Barrel of Monkeys

The Buddhists call it Monkey Mind, where the mind jumps from thought to thought the way monkeys jump from tree to tree. I first heard the concept at a meditation retreat. The leader was rather militant, a rarity in the meditation world, insistent that we follow the “rules” of meditation. Since there really are no rules, I figured she meant her rules. Rule 1 required us to keep our eyes open, yet unfocused. Rule 2: only follow the breath- no mantras allowed. I’ve never been one for following rules, in fact, the more they’re emphasized, the more likely I am to break them. I’ve spent most of my life in my terrible twos.

Speaking of breathing, I failed that first time around. Funny thing- at first I thought I’d won. Turns out there’s no prize for Competitive Breathing. At my first retreat, the leader asked us to start breathing. My immediate thought, which I fortunately did not share, was “weren’t we already doing that? I mean, we’re all not dead, right?” But I complied. “Take a deep breath in, “the leader intoned. I did. In and out and in and out, etcetera etcetera. Then the leader said, “…and now exhale. Slowly.” Seriously? I had breathed like a million times already. That’s why I thought I’d won. I was later enlightened on the whole deep breathing thing. Most people breath only as deeply as their chests, instead of deep in their bellies. Me, I wasn’t getting much past my throat. Not winning.

So the Meditation Nazi was walking around, checking to see if we were in compliance. She couldn’t hear what I was thinking, so I was defiantly mind-chanting a mantra, but she could see that my eyes were closed. She hissed in my ear, “Open your eyes.” I thought it probably un-Buddhist to whack her upside the head (although hissing isn’t very Buddhist either) and whispered to her that I had trouble staying focused with my eyes open. Ever notice the dust motes from the sunlight, I asked? And the rug has an odd pattern, doesn’t it? There’s a stain over there. And the underside of the flip flops on the person in front of me is sorta Escher-like, isn’t it?

She rolled her eyes- also not very Buddhist- and walked away.

After the meditation ended, she told us about the Monkey Mind, eyeing me accusingly throughout her explanation. She suggested that when thoughts float into one’s mind, a good approach is to view the thoughts as bubbles, and mentally summon a feather to gently break them.

Mental bubble wrap! I couldn’t wait to start popping my thought bubbles.

But this added a whole other dimension to what was already a major meditation production. An early teacher had suggested looking at intrusive thoughts as if they were floating by on a river, and to just let them float on. But my mind started filling it in with all kinds of cool fish, frogs, rocks, shiny things (a ring!) trees on the bank…it got way too busy in my river. So I imagined myself sitting on the wall in the front yard of the house where I grew up, and my thoughts as things in the yard. Which became my dad in his jeans and white t-shirt on his Gravely tractor that morphed into an elephant (stampeding thoughts?) with my dad still aboard, clinging desperately, a ream of people-sized to-do lists running around, having somehow developed paper legs and feet, and a lot of other random personified thoughts. “We’re painting the roses red…” There was a goat, but I don’t remember why.

And now there were a whole lot of monkeys. Swinging from tree to tree. Hanging off each other like a Barrel of Monkeys. Throwing bananas at the elephant. Riding the goat. No amount of poking with that flimsy feather was gonna put a dent in that kind of mess. So I switched to hippos. Wait, no. Moles. I get them confused.

Whack-a-Mole! While others were calmly, gently popping their thought bubbles with flimsy feathers, I was enthusiastically whacking mine to pieces with my mighty Mind Hammer. Whack! Out pops another- whack! I felt like Thor. Only with stunned monkeys.

Turns out twitching while meditating isn’t very Buddhist either.

It’s seriously busy inside my head. And you can imagine what it’s like when I’m not calmly meditating.


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