Run Lola Run (Lola rennt) is an intriguing 1998 German film. It is composed of three sequences that have the same beginning, but evolve and end in very different ways. A young woman hangs up the phone after a call from her boyfriend, and has 20 minutes to save his life by bringing him a large sum of money, which she hopes to get from her father, a bank manager.
In the opening sequence, Lola runs down the stairs past a man walking his dog, and at the bank gets into an argument with her father who is talking to his mistress. Tragic consequences ensue. In the next sequence, events again start from the moment Lola leaves her house. This time however she trips over the man walking his dog, and the ten-second delay means that she arrives at the bank later, which substantially alters the outcome. In the third sequence Lola also races down the stairs, but this time she leaps over the dog. No ten-second delay, and a completely different ending.
A small but vital distinction produced disparate sequences for Lola, leading to profoundly different conclusions. Similarly, my droll little story involves problems that I created for myself and how, in working through them, different consequences have, over time, played out.
“Oh, if only I’d listened to my parents! I’d be a doctor today, making lots of money and living here.” It is while taking a walk past the beautiful houses in the neighborhood that I have these reflections. And it’s like that every time I walk by. Same houses, same remorse.
Plunged in thought, I don’t notice the beautiful cherry tree in full bloom or smell the lilacs that abound in the area. Even though breakfast was not long ago, I suddenly feel like having a treat. I decide to go by the bakery and buy myself a muffin or two, ignoring my doctor’s advice to go easy on the fat and sugar. Then I’m back to my remorse, which quickly turns into financial worries for the future.
Behind me, footsteps approach and I’m overtaken by a gorgeous pair of legs. I mentally hang on to them and my worries are suddenly gone. I speed up, trying to make the pleasure last, but my hernia reminds me of my age. “Oh, if only I were 20 years younger. No more of these beautiful bodies for me now.” Indifferent to my regrets, the jogger lopes away, then turns left.
Since there is no hope of catching up, I continue straight on to prevent a diversion that would have taken me away from the muffins. That annoying hernia won’t let go. “Damn old age!” I try to forget my hernia by fantasizing about the owner of the legs, imagining scenes that she would surely not agree with.
The screech of brakes and a horn! “Hey, knucklehead! Watch where you’re going! Don’t you check traffic before crossing the street?” I reply with a well-known gesture. “Okay, okay! Calm down! You don’t own the road!” I move on. “Who does that guy think he is?”
Rejecting my doctor’s warning regarding fat and sugar, I take a right towards the bakery. “No harm in pampering myself a little.” Busy convincing myself that I know better than the doctor, I fail to notice a hole in the pavement. You can guess what happens next: “Damn, that hurts! Bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing city workers!” I don’t go to the bakery. Instead I limp and mumble my way home: “No money, a hernia, twisted ankle. Why do these things happen to me?” And to top it all off, getting old means that I can’t even pee easily anymore.
“God, the house is far!”
It has been four years since I attended my first Vipassana course, four years in which I have been trying to follow the recommendation to maintain continuous awareness of bodily sensations, to gradually come to a more thorough understanding that each sensation lasts only for a moment and is immediately replaced by another. Not very skilled at first, I set myself simple goals, like keeping my attention on a moving part of the body, until the next streetlight, for example. And repeat when I get distracted.
As I still do, I walk in the same neighborhood, but this time meditating—that is, simply being attentive to the sensations, to the reality of the moment. I pass by the houses, still beautiful, and notice an unpleasant sensation that accompanies a familiar “Ah, if only I had ….” Rather than being carried away, I maintain my awareness and notice that the unpleasant mental feeling disappears and is replaced by another one, very pleasant this time, at the sight of this superb cherry tree in bloom. While taking the opportunity to fill my lungs with the scent of lilacs, I notice a sensation in my stomach: a craving for a muffin. Not long ago I would have implemented a strategy to deny the doctor’s recommendation and instead plan a route to the bakery. Not this time. I simply notice the desire. “Let’s see how long it lasts.” I don’t even have time to finish the sentence before the craving disappears. I love this awareness thing.
Suddenly, familiar footsteps. Yep! Another beautiful pair of legs. Now the feeling is really good. I’m able to resist the temptation to try and catch up, but it’s still hard to avert my gaze. Since I want to make the pleasure last, I let myself get carried away by the woman’s features, and speculate on her shape. I shake it off though, and quickly come back to reality. I’m beginning to better understand that what I think of as a “beautiful woman” there in front of me, is simply a mental construction, an image made by me that has nothing to do with reality. It makes sense: what I see as a pretty woman, a tiger would see as his next lunch.
The jogger takes a left and disappears along with the pleasant sensation. That didn’t last long, did it! Back to awareness. About to cross the street, I notice a speeding car coming. I stop and let it pass, saying … nothing. What would be the point? A friendly wave of the hand and back to attention.
An image of a muffin reappears, along with some mouthwatering. “Let’s see how long this craving lasts.” Gone is the craving. Then, oops! It’s back. And it disappears again. Persistent, this desire for pleasure.
Thanks to my awareness, I avoid a deep hole in the pavement. The same one? Perhaps. In any case, it’s grown since the last time. It’s changing too. The craving for muffins shows up again, and then goes away. Again.
A little tired, I turn the corner and remember that the house is still far away. An unpleasant feeling arises. And a smile. “Well, anyway, this will be something interesting to watch.” No anger, no sprain, no regret, no worry ... and no sugar. It is protected by this form of attention—and in peace—that I return home, determined to work even harder at it. It’s so much safer.
In my 2005 sequence, where was I then? Ah yes: “Stupid motorist! If it hadn’t been for him, I would have seen that hole. Bloody sidewalks. When are they going to fix them! Ow, that hurts! Damn ankle. And just thinking that I now have to go and make sales calls makes it hurt even more. Bloody job! I’m fed up! I wonder what we’re having for dinner? Ah, shoot! I was supposed to bring back some coffee. Damn ankle. It really hurts! All I wanted was a couple of muffins. I mustn’t forget to make an appointment with the dentist. How much is that going to cost me! I need a diversion. I hope there’s a good movie on tonight. It was fun when we went as a gang of friends to see Groundhog Day. I wonder what happened to those guys? Finally, the convenience store. Would you look at that nitwit coughing his lungs out smoking! People are so stupid. Ah, to hell with the doctor. I’ll at least treat myself to a chocolate bar.”
All that in less than a minute! And with another ten minutes of walking still in front of me, there was the fallout from the convenience store: “Argh, I don’t feel well. I shouldn’t have eaten all that chocolate! God, the house is far!”
Towards the end of each Vipassana course, we are advised to meditate continuously, that is, to remain constantly present to all the physical and mental phenomena that are occurring within us at each moment. The one-hour sessions, morning and evening, constitute the training, but we are advised to try to maintain the continuity of our awareness. It’s a unique form of attention that takes some time to master. And as one can see from my adventures above, this is not something that I was used to doing.
I stumbled upon some words of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, a prominent teacher of this approach to meditation, and always remember and try to apply them: “Work to know this law of change as continuously as possible. This is what is true of nature: the impermanence and decay of everything that exists in this universe.” He also said that continuity of attention was an essential factor in any lasting positive change in life. I was skeptical at first and didn’t work too seriously. As a result, there was no continuity of mindfulness, and thus I was often trapped in a “hamster wheel,” as we call wallowing in my country.
Gradually, cultivating this form of mindfulness, I realized how little I knew about my own inner mechanics. If one wishes to get out of one’s malaise, doesn’t it make sense to begin by investigating the machine itself?
So I had to start by finding out what was going on inside moment by moment and, above all, influenced by my eagerness to rebuild, avoid reaching conclusions too quickly. I ended up realizing that it is precisely this eagerness that makes me cling to my preconceived ideas, my opinions, my personal preferences, and to what I am sure I already know.
By paying attention, I began to discover that when even the smallest manifestation of agitation or annoyance arises, it is because I unwittingly placed myself at the centre of my thoughts. With lots of Is, mes and mines in each of them, as in the 2005 iteration.
Does anyone doubt that I was indeed the person behind those thoughts, the one who indulged in such verbal diarrhea—the volley of words, wild mental leaps, one thought interrupted by several others, not knowing what thought would come next? Well, I assure you, when I’m walking in the neighborhood and come across a passerby yelling at someone who isn’t there, it’s clear that there’s not much difference between him and me. It’s only a matter of volume.
A bit of madness, isn’t it? The Buddha himself would have told me it was and I wouldn’t have believed him. Such was my ignorance.
Practicing continuous awareness with patience and perseverance, as recommended, whenever the onset of a chain of negative thoughts occurs I immediately try to return to the observation of bodily sensations. I say try, because it’s not easy to look at the beginning of an emotion without climbing back into the hamster wheel.
Wanting at all costs to do “something” with an unpleasant feeling, it’s difficult merely to notice and let it dissipate by itself. If, for example, anxiety arises, I find it difficult simply to return to a calm observation of sensations, perhaps worried that I won’t worry anymore. Worried that I won’t worry anymore!?! A bit of madness there too, isn’t it?
What was gradually taking place through this repetition of returning to sensations was the slow development of a capacity for detachment.
By working at it and cultivating an ability to detach myself from my own thoughts, I can better examine them objectively, and see them as simple, impersonal phenomena, constantly appearing and disappearing, each according to the conditions of the moment. In other words, all those “I can’t stand it,” “I know more than you,” “You hurt me,” “How stupid,” “I can pamper myself a bit,” “I don’t agree,” “I’m so not in the mood,” “I’m fed up,”—I stopped believing that they were real. I now see them as insubstantial distractions, of no importance whatsoever, and many have completely disappeared, or are in the process of disappearing, from my inner world.
This form of mindfulness has become a formidable protection against those emotional outbursts that have always plagued me. Contrary to what one might mistakenly suppose, these subtle achievements are not due to any personal force of will or intelligence, and I can therefore take no credit for them. It happens absolutely naturally, gradually, as long as I have the humility to follow the instructions and stop thinking that I’m someone special, someone who knows better.
This form of attention that the Buddha advocates protects me as I have never been protected before. To stop being so attentive—and with a mind that yet continues to look for trouble—would be a reckless letting down of my guard. In my own personal movie, I prefer this latest iteration.