Suffering is the primary motivating factor behind spiritual practice.
Few, if any, people show up just looking to broaden their horizons. Most feel like they are flying through life with their hair on fire. This has always been true, but it is particularly true of this day and age. The modern life is an impoverished life that is hell bent on convincing you that you are broken or incomplete. It preys on the belief in our own brokenness. It triggers this insecurity in us and then tries to sell us this product and that product.
This transforms life into a desperate search for the magical missing ingredient. By time we arrive on the meditation cushion, we are insecure and paranoid. We feel as though our minds are driving 90-to-nothing in 10 different directions simultaneously.
Traditionally, this has been described as the “monkey mind.”
The monkey mind is mischievous; it bounces around from place to place, messing with everything. It reminds me a bit of Dennis the Menace. But if you sit on the cushion and watch this “monkey mind” I bet you won’t think it is so cute. We describe it as if it were a spider monkey or one of them cute little boogers we see in the movies. But in reality it is nothing like a pet. It is like a wild, territorial chimpanzee. It is vicious and unpredictable. You don’t want to pinch it’s cheeks or pet it all, you want to run like hell. But that is part of the aggression.
The step in working with this “monkey mind” is to stop separating yourself from this monkey mind. It may be true that in the final analysis, you are not your thoughts—but, practically speaking, we are in the first analysis, not the final analysis. We are just learning how to sit here—how to stop running. Everything in us wants to get up and run away—we want to run and hide in our expectations, memories, regrets, and ideas. The speed of all this is truly terrifying.
We need a strong rope, something that we can hold onto so we do not get blown away by the powerful winds of paranoia.
The breath anchors us in the present moment; it is our totem. The breath symbolizes the precision and simplicity of the present moment. It is the ever-present gateway to sanity. But we have been breathing our whole lives. Just the breath ain’t going to get it—we have to develop resolve. That resolve comes from our pain and suffering. We have to know, firsthand, that the monkey mind ain’t cute.
That it will pound on us and destroy our life—it will literally beat us to death—if we do not intervene. We intervene by returning to present moment as symbolized by the breath.
One of the biggest misconceptions in modern society is that the storm will blow over. The burden—the karmic or conditioned residue of every self-centered, fear driven decision we have ever made—will not just go away; the momentum must be burnt up. We cannot hide from our burden or evacuate our life. We have to sit right in the middle of the storm and feel the winds. “I shall remain, at those times, Shantideva says in The Bodhissattva’s Guide to the Way of Life, “like a block of wood, able to restrain myself.”
This is why meditation is so hard at first.
We have to give up the approach to life that feeds the “monkey mind.” It is the running and hiding that generates the speed and panic that characterizes the “monkey mind.” It is, as I said before, part of the aggression. This is where we are, so this where we have to begin. We cannot wait for the clouds to go away and the sun to come out. The “monkey mind” is the very mind that has to learn how to sit. This is the first analysis, so for practical purposes, we are the monkey mind; when the winds begin to blow it is time to practice.
A flood of thoughts is not evidence that you cannot practice meditation, though the monkey mind will try to use it as such a justification. On the contrary, each thought is an opportunity to practice. With out a discursive mind what would you practice? This is the relationship Buddhism has with suffering. Suffering always leads to the path, because suffering is our path. This is the basic message.
It is easy to convince ourselves that we have all these options. In a consumer based society, we are taught to believe that there are always options—but this is not necessarily true. Investing in our sanity, in what it means to be a person is not an option, at least not in the true sense of the word.
Perhaps we can choose to take care of ourselves and invest in our well-being, but this choice is more like the choice we are presented with while sky-diving: yes, it is true that we can choose whether we want to pull the chord or not, but it is pretty straight forward. We either pull the chord or go splat!
We choose life or death every morning before we leave the house. If I choose to invest in my sanity, then I will grow into the life my body and soul were designed to live. If I chose to pretend that I am an organism designed to live in an economy, I will look past who I am to who I am suppose to become.
This process of becoming is a rat race; it never ends. The sense of authenticity is replaced by an impoverished self-image that is always working towards an impossible state of equilibrium. We try to figure out what “they” want us to be, and with every word and deed we mangle our spirit until it reflects the image prescribed by society. Over time this process of becoming only gains in speed and intensity. The pressure continues to mount until we intervene or there is a nervous breakdown.Gollum, by Peter Jackson.
This storm is not going to blow over.
If you ignore it now, it will continue to grow, like a virus until it consumes your being. It will mangle the reflection of your spirit. Over time, it will get worse, never better. Like Gollum, you will become unrecognizable even to yourself.
The only antidote is to stop. Pure and simple.
Put a leash on your mind. Tether it to the present moment. Tie it to the breath.
Allow the breath to guide your awareness back into the immediacy and the freshness of the body. Notice the coolness of the in-breath. Feel the chest and stomach expand with the inhalation. Feel the stomach and chest contract with the exhalation. Notice the warmth of the out-breath.
Train in this way every morning, but bring it with you into your day. It is not enough to practice in the privacy of your home.
You do not leave the breath at home with your cushion, so do not leave your practice there either. It is about interrupting the speed and the intensity of these paranoid cycles of thought throughout the day.
Ultimately, we are all called to a life of unceasing practice.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise