Follow the Monkey (written 2018)
There are many versions of a cartoon where a meditator sits with closed eyes, cross legged on a cushion, a serene expression on her face, while in the blank space around her are thought bubbles containing individual thoughts: “follow the breath”, “ I hate my hair”, “I wonder what time it is”, “Om”, “these pants are too tight”. As the cartoon indicates, the ordinary mind is a busy place, often referred to as monkey mind, and if you're a meditator, new or experienced, the cartoon brings both a smile and a grimace. Yes, it's like that.
The mistake a beginning meditator may make is in thinking that this is not the way it's supposed to be; I'm doing something wrong. Or even: obviously my mind is not a mind that can settle on a single meditation object. But at least twice in the cartoon bubbles described above, the meditator has managed, if only for a nano second, to come to a meditation object...the breath or a mantra. The mistake we can continue to make as we garner experience is believing that the mind should immediately settle on the object and never waver. Well, it might. But what it might do is fling itself from branch to branch for some time. It may revisit thoughts, and the breath is one of those places it may land from time to time, perhaps even resting there awhile. This would likely be the case, even were we to leave it free and unguided.
But in meditation the mind is not playing on its own; we are watching over the mind as we would watch over a small child learning to walk in a place full of potential hazards. We sometimes just block the path to the edge of the pool, for instance, and the child may change course happily enough. Other times we might take his hand and lead him along awhile, through the litter of bright things on beach towels that belong to other people and shouldn't be touched, despite their allure. Or we may point and squeal and express delight about the plastic duck we want him to be interested in. These are the same techniques we use as we sit. We follow the monkey. And we watch out for where it's headed. We block the thoughts that draw us away from the meditation object. We lead skillfully perhaps by counting breaths or silently chanting mantras. We cultivate curiosity about the breath or the mantra or whatever we are using as meditation object.
If we relax our vigilance, it's possible the little child we're watching over will be alright on his own. It's also possible he'll lean too far and fall into the pool, or pick up someone's sunglasses and totter off with them. He might become interested in a burning cigarette or a broken bottle instead of in the toy duck. Our job is to keep watch. Our backs might get tired from stooping. Our shift as baby sitter may seem overly long. But we know the safety of the child is in our hands. We can do this.
We can do this too when we're on the cushion. We can bring the mind's attention back from the tired back to the gentle touch of the breath. We can turn away from thought baubles about dinner or the weekend and return to the dependable breath. We can draw back from a fantasy or elaborate planning story and find the moment we're living, right now. Just this. But it isn't easy. It requires vigilance, ongoing effort and skillful choices, moment by moment. Most of all it requires an understanding that this is valuable. Keeping the child safe is worthwhile. Schooling the mind is important.
It seems obvious when you're shadowing the uncertain footsteps of a toddler that what you're doing is for the good. With loving guidance, we do what we can so that the child will eventually learn to walk alone with skill, to stay away from danger and to choose wisely in the world. Even when he walks with confidence, we keep an eye out, we attempt to nudge in positive directions. This is also so with our own monkey mind. With vigilance and persistence and effort we shape its behavior. In time it needs less nudging and the benefits of peace and insight grow.
Out of love for the child we do what's needed; out of love for ourselves and our well-being we do what's needed. We benefit and the world benefits from this good work.