Monkeys in the Monastery

The mind as an open vessel floating on a still lake stretched out to the horizon.

This image came to me several months ago in the midst of my yoga practice. A metaphor for the mindfulness one hopes to achieve when deep in meditative practice.

Balance.

Calm.

Oneness.

Yeah, this is not an apt metaphor for my mind.

A better one might by a monkey in a sequined leotard. Distracted by shiny things, including its own outfit…and its tail.

Monkey
Ask me to monkey dance sometime…

Yep. That sounds about right.

I have what they call in meditation circles… “a monkey mind.” It jumps from one idea to the next. Knocks things over. This is true if I’m reading. Writing. Teaching. Walking. Eating… You get the picture…the fragmented, sparkly, frenetic picture.

The only time it ever really stills, the only thing that can routinely calm it in to brief pause, is yoga.

I come from a faith tradition that is very noisy. Drum sets and Hallelujahs. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a place for quiet prayer.

“Be still and know…”

But even that quiet time for me was filled with constant questioning, connecting, and emoting.

Being still can be exhausting.

When I began to study religion at college, I was introduced to various methods of meditation, which exist in some form in all faith traditions. I gave it a go.

I would go to the balcony of the chapel on campus. The building would be empty, light streaming in from the stained class. I would sit at the highest point in the building and try to be still. Try to quiet my mind.

I would bribe myself.

Just one minute.

Think of nothing for just one minute.

Just.

One.

Minute.

Has it been a minute?

I would often give up and journal instead. I re-read one journal entry recently where I was distracted by a pencil on the pew where I was trying to meditate.

A pencil.

I wrote a whole journal entry about it. The person that held it before me. Who they might have been. In fact just now I stopped writing to look for the entry again. I didn’t find it, but that damn pencil from fifteen years ago is clearly STILL too much of a distraction for this sequined monkey.

Moving is the only thing that seems to make my mind go still.

When I studied in England I would disappear for hours. I would walk through gardens. Walk through the tangle of London streets. Walk through sheep fields. Walk through castle ruins. These walks, the colors, the perpetual damp of the English spring, the richness of the tea and scones afterwards, they are so vivid even now.

And, oh, the Mystic wonder of the wanderer.

I have never felt as close to the divine as I do when I walk alone in solitary country or bustling urban landscapes such as these.

I feel the chill of connection even now.

What a relief it was when I met the Jesuits and Ignatian Spirituality. “Contemplatives in Action” they are called.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was the catalyst for a huge paradigm shift in what it looked like to live a religious life. Traditionally, if you were a priest or a nun it meant that you were monastics, living in community with your spiritual brothers or sisters. There were regimens of prayer that occurred perhaps five times or more a day.

This meant if you were working in the garden, tending the poor, transcribing a text, you had to stop every few hours to pray. You can’t go too far with a two hour turn-around time.

The Jesuits, on the other hand (and the Franciscans as well) are called “mendicants.” Travelers. Theirs is a spirituality on the move.

Indeed, one of the few requirements Ignatius had for Jesuits in the “Spiritual Exercises” was called the Examen and was to be done twice a day. Once at noon. Once at the end of the day.

  1. Become aware of the divines presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

Even a distractable monkey might be able to handle that.

I am not meant for the monastery. I would drive my fellow monks mad. But perhaps I am meant for the traveling circus, where twice a day me and the other monkeys can try reflect on the profundity of sparkly things…for just under a minute.

Contemplative (monkey) in action (with sequins).

Mind
Sleeping Buddha…meet smirking Barbara.
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