Monkey Mind and Mantra

I have a mantra. It is loving-kindness. Although simple and short, it is really big and powerful. I find myself saying it at odd times of the day, or when I’m feeling anxious, or when I am trying too hard, or when I am thinking too much, and, of course, when I’m meditating.


I am very driven and methodical. For me purpose and order are right up there next to godliness. I think I’m this way because of my early training. My father would routinely wake us up at 6AM calling up the stairs, “Rise and shine. Shape up or ship out!” That kind of first thing in the morning directive set the tone for the day and the rest of my life.


Saying my mantra allows me to just be. There’s no purpose. There’s no order. There’s just the mantra. Perhaps it is the repetition, the cadence, and the concentration that create the big release. Whatever it is I like it.


My mantra habit started as part of my formal meditation practice. That began about six months ago. I had often thought of doing it, but never really did. That could be because once I had a false start. Eons ago, as an undergraduate, some of my artist friends convinced me to take a weekend class in Transcendental Meditation. I was not sure about meditation. It seemed that I would be playing with my mind–that powerful raucous thing residing somewhere between my two ears–and that could be dangerous. But I was also intrigued. Besides, how could I say no to my friends? Both knew me so well and so convincing argued that this was going to be a great experience.


Their reasoning was spot on. It is hard for me to have a clear head; my mind is always on hyper-drive, examining and fussing over everything. This incessant mind chattering is not only distracting, but also confusing. Instead of clarity, more often I end up in a state of anxiety with no clear path in front of me. I long for a blank space between my ears. In one of his books on Zen, Suzuki talks about the sermons of Tai-hui who says that to be a free master of yourself, you have to stop your hankering monkey-like mind from doing mischief. I was all for it—a quiet mind. I just had to get rid of the monkeys. Meditation was the way, they said.


I went. The class, held in the Boston Copley Plaza Hotel, was awful. The leader told us to close our eyes and count back from thirty, at which point we were supposed to be in a meditative state. We did this all day for two days. It was long and monotonous. There weren’t even some lighter moments. The other people were like ghosts. Nobody talked. At lunch everyone disappeared. Sitting all day gave me a back ache.


I don’t think I was actually meditating. I don’t think I even understood what meditation was. Counting back from thirty was harder than I could ever imagine. The instructions of the Zen masters sounded good, but didn’t help either. Just try making your mind like a taut line that you don’t let slip out of your hand. I promised myself never to do such a thing again. Period.


Never say never. After that weekend, it only took me a few decades to get back to meditation. I’m really glad I did. I read a basic book but I didn’t go to any class. I just began doing it every day. To begin I do three things: Set the kitchen timer; sit up straight in a chair; start with the breath—concentrating on that single thing—breathing in, breathing out, and pausing. Then I move on to concentrating on my mantra, Loving-kindness.


I picked my mantra up from a book written by a group of brain scientists and the Dalai Lama. They were examining how negative emotions work and how meditation can dissolve them. In the book they discuss how to get rid of negative emotions. Loving-kindness is one of the anecdotes they mentioned. To me being loving and kind is goodness and gives life meaning, so my mantra feels authentic and natural. And, it turns out that my mantra is also an anecdote to those chattering monkeys. It clears my mind for fuller focus and concentration on nothing. Nothing is great. I love it and highly recommend it.


All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum




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