I have had monkeys in my head for my entire life.
When I was a kid, the monkeys were labeled, with a small amount of controversy, as “minimal brain dysfunction,” the name of a diagnosis that preceded “ADHD.” As a teenager, I simply chalked them up to classic adolescent confusion. And as an adult? Well, I’ve learned that they are both a curse and a blessing.
I was first exposed to Buddhist meditation in the fall of 2003 — probably the most tumultuous time in my adult life. Earlier that year, I had walked out of church on Ash Wednesday in the middle of the mass, finally deciding that I could no longer believe in a system that promised faith could move mountains, even while the world seemed to descend into more and more chaos (the Iraq War started 15 days later). In May, I lost my parents and then watched as grief tore my grandma’s health — and heart — to pieces.
I felt as though my head had shattered into hundreds of pieces when I first picked up a book that fall about Buddhism, which described a deceptively simply method for bringing about a state of calm-abiding spaciousness in one’s own mind. I was hooked.
What I couldn’t appreciate then was the sheer difficulty involved in the actual act of meditation, especially in the presence of the monkeys. So for years, rather than focus on this most basic tenet of Buddhism, I studied the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, starting with the Four Noble Truths and progressing through sunyata, or emptiness, all while struggling to start and/or maintain a consistent, effective sitting practice.
Thankfully, last fall I had the opportunity to take a few classes with Bernie Schreck, a teacher with Rigpa, Sogyal Rinpoche’s sangha. As I described my situation and struggles to Bernie, he gave me the a potent, practice-altering instruction: Stop fighting the monkeys, Sean. You’re never going to win. Instead, you have to learn to co-exist with them. Just let them be.
While my approach to meditation had always been to try and shut the monkeys up, Bernie’s instruction took me in an entirely different direction.
A few weeks later, I had to quit Bernie’s class shortly before surgery to repair a broken ankle, but those words stuck with me. Once I got back to work a few months later and career stress once again started piling up on my shoulders, I returned to the meditation cushion. I stopped trying to change the way I think and simply rested in what was already there, and it felt as though there had been a paradigm shift. I was able to see parallels between my practice (full of obstacles and distractions) and my day-to-day life (no surprise — also full of obstacles and distractions). What amazes me, though, is that Bernie’s suggestion was so subtle. I simply stopped letting my own mind get in the way of my (innate!) ability to create some space up there.
It is all so deceptively simply — deceptive, I think, because of the stumbling blocks I create for myself.
In the tradition of a great Tibetan master, Sogyal Rinpoche uses compelling imagery to make the point clear:
The whole of Buddha’s teaching, then, is directed towards taming this mind, and keeping our heart and mind pure. That starts when we begin with the practice of meditation. We allow all our turbulent thoughts and emotions to settle quietly in a state of natural peace. As Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche said:
Rest in natural great peace this exhausted mind,
Beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thoughts
Like the relentless fury of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean of samsara.
Rest in natural great peace.
How do thoughts and emotions settle? If you leave a glass of muddy water quite still, without moving it, the dirt will settle to the bottom, and the clarity of the water will shine through. In the same way, in meditation we allow our thoughts and emotions to settle naturally, and in a state of natural ease. There is a wonderful saying by the great masters of the past. I remember when I first heard it what a revelation it was, because in these two lines is shown both what the nature of mind is, and how to abide by it, which is the practice of meditation. In Tibetan it is very beautiful, almost musical: chu ma nyok na dang, sem ma chö na de. It means roughly, ‘Water, if you don’t stir it, will become clear; the mind, left unaltered, will find its own natural peace.’
What is so incredible about this instruction is its emphasis on naturalness, and on allowing our mind simply to be, unaltered and without changing anything at all. Our real problem is manipulation and fabrication and too much thinking. One master used to say that the root cause of all our mental problems was too much thinking. As Buddha said: “with our thoughts we make the world”. But if we keep our mind pure, and allow it to rest, quietly, in the natural state, what happens, as we practise, is quite extraordinary.
It truly is extraordinary, especially when I give myself the space to experience it.