Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Faith, Determination and That Monkey Mind of Mine

I posted a blog on 2/14 about how moving toward a goal is often like a drive to the beach.  If you know that's where you want to go, start heading West!

A fellow meditator asked me a question after reading that blog:

" Your 'drive to the beach' reminds me a bit of my rambling and distracting mind when I meditate sometimes. I start on the object: "the beach" and then find myself wandering off...
[What do I do] when my willy nilly mind gets the best of me?"

Great question!  Working with the distracted mind can sometimes lead to dullness in our practice and a mechanical approach.  We know we're to bring ourselves back to the object of our meditation each time we wander off.  But sometimes we’re simply going through the motions each time we pull our attention back over and over. We’re doing it by rote, but we don’t really have enough interest in the object of our meditation to want to stay there in the first place.  Here’s where faith and determination come in.

And here’s where I switch analogies away from “the beach” for a minute.  Our mind is like a very small child who wants to wander in to the busy, colorful street.  We have her by the hand and each time she pulls toward the street or takes a step in to the street, we lovingly yet firmly pull her back.  We do this not just because we love her and want the best for her, but because we have faith that this action is actually building toward something.  Each time we lovingly yet firmly pull her back she is gaining an awareness, a habit, a sense of the larger picture.  And some day she will know to do this on her own.  We have faith in this small action that is taken over and over and over again.  And our determination is fueled by this faith.  And we must have determination to build a strong meditation practice. 

In my classes, I talk about having “interested determination” in your practice.  Take an interest in the object of your meditation (the breath, an orb of light) and summon your determination to be there.  Let there be faith that the mere action of continuing to bring yourself back time and again is enough.  Not getting to some vast spacious place of bliss.  But the mere action of bringing yourself back over and over is perhaps – maybe at least for today’s meditation – what it’s all about.  Pulling that small child back from the busy street is no action taken in vain.

I recommend bearing in mind the above before all else.  But some days we're just off the object more than we're on and we want to just leave the child at home!  

So...back to the beach analogy.  I look at it this way: the “beach” is a strong meditation practice.  The "road" is whichever practice we've chosen to do.  There are many roads that lead to a strong practice.  So if you’ve been doing, say, Shamatha (mindfulness with breathing, where the object is the breath) for several weeks in a row and perhaps today and yesterday and the day before you were off more than you were on, then maybe it’s time to invest in a new practice for a time. Take a small street.  Hop on the freeway.  But get on a different road.

When I have an unusually distracted mind, I do Tonglen.  I visualize my heart as a golden, glowing orb of light and home to Bodhicitta.  Bodhicitta is any compassion, loving kindness, awakened, enlightened part of my being that exists.  And if I’m having a crappy day and don’t believe any of that stuff exists in or on or around me, I summon my faith.  I have faith that I have some sliver of Bodhicitta within me and I see it as a golden orb of light in my chest.  

And then I see – as a black cloud - my distraction, my resistance (to the practice), my doubts (in the practice and myself) and my worries (about everything).  I breathe this black cloud in to my heart and my heart uses it as fuel.  My heart gets bigger, brighter, warmer and as I breathe out, this light and warmth spreads throughout my body.   I don’t try to analyze or figure out the contents of this black cloud of fear, doubt, worry, resistance, distraction and all-around suffering.  I simply breathe it in.  It fuels my heart.  Then I do this for others, sending the heart of Bodhicitta out to all beings.  I breathe in others pain and suffering and at some point, there doesn’t seem to be any difference between Bodhicitta and suffering.  And I enjoy this dance of everything, allowing for everything to be a part of my practice. 

Luckily the visualization and the fact that this is a moving mind meditation keep my monkey mind occupied.  Sometimes we have to throw the monkey mind a banana.  And Tonglen is one potent and nourishing banana for our whole being.

Whenever we switch to a new practice, it’s usually a good idea to commit to doing it for at least ten days.  Otherwise, our wiley self (ego) can convince us that this isn’t the right practice for us…or this one…or this one… or this one…and then the bell rings and our meditation session is over.  Oh, you rascally ego!

So maybe Tonglen is your practice for a little while.  In the meantime, you and your monkey mind...and perhaps all beings...have been nourished.  And we all need a snack on the way to the beach.


  1. I know you were work with comics and artists teaching them how to meditate and include creative writing in your classes. In many of my meditations I have creative ideas come forward, things I want to write or create. In fact, some of my greatest creative "downloads" have come during my meditation. If I stayed on the object only I wouldn't have the opportunity to explore them. What do you have to say about this?

  2. I really love reading your blog, Sarah. Your writing is just as amazing as your meditation workshops. Thanks for the insight!


  3. Great question Lynn! I'm curious about the answer. For a long time I've wrestled with meditation, finally giving IT a rest (rather than the ol' monkey mind). Taking time for myself is obviously important - and another item I seem to be wrestling with, along with the monkey.
    Thanks Chip, potent reminders!

  4. @Lynn:
    I started to reply but I think this is another blog posting. Stay tuned and this will be answered!
    xo Sarah

  5. Great piece once again!! Not only did I like it, but so did my the little kid inside me :) This particular blog is a reminder that we not only have to nurture and monitor our adult self but also the kid within (aka the mind). Keep it comin'!!!


  6. @Lynn Zavaro: Here is a response to your great question here in the "comments" section:

  7. i don't know if this blog is "active" anymore, but it speaks to my center!

    perfectly and wonderfully.

    i'm laughing and bolstered in this labor of growth.

    thank you!