One of the ongoing requirements for ADF’s Dedicant Path is a 5-month practice of meditation or mental training techniques, involving at least one session a week (though of course, more is preferable). I have been an on-and-off meditator since before my Pagan conversion and have tried everything from guided meditation to zazen with a local Zen Buddhist group to using a secondhand New Age book to pray to my guardian angels. (It’s been an interesting 6-7 years since leaving Christianity.) My regular practice, which never did extend past the ephemeral two-week mark, would occasionally provide me with insights and understanding, but more often left me frustrated, bored, and with a backache.
Perhaps the very first lesson I learned and relearned when pursuing meditation is that the concept of the “monkey mind” is very real, very present, and very persistent. The monkey mind is that aspect of our conscious thought that seeks to know everything. It is a constant chatter of questioning, organization, and judgment. Think of a monkey with a pickle jar. He wants a pickle so he reaches in and grabs it, then tries to pull it out horizontally so it’s too wide to fit through the head of the jar. If the monkey would just let go of the pickle, he wouldn’t be trapped and would be free to go about his day. The mind is like this too – just replace “pickle” with any thought, emotion, or sensation that drives the mind to fixation.
I haven’t often taken time to navel-gaze because I don’t like confronting my own monkey mind. With the constant distractions of life – what should I eat, when should I clean my room, what’s the newest content on reddit, what about those job applications, did I take all my pills today – it’s easy to look over the state of my own mind. Unfortunately, my college days learned me well. When I became stressed and overworked, I never had the time for keeping my room or the kitchen neat, and so everything dissolved into a messy pit. When I did finally have time to clean, I didn’t want to waste that free time with cleaning, did I? Of course not. So dishes and dirty laundry piled up and my living space became more and more crowded and more and more inhospitable.
I hope the analogy is clear with my mental living space as well. Without doing the sometimes boring or difficult work of regular maintenance, my thoughts become muddied and anxious and cycle through the same old songs and dances. I keep relearning the same lesson about the power of the monkey mind because I haven’t let myself progress to the next step (whatever that is). My monkey mind frightens me off with its boredom, frustration, depression, anxiety, and other mental storms that sweep through the landscape with just as much destruction as any derecho. In meditation, especially the zazen style I prefer, there are no distractions which keep me from experiencing this psychic turbulence. If this is the soundtrack of my life, no wonder things so often seem discordant and out of tune.
This past week I’ve started working on the DP’s meditation requirements with the aim of daily practice and diligent upkeep of a Meditation Log. I meditate in the mornings after reading from Caitlín Matthews Celtic Devotional, which I highly recommend as spiritual and inspirational and all around awesome. I light a candle and incense, anoint myself with water from Brighid’s urn, and read the morning devotion. (By the way, my meditational practice seems to have accidentally dedicated itself to Brighid – but that’s content for another post.) This only takes a few minutes, but I’ve found it helps prime my mind for turning inward in meditation. My practice so far has been counting 100 breaths and nothing else. Counting breaths is simple and objective. Other thoughts and emotions arise certainly, but they should never take center stage or distract my enough to lose my place.
Of course this is all easier said than done. I am repeatedly struck with the sheer insistency my thoughts have of being noticed and labeled important, especially the negative ones. (I wouldn’t have half as much trouble with meditation if I kept getting sidetracked with positive thinking!) However, I’m finding that each morning I return to practice it becomes easier to accept the ravings of my monkey mind as I learn how to tune it out. I also don’t have the same mental experiences from day to day. And yes, even in the course of a week I think I have stumbled upon some progress, where I finally get to a point where my mind seems calmer and I’m not ready to fall asleep.
For those of you who meditate, which techniques do you prefer? What lessons has meditation taught you? What tips and tricks do you have for sticking with regular practice?