It’s hard to meditate when Miley Cyrus is stuck in your head. You try to think “In breath, out breath,” but then she comes thundering through all that steady, placid stillness, and it’s not just the repetitive hooks and simple, major chord riffs to which the Western brain is so attuned, or that pink tongue wagging at you, or even the image of her swinging naked and reckless, throttling the chain of a gigantic wrecking ball. Instead, it’s the simplest refrain, steamrolling your thoughts over and over again: “We can’t stop/We won’t stop.”
My partner and I currently live on an island in western Micronesia, in the middle of the equatorial Pacific, in one of the world’s least populated countries. According to the 2005 census, our nation’s capital has a population of “less than 391.” We don’t have a TV. Our Internet connection is reminiscent of AOL dial-up. We make phone calls on a landline using absurdly expensive calling cards. By 2014 standards, we’re ridiculously unplugged. We talk about moon phases and tide schedules the way we used to talk about apps and upgrades, and I am more likely to witness human trafficking or injury-by-coconut than I am to witness a streaming YouTube clip (“What does the fox say?” I asked. A friend’s reply: “Buffering.”).
And yet, the news feeds leak. One way or another, Miley finds you. You walk into a bar where streamers from last year’s Independence Day still drape the ceiling, and somehow they’re broadcasting her “Wrecking Ball” video, and you watch, mesmerized, as this girl, slim-boned as a bird, tries frantically to fill the white space of the screen. Or your sister sends you a flash drive stocked with sounds from the mainland. The bird sings, “La da di da di.” She likes to party. She does what she wants and doesn’t take nothing from nobody.
And so even here, in this most remote setting, where you could sync your breath with the metronome of ocean waves and clacking banana leaves, you hear those words instead. We can’t stop. We won’t stop.
I wanted to tune her out. But in the context of meditation, those lyrics exploded. They began to encompass all of the things I feel as a human being, hurtling reckless through space and time. No matter where we are, the clocks will not stop (on a tropical island, the rising and setting of the sun become only more pronounced events, and impermanence is the Earth, washing away with the day, with the tide, beneath your feet). Responsibility will not stop. The rapid-fire flicker of sticky ideas and earworms and images on our info-addled, creative animal brains will not stop. The worldwide web of It’s our party power and struggle, the tech and the chatter, the plastic and politics and flash and raunch and overconsumption and cyclical poverty and mass-market fear and boredom and Selfies and YouTube and sorrow and oppression and celebrity obsession and fame and famine and Hanna Montanas and manufactured pop stars and wealth gaps and war and addiction and bombs and achy breaky hearts and instant gratification and injustice and crime and punishment and misplaced desires and tune-it-out privilege and monopolies on truth and bits and tweets and twerks and waste and I’m-not-good-enough, or you’re-not-good-enough, and if-I-only-had-the-person-
Every time that chorus swung back at me, the words wore a new expression. They were tormenting—WE CAN’T STOP WE WON’T STOP—then they were a cry for help. They were an anthem, a resolution, and finally, a fact of life.
I could have been anywhere in the world, sitting cross-legged on the cold tile floor of our apartment, on top of a faded couch cushion, with my laptop and assignments waiting for me at the kitchen table and this song in my head. Alone and buried, suddenly, beneath this tidal wave of emotion, a thought wall crumbling at the back of my brain, I couldn’t help it. I opened my eyes. I sang along to the space of the empty room: “We can’t stop…we won’t stop…” My voice echoed off the blank white walls and then disappeared, like those instantly fading text messages we’ve heard about. My mind stilled. I thought “In breath, out breath.” The song returned. I let it play. I let it go. It returned. I let it go.
And so I made my peace with Miley, as I have with the tides, for the morning, for the moment, for now.