Check email. Check Twitter. Read blog post. Refresh Google Reader. Work. Check email. Look at YouTube video a friend sent. Work. Write email. Chat with a friend. Get up and get more coffee. Read Twitter feed. Click on every link in Twitter feed. Work. Repeat.
The above is an example of my typical routine on a day when I have been overtaken by Monkey Mind.
The idea of monkey mind in Buddhism refers to the way that our minds like to jump from thought to thought the way that a playful monkey jumps from limb to limb on a tree. There is no focus or stillness, no engaging with the present moment. The Monkey Mind is constantly looking for new stimuli, new thoughts, new ways to distract from the present and focus on the past or the future instead.
One of the reasons I wanted to sign up for the 21*5*800 project is that I had slipped away from my yoga practice in the last few months and knew on some level how vital it is to my creativity. In the past couple of weeks, especially, I’ve been running on “survival mode” instead of feeling engaged in my days. The practices of yoga and meditation are efforts to “tame” the thought-monkey and get us to live more in the present tense. As such, they are perfect companions for me as I delve deeper into my creative practice.
With Vinyasa yoga, my body is constantly flowing from one pose to another. By moving physically, I can focus my mind on the pose at hand in any given moment, rather than thinking about my day or worrying about something that’s coming up. Because of the effort involved, I have no choice but to concentrate on what I am doing, rather than what I am thinking. One of my old theater teachers was constantly talking to us about getting into our bodies… as a teenager, I didn’t really grasp what he meant, but I can see now how getting into your body, really feeling and being aware of your body, keeps you anchored in the present at all times — which is exactly where most performers want to be.
The other side of the practice is stillness. At the end of a yoga session, we often stay in Savasana (corpse pose) for several minutes, to recover and relax and integrate the practice. After all the physical exertion of yoga, as gentle as it can be, savasana seems like it would be a piece of cake. For me, it is actually the most challenging part of the practice.
Once my body is done moving and I have to lie in stillness, the thoughts start coming back and there’s that Monkey Mind, jumping around. At this point, though, it’s easier for me to have compassion for it, to look at it fondly and say, “Oh, you, get back over here,” and pat it on the head. I can be more gentle with myself than I normally would, and just bring attention back to my breath and my body, feeling my muscles relax into the floor.
After several minutes of this (the monkey running off to play, and me gently but firmly bringing my attention back to the present), something lovely happens. The thoughts seem to spread apart more. There is space between each thing that pops up, and the urgency with which they demand my attention is released. This feeling is so peaceful and filled with joy for me that I will often have to wipe away tears when I sit up at the end of a session.
The first time I did an Ashtanga yoga class was unforgettable. The night was warm and clear, and my body was sore but blissed out. I was proud of myself. I drove home with the windows down and the radio off. It was the first time I could remember in years that I had driven anywhere without the radio playing. Silence. Stillness. Joy.
Do you allow yourself any freedom from your thoughts during the day? If so, what’s your favorite way to do it?