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.

Yoga Dancing

Every once in awhile, depending on finances, my schedule and just how desperately I need to get my shit in order, I head off to my favorite yoga retreat. For a few days I can wander around in my yoga pants and a t-shirt, wearing flip-flops that I can easily slip off and stash at the doorway to rooms that contain meditation, yoga or internal enlightenment. I eat healthy food, enjoy silent breakfasts, guided meditations and lots of yoga. Before bed I wind down at the communal whirlpool, sometimes naked and sometimes in a bathing suit. I have finally come to accept the reality that I will always be the odd woman out, never to click with the majority. In earlier visits I was almost constantly mortified by being the only one- either I had a suit on when no one else did, or I marched my naked self into a whirlpool full of women modestly suited. I no longer care. I accept my fate as the fish out of water, even in the water. One thing I have learned from this experience is that there are a lot of different nipple structures. Because I still find it hard to look someone in the eyes when they’re naked, and without my glasses, I don’t know where their eyes are anyway.

My most recent visit featured multiple variations on meditation and yoga. All of the meditation was guided, but each guide had a different route in mind. As per usual, I was the breathing outlier. “Breathe in through your nose.” Damn. Last guide wanted us to breathe in through our mouths. I just mastered that.  So this attempt is a bit of both, resulting in a fit of coughing. I’m wondering- can you breathe in through your eyes? Isn’t that how lizards breathe? “Now breathe out.” Wait, what? I’m like ten breaths ahead already. In, out, in out. How complicated is that?
“Breathe in, taking twice as long as you do to breathe out, expanding your rib cage, your belly, let it fill up with healthy new oxygen, expanding, expanding…” I feel like the Blueberry Girl in Willie Wonka. One more second and I’m either going to float away, or….Booooosh! I expelled my air so vehemently the people on either side of me scuttled away. The guide intoned, “and NOW, exhale. SLOWLY.” I could hear the disapproval in her voice. God I suck at this. I can’t get past the belief that these people just breathe too damn slow.

Yoga session. I’m lying on my back on the mat, looking up at the lights. Observing that they look like cosmic death rays. Visualizing the headline: 45 Yoga Devotees Zapped by Aliens. My husband asking, “How could they tell the difference?” The leader is giving directions. I can’t see her because I can’t do yoga with my glasses on, and I can’t see shit with them off. Her voice interrupts my extraterrestrial fantasy “…and your legs are going clockwise…” Nope. My legs are going counterclockwise. I switch direction just as everyone else switches, so I’m still going the wrong way. Now she adds arms. Now I am completely screwed, because the arms are going the opposite direction from the legs, and I am completely incapable of that much coordination. Back in high school, my parents co-produced a musical at our church. I got to be one of the teen dancers. All the other dancers were cast because they were on the school cheerleading squad and dance team. I was in the dance because my parents were the producers. One of my best friends was the choreographer.  No matter how hard I tried, my arms refused to work independently of my legs. Maybe they have abandonment issues. Eleven dancers tapped in unison, arms going left, feet going right. Then there was me, tapping to my own drum, my singular taps a lonely echo to their unison. My alternate arm swings caused me to whack the dancers next to me. To this day I blame myself for my friend’s move to Florida.

Shit, I missed the directions again. “From table pose, extend right leg out behind you…keep the foot flexed (“OW, ow! Foot cramp!”)…left leg flat on the floor, not on knee…right knee is bent and directly under your left shoulder…both hands on left knee (“HUH?!”)…crown of head reaching for the sky…now- look up!

I fell over.

We say “om” a lot here. Correction, we chant “om” a lot. Doing it right involves all those damn breathing rules again. Take a deep breath in….and…hold…it. Now breathing out a loo-oo-ng breath we chant together: OOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMsilencesilencesilence.

I can’t breath out that long or that slowly without passing out, so I cheat and grab little breaths along the way. My “Om” sounds more like “omhuh, omhuh, omhuh, omhuh”. Hey, the intention is there.

I leave feeling refreshed and renewed and a little sad to be leaving. I don’t think think the facilitators are as sad. See you next year, guys!