Taming the Monkey Mind

Being-presentAs my time as USH winds down, I reflect on the first several weeks when I was with the residents Saturday, Sunday and Monday getting to know them.  I did not know their pain, hurts or stories.  Nor did I know their mental health or self-medication challenges. I was not sure how to initiate a conversation, what questions to ask or what questions I should not ask.  As I was present on the weekends, many of the regular activities were not in motion.  The weekends were just that – weekends when people relaxed, did their laundry, went for a walk in the neighborhood or the park.

Part of my assignment was to serve as a backup Residential Assistant.  The duties included signing off on chores, cooking meals, refilling paper supplies and anything else that helped keep the house neat and orderly.  I gravitated to the cooking to use fresh food that would spoil if it were not used. I just was present in and among the residents wondering, questioning…who are they, what are their hopes and dreams, passions, what do they see as their  obstacles to living full lives?  Can I imagine or understand their pain or agony, that which is so deep one cannot see it? Okay, here’s another “journey towards the center” about to take place.  I find myself wondering exactly what does it mean to be present? What does it mean as a Christian to be present?

Being physically present and accounted for is important, but I think it entails much more than that. Being present also means to be focused and engaged in the person or task at hand.  Being present requires a focused engagement of every aspect of our being including the physical, mental, emotional and even the spiritual.

We live in a world that militates against our being present in the moments of our life.  We are bombarded 24/7 with distractions and demands for our presence, primarily through media, social networking websites, and e communication.  Perhaps we delude ourselves into thinking that with the sophistication of technology we can now be omni-present because we can multitask.  Can one tweet and talk and be fully present at the same time?  Can we make ourselves to be like God, who alone is omnipresent?

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) seems like a reasonable place to begin. The Hebrew word for “be still” literally means to “cease” or “cease striving”.  As I strive to build relationships at USH I realize that to be present in any relationship I needed to push the pause button on and forsake everything else in my life and focus on God in that moment. Perhaps there was ways I can improve truly being present. Here are a few I intend to pursue.

 Be Watchful – Stay alert and discerning. Jesus tells us to “Keep watch” and Paul warns,  “Be watchful “(Matthew 24:42, 1 Corinthians 16:13 & Ephesians 6; 18).  As I get to know the residents, I increasingly understand and come to know their frustrations and joys, and it takes the active engagement of all my senses to experience these revelations.

 Be Content – Being content with the moment I am in and not wishing for some other moment either past or future will help me abide in the present.  Paul tells us “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11 NIV) One of the true delights of time at SH is Bible Study in the Commons Area.  J is always there: other people come and go.  J is fascinated with Eve; he is a true feminist.  I am glad he is on my team!

 Be Thankful – Being content and thankfulness go hand in hand.  And so it is possible to “be thankful in all circumstances, “for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:18 NLT).  As L says every time I ask him, “How are you”?  He responds, “Grateful.”

 Be Prayerful – When the moment I am in is not a pleasant one or is trying my patience I have the option of turning to God in prayer.  Prayer enables me to be present when other things around war against that.  Prayer also helps me be more discerning to find God in the moment. It is joy to worship with L, D, and B on a Sunday morning at St. Paul’s.  As we pray, I hope for their peace and resolve to forge forward into full lives.

Before concluding, I would like to go back to the pause button for a moment and close this reflection with this thoughtful poem by May Sarton. As I review the passing weeks at USH, I hope I am left with more questions than answers and the time to luxuriate in the space between the question and answer. I noticed today and yesterday, when I pause and let go, my monkey mind[i] chatter is greatly reduced. It has been helpful.

Beyond the Question

The phoebe sits on her nest
Hour after hour,
Day after day,
Waiting for life to burst out
From under her warmth.

Can I weave a nest for silence,
Weave it out of listening,
Listening,
Layer upon layer?

But one must first become small,
Nothing but a presence
Attentive as a next bird,
Proffering no slightest wish,
No tendril of a wish
Toward anything that might happen
Or be given,
Only the warm, faithful waiting,
Contained in one’s smallness.
Beyond the questions, the silence
Before the answer, the silence.

[i] The monkey mind (kapicitta) is a term sometimes used by the Buddha to describe the agitated, easily distracted and incessantly moving behavior of ordinary human consciousness (Ja.III,148; V,445). Once he observed: `Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night'(S.II,95). Anyone who has spent even a little time observing his own mind and then watched a troop of monkeys will have to admit that this comparison is an accurate and not very flattering one. On another occasion the Buddha said that a person with uncontrolled craving `jumps from here to there like a monkey searching for fruit in the forest'(Dhp.334).

In contrast to this, the Buddha asked his disciples to train themselves so as to develop `a mind like a forest deer’ (miga bhåtena cetasà, M.I, 450). Deer are particularly gentle creatures and always remain alert and aware no matter what they are doing.

References

Chadron, Thubdon. “The Monkey Mind.” Guide to Buddism A-Z. 1995. http://buddhisma2z.com/content.php?id=274 (accessed August 28, 2015).

Eunice C. Wong, Rebecca L. Collins, Jennifer L. Cerully, Elizabeth Roth, Joyce Marks. Stigma, Discrimination, and Well-Being Among California Adults Experiencing Mental Health Challenges. Internet, Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2015.

Stuart, Tom. 8 Ways to Be Present. January 4, 2012. http://tomstuart.org/2012/01/04/8-ways-to-be-present/ (accessed August 28, 2015).

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