It was the start of the new millennium, and I was in my first yoga class. The teacher kept saying things like \”focus on the breath!\” \”relax your muscles!\” \”clear your mind!\” What was she talking about? In those days the slightest attention to my breath instantly caused me to clench my diaphragm, which would in turn plunge me into a frenzy of analysis about my failure to achieve a meditative state.
Twenty years of semi-faithful meditation practice later, what do I have to show for my efforts?
I have gotten better at sitting in half-lotus, but as for clearing my head, let alone \”going into a deep place,\” pshaw! The problem is my monkey mind, the Buddhists\’ term for the mind\’s tendency to flit from topic to topic like a troop of monkeys leaping through the forest.
When I started meditating all those years ago, the monkeys in my mind were an adolescent troop, erupting out of nowhere as soon as I sat down on my cushion. They had long, agile bodies covered in tawny fur, and cunning little white faces. They swung by their long tails. They chittered and screeched and fought over the fruits hanging from the branches of the trees inside my brain. If they ever slept, they only did so when I wasn\’t meditating.
Give them time, I said to myself, they\’ll settle down. They can\’t possibly keep this up.
And sure enough, over the years, the monkeys matured and slowed down a tiny bit…but then they started having babies. So now I have the original troop, endlessly squabbling over dominance and mating hierarchies, plus their spoiled, demanding offspring, who are forever wandering off and getting into trouble, stealing food, and screaming for attention.
If my meditating brain started out as a tree inhabited by a single troop, it has now become one of those ruined Indian temples in the jungle that are home to an entire nation of monkeys.
I know what the Buddhists would say: don\’t fight the monkeys–just watch them swing by, and gently let them go. So I try to sit patiently while the monkeys do their thing, not judging them, pretending that I\’m watching a National Geographic special on TV.
Will my monkeys ever vanish? Will they at least calm down? I\’m not counting on it. But occasionally a couple of them settle down on a crumbling stone wall and briefly groom each other. The chaos then subsides, and I feel myself breathe.