I was sorry recently when our minister said in a sermon that he had tried meditation for six months, but "I couldn't stand that monkey mind." I was afraid this statement, backed by a minister's authority, might have the unhappy effect of assuring people that an unpleasant experience is enough reason to give up practice.
"Monkey mind" is a common metaphor in Buddhism - the mind as a nervous monkey, jumping from branch to branch, chattering and shrieking. No peace and quiet, not the bliss we are all hoping to find.
But the fact is, this is not just about mental activity. In itself, an active mind can be delightful. Sometimes we seek it out in scholarship and debate. Some people enjoy flashy movies with car chases and explosions and confusing plot twists, or concerts with smoke and mirrors and surprises in the aisles. The monkey mind people can't stand is something more than just excitement and sparking thoughts. And it is not Creative Monkey, brimming with ideas now that he has a little space to think, or Planning Monkey, who won't let go of the to-do list. It's worse. I'm talking about Obsessive Monkey. It's this one people can't stand. I know it intimately.
It got me right away on my first weekend retreat. Everything was wrong. The basement space we ended up in was ugly and crowded, not anyone's idea of a spiritual space, and smelled of mold. I am allergic to mold. It was hot, very hot and humid in that airless room, a thunderstorm in the offing. I was sweating. I hate to sweat. The chair I sat on was vinyl, and I was wearing shorts. Whenever I peeled my sticky, burning thighs off the chair and readjusted myself, the noise was loud. The leader cautioned me to stop doing that. I burned with embarrassment.
In a lengthy lecture on Zen etiquette, all new to me, we had been told we had to come to every sit, had to walk in a line to the dining hall holding our hands in a certain posture and looking down, and they were going to wake us up at 5:00 in the morning. I was too shy to ask if it could possibly be true there wasn't going to even be any coffee before the first sits. (Yes, it was true, proving to me that I could live through even the most extreme hardship.)
It was insane. I felt somewhat like I had been dropped into a really bad high school play written by someone with issues. And my body was giving me fits. I have fibromyalgia, and trying to sit up straight in that stupid vinyl kitchen chair made my back hurt all the way up to my neck. My head ached, my jaws ached, my shoulders seized up with pain. You weren't supposed to move, not that moving helped for very long.
I had been meditating for about two years at this time, but my method failed me now. I could only think of how incredibly miserable I was. Quickly these thoughts became an obsessive anxiety: I can't stand this heat I don't tolerate heat well Tom knows that could I get him to leave he won't leave tonight, he's like that, he always sticks things out maybe I can get him to see how much I'm suffering he could get a ride home with someone else maybe he would leave tomorrow, maybe at noon maybe we could compromise marriage is supposed to be about compromise. . . . Hot, it must be a hundred degrees in here, when is it going to storm, I can't stand this I can't stand another
Suddenly the teacher at the far end of the room shouted into the quiet, Sink into the heat! Everything in my mind crumbled and fell to the floor, as at the same time my stiff, suffering body relaxed and I exhaled. I felt -- well, there. Relaxed. I was just sitting in a chair, no longer resisting the discomfort with all my heart and soul. The monkey fell quiet.
From there on the retreat became a memorable experience, and I will always be grateful to that teacher, Daniel Terragno, for his kindness to a novice. By 9:00 Saturday night, the end of a full day of sitting, I felt clarity and peace. I recall going into our room and turning on the big floor fan, looking out the window at a field of golden grain gently waving in the twilight, and thinking I had never seen anything so beautiful. I was perfectly happy. When I told the teacher that the next morning, he smiled and said, "This too shall pass."
Thinking about this experience reminds me of the importance of having teachers whose job it is to help you cut through your stuff, to surprise you out of your obsession, to assure you your experience is normal and encourage you to stick with the ups and downs.
Lay people, even those who have teachers, meditate at home most of the time, where Obsession Monkey can catch us off guard. His chatter may be about some problem with another person, someone who hurt you, a painful memory, an anxiety, a symptom you're not attending to - in short, something you'd rather not think about. My experience is that I have to turn the volume down on the chatter and sit for just a moment with whatever feeling it is arousing. And then return to my breath. And return to my breath again. That doesn't mean I can ignore the issue.
When an obsession is loud and persistent, it's a psychological or life problem that we're being called to pay some attention to off the cushion. It isn't coming up for no reason, and it isn't irrelevant. It's coming up because meditation gives us the space, the occasion, to meet our real self. This is exactly the time not to quit practice.
In other words, love the monkey. That monkey mind is actually our friend. It is us, our own mind demanding we pay attention to our own reality. It is one of the ways a steady practice leads us toward a more peaceful and satisfying life.