(Because I’ll never miss an opportunity to think and write about animals. Bonus because I can use pics, too.)
During our recent yoga and meditation retreat in Costa Rica, we had an incredible opportunity to meditate with (and learn from and cook with) a man named Swami Kashi. A swami is kind of like a monk; not necessarily religious, though, and linked more to ancient Indian philosophies than any religion. The word “swami” means master, and refers to mastery over one’s mind, habits, and patterns (and renouncing things that most of us feel we couldn’t live without). Anyway, to be spending a week in Costa Rica with a swami was a pretty big deal (and Nick and I had the privilege of working with him in the kitchen as we prepared meals twice a day for the group!).
Our meditations expectations were set at the beginning of the retreat: 30 minutes minimum first thing in the morning and another 20-30 minutes before our evening philosophy talks (my favorite part). All silent. Nothing guided, no apps, no visualizations, just us (and our minds). For about an hour each day.
I was up for the challenge, having made very little time for lengthy silent meditations in months. To be truthful, I hadn’t meditated for more than 10 minutes at a time unless I was listening to something longer guided. And so, on the first day, we all sat on the yoga platform made of teak wood, facing the Pacific Ocean, and got silent.
Our instructions were to focus on our breath, saying “Om” to ourselves silently with every inhale and exhale. (This is called Japa meditation (silently repeating a mantra over and over). I do this with my Kundalini practice all the time, I do Japa with my mala, so this is easy enough and no big deal. For, like, 7 minutes or 10.)
And the first five minutes were great. After that went a bit differently. It turns out my short-span meditation habit trained me well for just that. My mind had a lot to say and it wasn’t the nicest place. Much of what came up was planning (what to cook for people, whether we’d made coffee to have it ready post-meditation, wondering what would we do this afternoon), even further future tripping (“Can I do this at home? I’m going to do this at home. I need to buy more incense. I’ll have to get up at 4:30 AM. I wonder if Tilly will bother me while I’m doing it. I should order a new book about yoga philosophy; I’ll do that after so it’ll be there when we get back.”), and then some really not-so-nice things like, “Megan, you’re meditating wrong. Stop thinking thoughts! Stay present! Om, Om, Om, no don’t think about that! You’re a shitty meditator! You’re not a real yogi!,” and my longtime familiar favorites were along the lines of, “Why do you have those giant stomach rolls while you’re sitting? You need to stop eating so much, cut back on fruit, this is all the retreat’s fault because you’re not getting enough protein! No one’s going to believe that you do yoga every day! Go for a run before it gets too hot!” (I mean, fuuuck, right?)
BTW, this is the way it went pretty much every day, after the first few minutes of the relaxing Om, Om, Om-ing.
So, you might be wondering WTH this has to do with monkeys or puppies because that’s how I hooked you into reading this. Most of you are probably familiar with the Buddhist concept of “monkey mind,” the seemingly non-stop mental chatter we have that honestly does feel like monkeys swinging from branch to branch. The branches, of course, are our thoughts. And swinging from thought to thought, during every waking hour, has the great potential to feel exhausting to say the least, and infuriating and heartbreaking at worst.
I’ve always liked the monkey analogy though, because I love monkeys and simply thinking of them makes me smile. I think they’re hilarious and adorable and mischievous and so super fun to watch. My thoughts? Not so hilarious, adorable, mischievous, or so super fun.
If you’ve ever been frustrated by trying to meditate with the idea that you’re trying to “empty your mind” or not think thoughts, or that you’re meditating “wrong” because you can’t stop thinking, I have good news for you (and for me). The purpose of meditation is to calm the mind, not clear it, to go inward to (eventually) find inner peace. And one of the best ways to do this is simply to not follow, to not attach, to the thoughts as they arise and return to the breath, or the mantra, or whatever is your focus.
It’s their job to arise, and they will. It’s your job to realize they have nothing to do with you, that you are not your mind, and that you are the boss, not your thoughts. You are the boss of how you handle them, of how much attention you give them, of whether you choose to make them real or keep them exactly as they are (just thoughts, one of about 60,000 you have a day).
The other animal analogy I really like came to me in the form of a quote by Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield: “Meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say, “Stay.” Does the puppy listen? It gets up and it runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. “Stay.” And the puppy runs away over and over again. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they create even bigger messes.** In training the mind, or the puppy, we have to start over and over again.”
When I remember this, which I have to do all the time, I have some compassion for myself and for the monkeys and puppies in my mind (because I have both). And while the thoughts never stopped coming throughout the retreat week, my reactions to them changed. Those little monkeys don’t know any better; they’re just doing as monkeys do. A puppy is so wild and spastic, needing guidance and training. But I do know better. I can train these monkey-puppies. I’m the boss and I can notice the adorable animal circus in my head and then return to my breath without getting carried away. I can notice I’m having a thought, like “You’re not a good meditator, you’re doing it wrong, you’re all over the place,” and I can say, “Aw, you’re so cute monkey. You’re all over the place. I’m right here. Om, Om, Om.”
* Technically, one of my favorite animals is the orangutan and orangutans are apes, not monkeys. But I have a soft spot for all non-human primates.
** Another one that I really like, but don’t know the source, is, “The mind is like a puppy. If you don’t train it, it will shit all over the place.”