the monkey and the tree

on meditation


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a friend of mine explained it to me like this. I remember exactly when and where. last April. on our way to Saadiyat beach. in his car. the windows rolled down. the air-condition blasting nevertheless. the smell of sea and sand. the road almost empty. he had heard it from someone else before.

picture a monkey, he said. or an ape. a big one. your size. but wild and fierce. strong. now picture a tree and a rope, and picture yourself trying to tie that monkey to that tree. with nothing but your bare hands and that rope. who would tire first? you would. so you’d take a rest, and try again. and again. and again. every so often, you might get the monkey close to the tree. eventually, you might even manage to get close with your rope. but your goal is to tie the monkey up and to make it sit still and quiet. so you wrestle with it. you keep going. you wrap the rope around the tree and the monkey. and around and around. but the monkey won’t sit still. it struggles and screams and howls. but you try and try. and one day you manage to calm the monkey. or tire it out. or beat it into submission. but then you turn around, and there is another monkey. and you realize that your purpose is not to tame one monkey, it’s to tame them all. to tie them all to trees. to make them all sit still and be quiet.

a very apt metaphor for what goes on in our heads and for what meditation is all about. a metaphor that has since come back to me often. a metaphor I will, among many other things, forever remember him by.

meditations often feels like taming a wild beast with nothing but your bare hands. and not just locking it up somewhere, but calming it down and getting it to rest peacefully too. our minds are a lot like wild beasts: unpredictable, volatile, erratic, and capricious, and I get the urge to simply aim a tranquilizer gun at them - to take a glass of alcohol, a pill, your drug of choice – instead of dealing with them face to face. I’m not the first to bemoan the fact that our brains don’t come with on-off buttons. and I won’t be the last.

I’ve been dabbling in meditation for about five years now. and dabbling is really the only way to put it. I give it a go once or twice a year, and usually falter, fail, give up within weeks if not days. I have an almost visceral reaction to it. as someone who takes pride in what her brain or rather mind conjures up on a daily basis, I find it difficult to get comfortable with the fact that I have not a lot of control of what actually happens up there. I find it equally difficult to accept that it’s not something I can force myself to learn. that I can’t just put enough hours in and get an automatic pass to the next level in the end. as someone who likes to think she can learn at least a bit of pretty much everything if she only sets her mind to it, and as someone who takes pride in that too, I have to admit that the monkeys are the one thing defeating me over and over again. which is where the metaphor falls short a bit. because I’m sure that, given enough time, I could become an excellent animal tamer!

I’m currently giving this meditation thing another go, and – surprise, surprise – it’s going ok-ish. it’s been over a month of a couple of meditation sessions a week. I only fell asleep once. and lately, instead of my mind frantically coming up with to-do lists and snippets of recent conversations, I keep having great writing ideas… ideas that I of course promptly forget the second the bell rings and my meditation is over.

I do believe that meditation is beneficial. at the same time I wonder if it’s one of the world’s biggest scams. thousands of years old. even though recent advances in neuroscience and brain scans have resulted in all kinds of claims that we can actually prove the effects of meditation, I have yet to come across anything that’s convincing.

people who claim that daily meditations has totally transformed their lives have to be treated with caution. something to do with the airy smiles and lofty statements that come with these assertions. and the lack of willingness to agree that maybe, just maybe, the fact that they are doing something on a daily basis, that this kind of discipline might actually be as or even more beneficial than meditation itself. because let’s be honest. how many of us can claim this kind of dedication and perseverance?

I find people who think that meditation might be doing something easier to handle. people who admit that they don’t really know what they are doing, don’t really know what to expect, don’t like the monkeys any more than I do. people who admit that after twenty years of meditation they still can’t quiet their minds, can’t stay aware, can’t watch their minds, can't stay zen, can’t create or even find the gap more than once in a while. that except for weird insights and strange experiences every so often, the struggle is still the same as it was in the beginning.

yes, meditations is in itself a reminder that we are not in control of our mind. that we are not our mind. and yes, maybe we need the act of meditation to constantly remind us of that fact. but to be honest, a sticker on my mirror saying You May Be What You Eat But You Are Not What You Think would do the same thing, albeit in a less unpleasant way.

I meditate, and when I do, I worry that my subconscious is becoming cross-eyed. I try so hard to stick to my mantra, focus so much on something right in front of my third eye, that I worry I open my eyes and won’t see anything because my pupils are forever stuck in an inward, twisted position. I worry that I hurt my back from all the heavy lifting, moving one unwanted thought after the other out of my way. I meditate, and when I do, all the people living in my head are having a field day, inviting people living in other people’s heads along. it’s a party I rather not attend, being the introvert that I am. I meditate, and when I do, it rains. or I sit in a light-flooded cathedral, its marble made of the ashes of dead shadow hunters. I meditate, and when I do, the neighbour who isn’t even at home starts walking around her apartment in high-heels. I feel one my cats jumping up onto the bed and curling up next to me, sometimes both, even though they haven’t been living with me for years.

You May Be What You Eat But You Are Not What You Think - how unfortunate, don’t you think?