training the monkey… the mind that is

(Author’s note: I really wanted to title this post “Spanking the Monkey,” but I didn’t want some perverts to open this post thinking it was going to be up their alley.)

(Pervert’s note: That’s what she said.)

Buddha often spoke of the need to train the monkey mind through meditation and mindfulness. His intention was that our life would be less about narration and commentary and more about the presence and experience itself.

To me, the idea of minimizing narration and commentary and analysis and story is quite daunting–and perhaps even backwards. After all, I am an English teacher: I live and love stories. To explore this conundrum (and generally solve all of the universe’s mysteries), I was fortunate enough to garner a fellowship to participate in the Mindfulness in Education Retreat at Vallecitos. (Thank you Hemera!)

While there, meditating for about a quarter of every day (insert shocked emoji face here), I gained a few treasured training tools to get that monkey mind to sit and stay:

  1. It’s a muscle…or a puppy. I like to do things well. I don’t like to struggle. There’s a small chance I might be addicted to perfection and the illusion of what it does for my soul. So naturally upon arrival and discovering we were going to meditate for six. hours. every. day. I just knew I had to nail it. I didn’t. I had unrealistic expectations of instant-6-pack-upon-entering-the-gym-after-keg-magically-disappears, or miracle-puppy-who-falls-out-of-mom-rolling-over-on-command. Cuz that happens. Like anything else, being present in the moment with mental chatter under control takes time. Takes discipline. Takes training. Takes constant attention and reattention and rereattention and rerereattention (or attention to the 3rd?).
  2. Tone matters. But therein lies the rub: it’s not just about the training; it’s about how I train. I naturally fell into this kind of cruel, self-abusive narrative progression when my mind would wander: “Be here now.” “Just get it together.” “Ugh again, come back.” “Why can’t you just be here?!” “Damn it Patrice!” At the height of my frustration, I considered myself a failure who could never get it right… you know, after meditating for oh…3 minutes. Mindfulness is a constant redirecting of attention, but that does not warrant a scream or a flog or a deep sigh of frustration. I found the mantra of “there is room for that, too” to bring me back again and again with kindness and compassion and grace.
  3. Interruptions versus experience. Before this retreat, meditation meant to me all the right conditions. I want people quiet. I deserve to be comfortable. I need to be in the mood. I seek out perfection, both inside and outside of me. Then, once the stars have aligned, I can meditate. What I learned at this retreat is that noise is a part of the meditation, not an interruption. Discomfort a part, not an interruption. Chaos a part, not an interruption. Instead of seeking the perfect external context, I need to be internally present in whatever is occurring–however annoying.
  4. The power of narrative. But what is annoying, exactly? One night while sitting in meditation with my nose running; eyes itching; throat tickling; sneeze building; tissues missing, I thought: “this is miserable.” But I checked myself before I wrecked myself. Is it? What is misery? These are the physical sensations, and they just…are. It is my narrative and commentary that creates the bias of misery. Even deeper, why does it do that? I realized I’m still realizing that mental narrative is the last stronghold of control chimera of control. I think by naming I have power. I think by describing I have hold. But…I don’t.
  5. Escape mechanisms. Which leads me to the biggest aha of this retreat: when I feel like I am failing, I want to escape. This should come as no surprise after my year failing as an instructional coach, but alas…this lesson was only more pronounced when I could not escape “failed” meditation. Instead it went on and on and on. (I mean at home, I’d be blissfully ignorant on Facebook or delightfully numb playing Angry Birds or completely tuned off with the TV on. Oh the wonderfully destructive avoidance technology allots.) But I did learn even in those moments when meditation lingered and I could not physically leave, there are a lot of ways to mentally escape: sleepiness, haziness, mental chatter, restlessness, distraction, planning, discomfort, judging (about me), gossip (about others). Unfortunately, where there is a will, there is a way (to get out). I learned that when I feel like escaping, I need to examine the urge: what I am afraid of? what exactly is failure? what am I avoiding? Sitting with the urges (does anyone else have to go tot the bathroom now?), rather than running from them, is the challenge but also the reward of mindfulness.
  6. Size matters. Before this retreat, I was narrow-minded. Who am I kidding, I still am. But I’ve come to a thought-place that is more spacious, more wide, more welcoming, more soft, more generous…more. There is room for that, too. Mindful meditation can–and should–include the distraction, the clanging pots, the escape tendencies, the judgment, the narrative, the cramp in my foot, the constant need for approval, the desire to be seen, the pervasive sense that I am not good enough, the unanswered questions, the buzzing fly. There is room for that, too.
  7. Pattern trumps pieces. At most retreats, I make sweeping plans to come home and be brand spanking new. But what I carried away this time is that a little each day makes more difference than grand gestures occasionally. And so I am committing to 12 minutes of meditation a day. I can do that. I want to do that. I will do that. And if it doesn’t happen, well, there is room for that, too.