Whether we every imagined being a monk or a hermit, all of us who are limiting our contact with the world in a time of Covid are experiencing a bit of that cloistered life. I suspect all of us are learning that without some of the usual activities of life, our inner thoughts and feelings are unavoidable. I am one of those folks who has, from time to time , wondered what it would like to be a monk, and I often have books of monks or hermits on my meditation table. Those folks who have chosen to live of separation, of renunciation for spiritual reasons, no matter what tradition, they all acknowledge that this is not an easy life. They have known for thousands of years what you and I are learning, that once you have removed some of the distractions, we have no choice but to face ourselves fully.
Thomas Moore, who lived in a very traditional monastery for 13 years writes:
“The life of the monk seen through sentimental eyes can be easily misunderstood. It’s a tough life, in which sensitivity to interior thoughts and feelings are intense, and a similar attention to the presence of others in the community makes relationship particularly challenging. In modern life it may appear that real work is located in the heroics of surviving and succeeding in the world. For the monk the challenge is in nonheroic intimacy with oneself, others and the world.”
As we wait the rollout of the vaccine, for a time when we can let go of some of the restrictions on our cloistered lives, perhaps it would help to think of ourselves as accidental monks, and just notice what it is like to live in this non-heroic intimacy with ourselves and others.
The other day a friend mentioned that her thoughts are like a bunch of threads she wants to untangle, but that she never seems to be done. Another friend mentioned that her mind defaults to a running commentary about her inadequacy. Some of us worry endlessly about the future, especially in times like these when the future is so clearly uncertain, others tend to try to make sense of the past. All of that is very normal Buddhist teachers have long talked about the “monkey mind” – it naturally leaps and is distracted by shiny things.
I want to invite you to just take a moment and notice what your thoughts are doing right now. Just notice- are they about the past, or the future? Are they fast or slow? What feelings do you notice?
So the part of us that notices our thoughts, that’s called the observer. Sometimes just noticing our thoughts, just noticing “I’m remembering the past” or “I’m planning for the future” or “I’m feeling impatient right now” can help us get a bit of space from those thoughts and feelings. Instead of getting totally hooked or caught up in those thoughts, I notice that I’m not those thoughts, I am the one observing those worried thoughts about the future. I am the one observing feelings of impatience.
A monk’s life is very orderly- time for prayer or meditation, time for work, time alone, time in community. This kind of daily structure helps provide relief for the overactive mind, and is somet6hing you might play with in our own life- there is a time in the day to make plans, a time to scrub pots or chop carrots, a time to think back and make meaning out of the past, and of course for every monk, a time that today I will call “gazing at the sky”- a time to set down all the thoughts and worries and focus on something larger, more spacious. Taking this time offers us a change in perspective that I’ve found can make a big difference in my ability to deal with the goings on in my own brain.
Our time together on Sunday morning is one such time. We have nothing else to do, no where else to be. We set aside this time together to nourish our spirits.
At the start of class, one of my first meditation teachers used to say “just allow the mind to release its contents” and I find this really helpful. Like the Jar in today’s story, the contents of our mind, of our day release and settle.
I invite you to try that with me now, starting as we often do by getting a comfortable seat, really arriving in our seat.
You don’t have anywhere else you have to be, except right here in this moment. There will be plenty of time later for planning and problem solving, Just now I encourage you to lost allow your mind to release its contents.
Let your body and mind settle into gravity, like sparkles in a jar of water
Just observe the thoughts drifting,
Return to that sensation of settling into your seat, into the ground...
Now lets try something else. Returning our mind to our comfortable seat, noticing the breath that is always happening without thought or effort.
Whatever is arising is okay.
Allow your busy mind to let go, knowing everything will be there again after the service.
If you like thank your busy mind for all it does for us.
Invite your mind on a little vacation.
Imagine you are laying on your back someplace pleasant and safe, looking up at the sky, and any thoughts and feelings are like clouds drifting though...
There’s nothing you need to do about those clouds, just notice them as they pass through your awareness...
If you were going to describe your mind like a weather report, what word or image would be kind of like the weather in your mind right at this moment?
Now I encourage you to shift your focus from the clouds to the sky surrounding them. Can you notice any bits of clear sky among the clouds? ...
Whenever a thought or feeling comes into your mind, just notice it passing by, and return your attention to the empty spaces as you are able...
Thank you for trying that with me.
When I first was asked to imagine my thoughts like clouds in the sky, I assumed that was something I could master pretty quickly, and soon I would have an empty sky whenever I called on it. Instead, after years of practice, I notice some days big patches of blue, some days little scraps of space between the clouds, and some days a storm so intense I just have to trust that the sky is there at all.
Pema Chodron, the Ordained Buddhist nun, now spiritual director of the Gampo Abbey monastery, is often quoted as saying: “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” And I have found this change of perspective makes a big difference for me. To turn my attention away from trying to get the dancing monkey to sit and behave, or the threads untangled, to noticing that in every moment the sky is there.
I asked some Unitarian Universalist ministers what their monkey mind liked to do during this pandemic, one colleague said “My brain likes to save up all the most worrying scenarios for just the moment when I have turned off my lamp and hit the pillow for the night.” I think this is a perfect example; there is some part of ourselves that really believes we can’t fall asleep until we have solved all the problems of the day, and all the problems of the future. But here in the light of morning, we can probably agree that very few problems actually get solved as we lay in bed trying to sleep. When we chose to put on our Pajamas and get into bed, some wise part of ourselves knows that it is time for sleep, and problem solving is antithetical to sleep. If we grasp at every cloud that floats by, we will never have time for sleep, and indeed, grasping and fixing just leads to more grasping and fixing. Ideas and feelings tend to generate more idea and feelings. Imagine trying to put each of the clouds in the sky into a box, and maybe to alphabetize them to keep them orderly. Instead of trying to sort clouds as we are falling asleep, the practice is simply to allow the thoughts and feelings to do what they do -- to drift by.
Of course there are truly problems to be solved in our world and in our lives. [This week especially!] We are not trying to escape into the sky. I asked a Buddhist meditation teacher once “if we are always trying to be in the present moment, how do we plan for the future?” and he replied “if we are planning for a future, then that is the activity, planning for the future. When we are done that activity we set it down.” We have the power to chose where we give our attention. There is time when we write our government officials, when we think how we could help the poor in our community. Time when we heal an interpersonal conflict, or a difficult memory from the past. And there is time every day to set down problem solving, to allow our mind to release its contents, and let the clouds drift as we turn our attention to the vast sky that holds them.
If we notice the storm clouds and they need some action on our part, but would be foolish not to close the windows, to get out our umbrella, but once we have done what we can do, we need the rest and spaciousness that comes from remembering that storm clouds come and go, that they are ephemeral and temporary, and that we are something larger and more spacious.
The monk’s life is not easy, but it has real gifts, the gifts of intimacy with your self, with community and with the world. And we are supported in that intimacy by remembering whenever we are able, that holding all those clouds is a vast sky that is always present.