Tuesday, October 30, 2012

First Aid for the Monkey Mind

Sharon Wildwind

I’m fairly certain that I suffer from monkey mind. Unsettled. Restless. Whimsical. Inconstant. Confused. Yeah, that covers is.

Nursing is a good antidote for monkey mind. It’s mentally and physically tiring enough to drain off excess energy, leaving just enough focus to have supper and fall into bed. Since I left nursing, the monkeys are stirring.

Writing is going well. My writing buddies are terrific. Publishing and its first cousins marketing, publicity, and social media are driving me right up the wall. They are my monkey mind’s favorite playgrounds, and I am dithering in them for hours without turning out anything useful.

I need a new strategy and I wondered if meditation might help. I’ve heard people say that it calms the mind.

I didn’t grow up in a meditation tradition. We went to silent retreats, which I suspect wasn’t the same thing at all. Since they usually focused on topics like sin or the crucifixion, I never found them particularly calming. The Church looked upon meditation as falling-off-the-end-of-the-earth “out there” practice, likely the tiniest bit heretical.

All I knew about meditation was that I assumed it involved contorting one’s legs into a lotus position and chanting “OM” or some such sound.

I started finding out more about it with a series of DVDs called Quiet Mind, produced by the University of Calgary. Six mini-views of techniques that people use to quiet their mind.

On those DVDs, three people interested me. Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk, who is part of the World Community of Christian Meditation. Hmm, The Church seems to have changed her mind about meditation. Sylvia Boorstein, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist. And Norman Fischer, a Soto Zen roshi, poet and Buddhist author affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center.

Come to think of it, I have a tenuous connection with the San Francisco Zen Centre. During the summer the Center operates a wilderness meditation retreat, formerly called Tassajara. Back in the 1970s the first cookbooks I owned were The Tassajara Bread Book and Tassajara Cooking, both by Edward Espé Brown, a Zen priest who helped found the Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.

As you can tell by the cover, these books have seen hard use, and they are still my favorite cooking references. I always feel peaceful after I spend a few minutes looking at them. Heck, if a forty-two year old cookbook from a place where people routinely meditate radiates peacefulness, I’m even more interested in looking at meditation.

In the inevitable way with my favorite library, all three resources I requested arrived on the same day. What the heck, a little cross-cultural exploration might be just the thing. As it turned out, it was. All three authors play off on one another nicely, often coming to the same material with different ways of phrasing it.

One of the things I’ve discovered is first aid for the mind. Even without having started regular meditation, I’ve found this to be remarkably simple and calming.

When life seems to be in chaos, try saying this

“Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”
~Sylvia Boorstein

Her explanation is this:
  • Relax. Being startled matters. It interrupts the stories our mind tells. We can’t do anything helpful when we are startled and confused.
  • Breathe. Steady breaths not only calm the mind, but they replenish oxygen.
  • Pay attention. When you sense chaos, something is wrong. Your mind is trying to tell you something. Listen to it.
  • Figure out what to do next. Calmed minds know what needs to be done.

It’s even helping dealing with publishing.

It’s a tough week out there. I hope everyone, without exception, is safe and cared for. Please take care of yourself.


Sheila Connolly said...

I have the same cookbook, from my California days. Didn't Jerry Brown do a retreat there?

I've never tried meditation, but could I suggest that good working posture helps when you're writing? If you find yourself hunched over your keyboard, with clenched hands clawing at the keys, you won't be happy for long. (Now reminding myself to sit up straight!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sheila.

I suspect that Tassajara and Jerry Brown are familiar with one another.

Since I am so short, my husband and I built my computer station out of completely adjustable components. I call it the Hobbit Hole. My husband, being a lot taller, calls it something else.