Mind”). My life coach (Yes, I have a life coach. Don’t judge me. She totally rocks.) calls this voice the Saboteur. It may be true that you don’t get married, decide not to have children, drop the book for a different project, or decide you’re fine at your current weight. But the Saboteur makes you feel shitty about it. You won’t lose the weight, and you’re a horrible person, too. The writer and Zen teacher Natalie Goldberg says that her monkey mind says basically three things: “You’re stupid! You’re ugly! I hate you!” Over and over again.

That seems to be the signature of the Saboteur: repetition. It’s like the pigeon from the book, trying every angle to make you cave to its will. From the study I’ve done, I believe it’s a structure in our ego that’s trying to help us, trying to keep us from failure or hurt or danger. But it’s a stupid little bird, and it doesn’t need to be in charge of anything. So I’ve learned a little trick that helps me actually go into my studio, pick up the phone and call my old friend, sit down and write the next chapter, take a walk or go to yoga. And yes, I learned it from my life coach. So there.

Every day, I sit down and set a timer for five minutes. I take on the persona of my Saboteur/Monkey Mind/Pigeon, and I write out all of those horrible things I hear it shouting in my head. Before I begin, I say something like, “OK, you’ve got five minutes. Say it.” Then I start writing. It’s always variations on Natalie Goldberg’s example. You suck. Nobody likes you. Blah fucking blah. But I let it speak, and I write down everything it says. Usually in a five-minute span, it will repeat itself at least two or three times. It has a very limited repertoire. Then at the end of the five minutes, I stop writing. I tear out the sheet of paper and rip it into tiny pieces, and then I throw all of the pieces into the trash. Then I say something like, “OK, you’ve had your say. Now fuck off and get out of my way.” And I walk into the studio and get to work.

That voice has gotten stronger since Jack’s autism diagnosis. It gets stronger when I’m about to do anything scary or exciting or new. But I get stronger, too. And I’m finding that when someone on the outside triggers that nasty little pigeon voice, I can shut it down pretty quickly. Not every time. But more and more often, as I keep practicing, I’ve found that I can stop internalizing that critical voice and tell it to fuck off. Of course, we don’t use the F word when reading Jack’s book, but I think the glee with which we shout “No!” is good for something.


4 responses

  1. The writing here is really great Chris. I’ve always been of the opinion that better writing comes from getting some distance from a thing, but I think you really write better when it’s like RIGHT IN YOUR FACE. Seriously. It’s weird.

  2. P.S. You have great insight into yourself. I can’t even stop myself in the middle of self-loathing to say, “Hey, you’re totally hating yourself. Why don’t you sit down and have a little written rage about it?” Nope. Too busy bitching myself out to notice. But now I’m really going to try and notice so I can try this.

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