This weekend, the band headed to Colorado for three shows. I flew into Denver the night before everyone else because the altitude always messes with me. Playing drums is such physical exertion, and the lack of oxygen manifests in ways that I dread. First, I feel that I can’t lift my arms very high when I play or all the blood drains out, so I change my motions, keeping my arms closer to my sides with smaller movements. This means that I am more in my head as I play, and when I’m thinking more, it is more difficult to find that free, open and spacious no-mind place that makes for joy in playing.
Then, sometimes in the middle of a song, my brain just shuts off. I do silly things on the drums which sound as though I have fallen off the drum stool. I’ll be in the flow, sunk into the center of the song, and suddenly my brain says, “Wait a minute, what? What am I doing here? I know how to play drums?” and everything falls apart. Even though I hate these little train wrecks, I do have to laugh a little. The middle of “Song Remains The Same” is no time for an existential crisis.
I wonder how much of all of this struggle is purely because I have an excuse for it. It’s as though the altitude is a kite string that my brain uses to keep its hold on me, to prevent me from floating into that open sky of no thought. In other words, because I have a potential difficulty to latch on to, my brain does what it is meant to do, setting off alarms to protect my ego by keeping me feeling wary and threatened. When I fall into the quiet awareness that lives behind my thoughts and emotions, what I call the true self, I watch as my brain keeps trying to snap me back into this “reality” with the threat of the danger. I’m going along just fine, and then suddenly, I have the thought, “We are at altitude! Stay focused so you don’t do something dumb!” I then launch into a drum fill that sounds as if I’m falling down stairs.
I am getting better at all this, though, over time. I remember to breathe deeply and evenly and try to relax the center of my body as I play. Anticipation of difficulty tenses the body and manifests the difficulty, so it is important to stay relaxed. I fall into the stillness at the center of the song more often these days, so I am able to get there even with the intrusion of nagging and anticipating thoughts. This weekend, I was able to just love playing, even though the air was thin and the equipment I was using wasn’t mine and I was so thirsty I could never get enough liquid in me. I was in love with playing drums, much of the time. I was able to just roll with what the moments were dishing out.
I saw the progress I have been making when on Thursday morning, I woke up sick with migraine. This manifests as headache and sick stomach in me, so I was in misery all morning. I rode the shuttle to pick up the rental car sporting a plastic bag on my lap and my head hanging out the van window. I loaded up my cymbals and merchandise and suitcase back at the hotel and that took me about 30 minutes between bouts of yuckiness. Then, as I was driving to pick up some rental gear, my eyes started to blur and cross with the pain of the headache and I had to pull off the road for safety.
The Denver airport lies in the middle of a golden, empty basin of vast fields, so the only place I could find to stop was a half-built housing development. I pulled into a cul-de-sac of vacant homes and lay in a ball on the front seat for 90 minutes, until I could drive to the airport to pick up the girls and lay my hands on the magic migraine medicine that I know Gretchen carries with her.
As I was lying there, in the front seat of a rental vehicle on a random just-built road with the sounds of construction around me and the prairie wind gently shaking the vehicle, I felt pretty light. My head was a misery, and I lay curled in a ball with my hands pressed against my eyes so no light could get in. Yet, when I woke from dozing and had a brief glance of sky, I saw a color of blue that doesn’t happen at sea level. Clouds whiter than cotton blew by and in the split second that my eyes opened the clouds imprinted themselves on the other side of the pain, and I watched as their shapes rolled across the dark side of my eyelids.
It was a marvel to be so randomly disconnected from my regular path. Because of the pain and my tendency toward drama, I had some thoughts about death, and how strange it would be for someone to find this body here, on a side-street in a random neighborhood 1,300 miles from home, curled up in a minivan with drum paraphernalia and forty Zepparella t-shirts in the back. My mind moved through the path the investigators would take of trying to figure out who I was and how I had died, and the mystery that would ensue for a while, or maybe forever. Remembered for the question: What was she doing there?
Our lives are so precarious. We are perched on the possibility of random events unhinging everything. I remember reading about a woman who disappeared from her commute from New York to New Jersey. After several months, they finally figured out that she had been standing, probably reading, on a train, when the door opened and she either thought she was at the stop or was leaning on, and she fell off, to the very far marshlands below.
I don’t know why that always stuck with me. I guess I think about all of those moments in my life, when I have been sleepwalking through my day, in a complete fog of the brain, far in the future or far in the past. Not right here, not present. How many times was I that close to catastrophe? With my tendency toward spaciness, it is a wonder I am still walking around.
In the migraine moments, the thing I noticed was how peaceful I was about the whole thing. When you feel so terrible physically, your thoughts become very matter of fact. I have to get out of the hotel room to go to the airport, so I draw a diagram in my head of how I will stand up, put on my clothes, grab the keys and the empty bag and my shoes, and propel myself out the hotel door with the least amount of effort possible. I hear myself asking the driver if I can sit in the front of the shuttle in case I get sick, and watch as I don’t wait for his answer and just crawl in. I watch as I calm my breath to keep from getting sick before I get back to the hotel to load the equipment. I watch as something takes over as I pull off the highway and focus all attention to find a place to stop driving before I have to stop driving. I watch as I lie there, a tiny speck on beige upholstery on a tiny planet in a vast universe, suffering and yet, safe. Peaceful in the knowledge that this too will pass. I have felt worse. I have been sicker. I will live another day and in that day there will be no migraine, no matter what my brain is forecasting now.
Who am I? Who is it who watches as I go through this? There is that unchanging consciousness; there is that eternal center. It is the same awareness that watches as we go through accidents and emotional stress and shock. This is awareness of this moment, and awareness watches as this moment changes. It always changes. Right now, I am alive. The body is in pain. Now, let’s see what the next moment will be like.
I survived, made it to the girls, took the medicine, was about 80% by the time we hit the stage. It all worked out. I knew it would. Playing music is like a magnet of cure. I am pulled to it and the closer I get to being on stage, the more everything wrong gets right.
The next night, in Aspen, a series of brain short-circuitry events happened that I will attribute not only to altitude, but also to a magical bourbon named Jefferson and Colorado’s thriving economy, and I ended up locking Gretchen and I out of our hotel room at 3AM at a hotel that has no manned front desk. Again, stranded. Again, watching as the brain figured out what to do. Again, so peaceful. In situations like this, maybe the first reaction would be to rage against the circumstance that brought us drunk and wandering through freezing streets with our personal effects held hostage in a hotel room, but what would that help? We called around, magically found another hotel, and within a half hour we were laughing and warm and getting ready to pass out in very comfy surroundings.
The ups and downs. I have come to love them.
At my first Vipassana 10-day meditation retreat, S.N. Goenka, the wonderful teacher, said that one day, I would look forward to pain. I thought he was absolutely nuts. I was in so much pain sitting on the floor for hours, and was obsessed with it. I would stretch and stretch and try a million ways to sit, and still, I couldn’t get past the ache in my hips as I sat in meditation. It was an epic struggle for me that lasted for years. I came to recognize that when my mind is unsettled, my body is in pain, and the mind-body connection was so incredibly clarified for me as I let go of my whirlpool of a mind. Still, I couldn’t imagine how I could look forward to feeling like this.
Now, I understand. Of course, I don’t want to have a migraine and I don’t want to lock us out of our room. I don’t want to slam my knuckles against the side of the crash cymbal not once but twice during the show. But these things happen, I become witness to the difficulties, and fall into the awareness behind poor, sick, uncomfortable, uncoordinated Clem, who struggles. There is that infinite consciousness that animates existence. That still and peaceful center is always there.
This is what Goenka would call “the art of living.” It is not about arranging life so nothing will go wrong, since we are on a train that has stops and starts that are vastly unpredictable. The art of living depends on finding our true self, the awareness that watches the trip play out. When we see ourselves from this vantage point, we feel such a well of love and compassion for our egoic selves: our personalities, with all the thoughts and emotions. This is part of what helps us get through the difficulties, this compassion for ourselves. The more we learn to step back and watch our thoughts without reacting to them, the more we celebrate every moment of this journey. With every detour, we learn more about our resilience; we appreciate the joy and beauty that exists around us even as we struggle; and we recognize our eternal capacity for peace.
You can hear me read this here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/finding-peace-at-altitude