Sunday, August 23, 2009

Disobedience? Or does everything belong?

I grew up thinking monkeys were mischievous (or as some might say, "mis-CHEEV-ious") creatures whose antics -- as in the classic children's book, Caps for Sale -- would show us up; make us look a bit foolish and pretentious.

I can still see our librarian, Mrs. Eckels, reading that book aloud, shaking her finger at the children as if she were the hat salesman shaking his finger at the monkeys, and saying fiercely, "You monkeys you, you give me back my caps!"

And there are the classic three monkeys in the "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" pose, mocking the futility of those resolutions. There is this sense of "your rules are stupid, and not for me" about monkeys, but we don't seem to hold them responsible for that: we just shake our heads and smile, in the sort of "boys will be boys" way that says we know what they're doing is wrong but somehow admire their resistance -- their deliberate disobedience -- at the same time.

So what does that mean when a meditator starts encountering "monkey mind;" that oh-so-familiar phenomenon when you've just settled into your meditation space and all these random thoughts come leaping to the foreground, getting in the way of your determined efforts to achieve a few moments of serenity?

I was thinking of this today, and remembering a moment a couple of weeks ago when I was coming off the beach, having walked the dog, and suddenly found myself wondering what on earth I was supposed to be mindful of. I suspect, at the time, I had conveniently forgotten that mindfulness needs to be of internal as well as external states -- I can never seem to keep all the pieces of this life in my head at the same time! And of course that's a big piece of meditation: to be mindful of all the monkeys that begin cavorting on the stage when we settle into that quiet space.

The trick, I think, is to just notice the monkeys; to appreciate them without engaging with them so they'll eventually get bored and scamper off the stage. Because they ARE mischievous, and they delight in pulling us off track; it's all a game for them. If you ignore them, or get angry with them, they'll just get more rambunctious, but if you accept and acknowledge their presence and then return your attention to the emptiness at center stage you should all be able to co-exist fairly comfortably with them.

I think this image called out to me this morning because I was wandering through FailBlog yesterday -- an amusing way to pass the time -- and this incidence of deliberate disobedience reminded me of that. But of course it's possible that this is the owner's boat, and the rule applies only to outsiders who might tie up there in his or her absence. And the truth is, those monkeys -- however much we may be shaking our fingers at them -- are OUR monkeys, they're not someone else's monkeys. That stage was created for them as well as for us; they may even belong there, however much we may be determined to deny them access.

They may also have something important to teach us about how we are -- or how we ought to be -- in the world, which, of course, is why they are so aggravating: they have a way of deflating pretense and mocking all our efforts to appear calm, centered and serene. So the next time you sit and all the monkeys come out dancing, try not to condemn yourself -- or them -- for the ways in which they diverge from your current list of shoulds. Instead, take a minute to acknowledge them. Agree that the stage belongs to them as well, that they have their own roles to play, and then gently explain that the time has come for intermission, invite them to return to the wings and firmly close the curtain. They'll have plenty of other opportunities to perform!

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