I used to think I was too hyperactive for Buddhism. I have a visceral reaction to phrases like “clear your mind” and “treat thoughts like clouds that will pass by” (a lovely visual but one that devalues the thought.) It felt like yet another instance of the pressure I have been under all my life – sit still, stay on task, march in a straight line, don’t daydream, be more like an accountant and less like a dancer. The superiority of the quiet and contained, left-brained and linear! Arggh!
Even walking meditations were a struggle for me because my fellow practitioners were covering 3 feet in five minutes as I was sprinting around the retreat grounds. I found no joy in trying to go to an empty place. To sit still and drain my mind sounded like Orwellian hell, like Stepford spirituality. But then I was introduced to the power of the mantra.
Loving My Monkey Mind
In Buddhist practice one is encouraged to contain or suppress the mind that jumps from topic to topic, distracting you with a mind-bauble here and a silly thought there – the Monkey Mind. As an alternative, I think of a hummingbird, which I consider my totem animal. But I am an artist and in many ways, I consider my monkey mind to be the best part of me. New ideas come from mental wandering, from allowing your mind to jump from a grocery list to a new idea for water conservation, to a great idea about the organic food supply chain, to a child’s toy, and a remembrance of a store in France. Creativity comes in the spaces between two decisions, in the unusual combination of things previously unrelated. And that’s the way both daydreaming and the monkey work: they allow the combination of things previously unrelated.
(In contrast, a man I know insisted that his young children pack up all the elements of one game before getting out another. Hearing that made my monkey holler because a creative environment would let the child take Lincoln Logs and add them to a Lego house topped with doll clothing and stuffed bears. Creativity, in this case literally demands being out-of-the-box.)
Allowing my monkey the freedom of mental association drives my life. My monkey is responsible for all my art and my livelihood as well. She has thought up the plots and twists (and even the metaphors, I’ll bet) of every story and novel I have written. As a freelance marketing manager my monkey thinks up product ideas, TV scripts, odd ways to achieve a goal. My monkey has put food on my table for decades; she keeps the roof over my head and the joy in my life. I love my monkey mind. I would dress her up if I could, make grateful offerings to her and always encourage her to run wild.
Upon hearing this, I’m imaging that devotees will tell me that I am misinterpreting the concept, that there is a time and place for the monkey though not in the temple. But she is a monkey – untamable, unpredictable, somewhat annoying in her glorious unpredictability. Besides, it might be one of the only times you listen to her – in the gumpa, where the clutter of the world falls away and your monkey shows you wisdom. Your daydreams are tremendously powerful, metaphorical and visual communications with yourself. They have important messages. Why aren’t we encouraging one to breathe deeply, be calm, and then pull the thoughts to you, like trying to scoop falling leaves to your chest.
Still, the first time I got on the mat, 23 years ago, I was very pregnant and wanted tools to be a better mother, with better coping skills I could pass on to my son-to-be. So, I kept at my Buddhist practice, hoping for a breakthrough.
Every Mantra Counts
I moved from Vipassana Meditation (focused on the breath) to Mahayana Buddhism with its focus on the recitation of mantras. And not just a single mantra, chanted incessantly (the monkey will have none of that – she needs variety as well as action.) Tibetan Buddhism has at least eight core mantras that are each suitable for different situations. Mala in hand, I started memorizing them. Bingo! I found that mantras block out all other thoughts, focus the mind and calm the spirit. Vipassana Meditation and Mahayana Buddhism: same goal, different technique. With mantras, the hyperactive child is not told to sit still but is given a quiet activity requiring focus. I don’t have to renounce my hyperactivity and Monkey Mind when I can harness it. I can say mantras as fast as I can walk; I say them behind the wheel; I say them before going into a meeting with combatants; I say them for the health of our freighted world. It’s not something I do for five minutes in the morning and hope it will carry me through the rest of the day. I say mantras whenever I am challenged by strife, anger, injustice.
For the Betterment of Others
This brings me to another beef I have with the current trendy focus on mindfulness and the breath. In the New York Times article “The Price of Mindfulness Inc." the author suggests that “The people I know who take time to meditate – carefully observing thoughts, emotions and sensations – are sincere in their appreciations to become less stressed, more accepting and at least a little happier.” Described this way it seems to be a self-serving goal. At best, mindfulness sounds like “I will fix me and what’s good for me is good for the world.” In contrast, all Mahayana Buddhism mantras are for the betterment of all sentient beings. The outward focus is an important part of Mahayana Buddhism: you start mantra recitations by declaring that the motivation for them is to better the world; then you say the mantras and then afterward you dedicate the merits of the mantras to the betterment of the world. The article identifies mindfulness as “best understood as a skill, one acquired through hours of sometimes uncomfortable contemplation.” But if one is chanting mantras one not only gathers the benefits of mental focus but also can make a difference in the world by changing the cosmic vibrations. I believe that brain waves affect physical reality and so chanting for peace, compassion, health, forgiveness, and absolution make a difference. (I’m surprised that after the 60s there are still skeptics about the power of a “good vibe.”) To me to just sit and meditate to lose stress is to leave un-harnessed the potential of all that brainpower, at best, and is a self-cherishing pastime at worst.
I say there’s room for a raucous, Noisy Buddhism, with mantras said out loud with bells, shouted at the top of one’s lungs with joy, accompanied by Latin percussion instruments and terrific feet stomping, walking, dancing, and working. Honoring the Buddha in all of us, honoring the creativity of the Monkey Mind and staying dedicated to making the world a better place.
#JessWells, #Buddhism #monkeymind