Coffee, Chocolate and Love Songs: Mindfulness for the Cynic


When we were teenagers (assuming you the reader are not currently a teenager or a preteen), we often experienced music in a peculiarly personal way. Listening to a given song, it might seem like it was composed JUST FOR US and that whoever wrote the song UNDERSTOOD US PERFECTLY, UNLIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.

This perception magnified whatever feelings we already had, especially when we were smitten by a girl/boy… or angry at our parents/friends… or feeling excited about an upcoming competition/performance… or experiencing any other part of that angsty roller coaster ride known as adolescence.

iPhone HeadphonesFor those of us who aren’t teenagers anymore, we’ve moved on from having that experience… okay, well, most of us have moved on… most of the time. For my part, I can still get pumped up by a song here and yanked down by a song there, however I recognize that these songs are entirely manufactured, carefully crafted to create predictable emotional effects. Take a tiny spark of genuine artistic pathos, inject it into words alluding to some form of unrequited love (which is really just a fancier term for plain ‘ol love), throw it all onto a 4-chord progression [ I-V-vi-IV ], give a little twist of something different and new, and presto!  Our reticular activating system (RAS) will take care of the rest.

And yet, even while knowing all this, I refuse to be cynical.

The song may be manufactured, but I am not manufactured.

My RAS may be looking for familiar patterns within a vaguely-worded poem written by a stranger, but my RAS is pattern matching against me, or rather, some aspect of myself that I (may) want to bring to the forefront of my consciousness.

Better living through chemistry

cupajoeIt’s the same thing with coffee and chocolate. Those are manufactured goods with the chemical triggers of caffeine and anandamide (one of the main active ingredients of chocolate, named after the Sanskrit word for bliss) which can change our mood and mental focus.

However, to write off their effects as mere chemistry is to miss the point:  As triggers, coffee and chocolate magnify something that is already there within us, a latent potential.

Better chemistry through living

empty gym on New Year's Eve - a space between resolutionsIt’s not just music, coffee and chocolate. We can experience a change of emotional state just by focusing our thoughts or actions. Certain activities have predictable effects not unlike coffee or chocolate: cardiovascular exercise, socializing, sex, learning, playing and gift-giving are just a few examples of voluntary activities that can generate feelings of well-being, exhilaration and connection.
In contrast to chocolate and coffee, many of us assign greater value to emotional triggers that require high levels of effort and personal investment.

However a deeply cynical person can dismiss any emotional experience as the contrived effects of a prior stimulus, whether it’s a love song, a shot of bourbon or a 5k run. The unrepentant cynic is a former idealist who got hurt, someone who will happily focus on proximal causes and superficial effects. It’s just easier that way.

Yet all of us are susceptible to a kind of cynicism engendered by logical explanations and scientific knowledge. The understanding of, “I feel like y because I just experienced x,” presents us with a decision, a follow-up question of, “So what?”

So what?

“So what” is a question about significance and consequence.

How we answer the question of “so what” determines a lot.

A weak answer to “so what” can put us onto a path towards alienated cynicism, or send us floating down a river of meaningless gluttony, or drive us up a precipice of terrified asceticism, or have us rotating between all three of those places.

A strong answer to “so what” brings heightened awareness and mindfulness. The more mindful we are of the emotional triggers and our (initial) reactions, the more we can fine tune our experiences and responses, maximizing meaning, purpose and satisfaction. It also helps to develop good taste.

Yes, coffee helps me wake up… but a hot shower does the trick too… and exceptional coffee trumps mediocre coffee… and white chocolate is an abomination (just sayin’). When I give a gift, I give it with both hands and make eye contact. I look, listen, touch, smell and savor the details of these things. I dial down the frightened rationalist living in my brain, and I tune in to the wisdom of my heart.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on December 26, 2014, in Coaching, Communication Skills, Diversions, Exercise, Inspiration, Learning, Life, Metaphors, music, photography, Positivity, Productivity, Psychology, Relationships, Talent and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Dan Spira and commented:

    What’s the significance of our thoughts or feelings, if music or food can alter them so easily? (#2 of 27 revisited blog posts, replaced one image with a new and more text-related photo)

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