Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shock the Monkey

The Triumph of the Monkey

"All of man's misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room alone," said the French philosopher Pascal. Anyone who has ever practiced meditation knows exactly what Pascal was talking about. In meditation we discover our own inability or unwillingness -- or simply that we don't know how -- to sit quietly in a room, whether alone or with others. Instead, the "monkey mind" jumps and screeches and demands that we direct our attention this way and that way: daydreaming about the past and future, drifting off into faraway lands, imagining conversations or working out our salvation by thinking it through conceptually. "Anywhere but here," the monkey seems to say; "anything but sitting here quietly, in a room, alone, with nothing to entertain me."

We hear a lot these days about people with so-called Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, who are unable to hold their attention on any one thing for very long. But perhaps all of us humans have ADHD to one degree or another, and the people who've been diagnosed with this disorder are just the canaries in the coal-mine, displaying more acute symptoms of a condition that afflicts us all.

Monkey mind is a universal human condition, and it's nothing new. It was around at the time of the Buddha, and long before that. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that it's built right into our biology. Animals whose attention is skittery, who are always looking around anxiously for predators, tend to have better survival rates; whereas animals that become absorbed in attention to any one thing for too long tend to get eaten by those same predators.

Human beings no longer have very many predators, but over the course of evolution we certainly did; and monkey mind served us well by keeping us alive in those conditions. It is, however, a habit of mind that has outlived its usefulness, and now brings us grief and frustration rather than protecting us. Today our way of living and our social and personal ambitions demand an unprecedented level of sustained attention. Whether it's studying for 14 hours at a stretch and doing well on 3-hour exams in order to succeed in school, or staying awake through interminable business meetings and conferences in order to do well in business, or being engaged in day after day of intensive meditation in order to realize the true nature of mind and attain spiritual awakening -- whatever our ambitions may be, monkey mind is our enemy. (The exception: if our ambition is to be a channel-surfing couch potato, then we should feel right at home with monkey mind.)

There is good reason to believe, too, that our modern culture of information overload and instant gratification has recently turned up the volume on monkey mind. We humans live out our lives today constantly adrift in a turbulent sea of news, images, stories, songs, jingles, advertisements, programs; our attention is splintered and pulled between newspapers and magazines and television and radio and movies and the Internet and billboards and computer games -- an endless parade of glittering media that tantalize our eyes and ears and lure away our minds like the sirens that call men to shipwreck. It's no wonder, then, that we find it so agonizingly difficult to sit quietly in a room, alone. We have been conditioned, through biology and culture, nature and nurture, to do anything but that.

But despite all our genetic and cultural conditioning, the Buddhist teachings say that with practice and effort we can find within ourselves a deeper dimension of mind, one that isn't enslaved to the monkey's continual parade of distractions. "Our problem is that this busy mind can lose its connection to its real nature," says the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. "When we take time to look beneath all this activity, we discover a sense of spaciousness and awareness, peace and happiness, that doesn’t change from moment to moment."

The Carrot or the Stick?

Buddhist meditators spend a lot of time trying to learn to "sit quietly in a room." We sit on our cushions and keep our bodies more or less still, and try -- frequently in vain -- to keep our minds on an object in order to develop the muscle of mindfulness. Sometimes, we spend a whole session just doing battle or engaging in diplomatic negotiations with the monkey, who demands that we redirect our attention elsewhere. In any case, our approach to working with mindfulness is predominantly the carrot approach: dangling before us, and spurring us to keep moving forward and keep trying, is the promise that we will attain some good result from practice, or from practicing well. Maybe we chase after the greatest carrot of all, the elusive maha-carrot known as Enlightenment -- or maybe we chase after baby carrots, relative benefits like being more calm and relaxed, not being so caught up in our emotional dramas, not being controlled by our addictions. In any case, while we outwardly train in sitting there quietly in a room, secretly, on the inside, we are all chasing after some kind of carrot.

Recently we had a full work-day at the Abbey, and I was assigned to a crew working outside in the woods. I spent the whole morning using a chainsaw, clearing dead spruce trees that had fallen or were in danger of falling. Having lived the first half of my life in the suburbs and the second half in New York City, it was my first time using a chainsaw -- which I found both intimidating and exhilarating. It was dirty, noisy, physically demanding and dangerous work, but strangely satisfying.

It was only later, when the morning's work was done, that I realized the profound effects it had on me. At lunchtime, all through the afternoon, and until I went to bed that evening, I noticed that my monkey mind had simply curled up quietly in a corner and was not making any noise at all; I felt that abiding "sense of spaciousness and awareness, peace and happiness" described by Dzogchen Ponlop. It was, in fact, a far more noticeable and lasting mental effect than anything I'd been able to concoct in all my deliberate meditation sessions on the cushion. I found myself wondering why and how a morning spent chainsawing trees could produce a greater degree of mindfulness and awareness, a deeper sense of calm abiding, than a morning spent sitting in front of a statue of the Buddha in a meditation hall.

There is, for one thing, the physical component: any physical activity that brings us down out of the ethereal realm of thought and into the earthy realm of the body promotes greater presence. Too often we sit there in the meditation hall with very little sense of the body, lost in the idea that meditation is something that happens primarily or only in the mind, and the body is merely a vehicle that gets us to the cushion and then causes us lots of distraction and pain once we are there. But Chogyam Trungpa equated mindfulness-awareness with synchronized mind and body, which is something that can only happen when we are fully grounded and present in the physical body. And maybe there is something to be said, too, for exhausting the body's surplus of nervous energy through hard physical labor, which leaves us nothing to do but relax and let go when the work is done.

But in addition to the physical aspect, there was another element in my morning practice of chainsaw meditation that is notably absent from my usual cushion practice: the element of danger. Using a chainsaw is dangerous business, demanding a very high degree of undistracted attention. The penalty for letting your attention wander off into a fantasy or becoming distracted by something else in the environment could be extreme: the loss of a hand or a foot, or worse. Total one-pointedness is required at all times, under threat of a gory punishment for non-compliance.

This, one might say, is the ultimate stick approach: the opposite of the carrot. The dangling carrot sweetly promises a good result if you just keep trying to bring your attention back to the object of meditation: so you spent the last 20 minutes lost in a fantasy, that's okay sweetheart, it doesn't matter, don't beat yourself up, just keep coming back, you'll get there eventually, and even if you don't it's still okay, just be friendly to yourself. But the chainsaw, the ultimate stick approach, brooks no stupidity, and is unforgiving; it threatens you with a terrible consequence if you let your attention wander for even a few seconds. And as a result, you are highly motivated to do one simple thing: you damn well pay attention, and you do not let your mind wander from the task. Period.

In some Zen temples they have a person called a geko who wanders through the meditation hall with a stick and whacks people who appear to be drifting off or fidgeting. Imagine if the geko, instead, carried a chainsaw and would cut off one of your beloved appendages as a penalty for letting your attention wander. In such a horror-movie scenario, one of two things would happen: you would either very quickly develop total, one-pointed mindfulness and say goodbye to monkey mind, or you would say goodbye to one body part after another (or, a third alternative: you would simply drop dead from terror).

Truth and Consequences

This is, of course, just an extreme metaphor meant to illustrate a point: when we believe we face no consequences for letting our attention wander, then we have little motivation for resisting the deeply ingrained habits of monkey mind. We can wander endlessly in distraction and think we're getting away with something. But when there are obvious consequences for doing so, then we have a strong motivation to disengage from the monkey's nonsense. If the consequences are so drastically manifest as when working with a dangerous power tool, then our motivation to pay single-pointed attention can be so strong that the monkey is literally shocked into submission. This is what I experienced for the remainder of the day after my morning chainsaw meditation.

In reality, there are always consequences to our actions. The trouble is, we usually don't see the consequences so clearly or vividly. Whatever we do repeatedly becomes a habit -- a groove in our neural circuitry that grows deeper with each repetition, from which it becomes harder and harder to redirect our minds and do something different. This is one of the aspects of what Buddhists call "karma." When we indulge in the habit of distraction and wandering mind, then we become more and more inclined towards that state, and it becomes more and more difficult to hold our attention on any one chosen object -- we are less able to stay present and more prone to drift willy-nilly, wherever the monkey wishes to lead us. The consequence, in other words, is like a self-fulfilling prophecy: we become trapped in our own personal version of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a mental prison of our own creation.

There is an old legend about a Buddhist practitioner who couldn't stop his mind from wandering and was always falling asleep on his cushion. Finally, one day he climbed high into a tree and set up his meditation seat there. The danger of falling out of that tree and crashing to the ground if he drifted off was the motivation he needed in order to stay awake and present.

If we were to apply less dangling carrot and more threatening stick to taming and training the mind, then maybe we would have more realized and accomplished meditation practitioners in the West. I'm not at all sure that the Buddha really meant for us to practice for 30 or 40 years and still remain hopelessly enslaved to monkey mind; his vision of the spiritual path seems to have been a little more ambitious than that.

Perhaps it is time for us (in the words of the old Peter Gabriel song) to shock the monkey.


fanonche said...

Wow what an amazing insights. I am an avid snowboarder who is always most present when the terrain is challenging. I have always felt that danger and fear force me to relax and become fully present.

Dennis Hunter said...

Fanonche, that is very interesting. I'd say that extreme sports enthusiasts who get into this kind of "zone" are more effective meditators, in their way, than people who sit in the shrine room trying to cook up a state of concentration and awareness and presence but really just stewing in their own thoughts.

wayfarer said...

There's another huge aspect to this idea, which is monkey logic. That is when the Monkey Mind arms itself with advanced mathematics and scientific instruments, and begins to wonder how it might re-invent reality in such a way that might be more useful - and more profitable - to it. Many of the speculative realms of modern science are the Monkey Mind writ large on the fabric of the Cosmos itself.

Scary thought, eh?