Monkeys mind

Adorable. And just waiting for a chance to break your concentration.

Adorable. And just waiting for a chance to break your concentration.

A sesshin is usually seven straight days of zazen. We start at 4 am and go till 10 or 11 pm, sitting zazen, doing kinhin, chanting. This is an amazing experience, by the way, one I highly recommend. During a 7-day sesshin, we have dokusan, or one-on-one meetings with Roshi, every day, and Roshi gives a teisho every other day.

Sometimes during teisho, Roshi will refer to something someone said to him during dokusan. He doesn’t identify the person, just mentions that someone said such-and-such, and it made him think of something he wanted to say to all of us. The first time I heard this, instantly my mind started to scheme: What can I say during dokusan that will make him mention it during teisho?

I mean, how egotistical can you get? And how ridiculous, because it’s not like anyone would know it was me. It was just some kind of weird competition my mind came up with that, really, I didn’t want any part of. But there it was. This is what the mind does. Your mind is constantly coming up with things that you yourself don’t approve of.

The over-busy, chattering mind is often called “monkey mind,” the way it jumps around and intrudes on your wonderful calm zazen experience, but I think of it as monkeys, plural. I get one monkey jumping up and saying,” Ooh! Let’s get Roshi’s attention, and stand out from the crowd!” And another monkey says, “Will you shut up? That’s ego talking!” And a third monkey says, “BOTH of you shut up, I’m trying to meditate here!” And yet another monkey is laughing hysterically that this whole circus is even taking place.

And underneath it all is … something else. Something that’s not a monkey. Something that just is.

A long time ago, when I first heard about Zen, I thought that transcending the self was something you only had to do once, and then it was done. That enlightenment happens to you like a bolt of lightning, and you are magically changed into someone who is just naturally serene and unflappable. I think I get it now, that the reason we call it a practice is that you’re never done, not during your lifetime. You have to do it over and over. And part of transcending the self is learning to live with what the self throws up, and I mean that in the most nauseous sense of the word.

Sometimes what my mind comes up with is funny. Sometimes it’s insightful. But often it’s not nice at all, whether it’s just irritating, or egotistical, or mean. I can’t just get rid of what my self does, what my mind produces. What I’m doing in zazen, I think, is training my mind to live with what is, instead of obsessing about what was, or what might be, or what I fear or hope might be.

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