Years ago, seeking help, I called Jack, an Episcopal minister. Because Jack was also a Zen priest, I hoped his serenity might calm my condition: what Buddhists call the chattering “drunken monkey mind.”
I had tossed and turned too many nights, ideas jumping around in my brain like screeching monkeys swinging from branch to branch. I had scampered around too many unfocused days, and flittered away too many restless 24 hours crazed with to-do lists, as if I had been hopping from limb to limb.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I don’t know exactly. I feel so scattered.” I spewed out a barrage of “I feel guilty about sending my daughter to school without a coat.” “I wish I had kept up with my French,” and “I’m worried about what will happen next week at my Dad’s surgery….”
After listening for a while to my ping-ponging thoughts, Jack said, “Too much thinking.”
I said, “I was thinking that. I figured I could take a course to learn how to think less. Then I thought listening to tapes by the Dalai Lama might still my mind.”
He repeated, “Too much thinking.”
“You told me that before,” I said, lost in thought. “I’ve been mulling it over.”
Shaping the “T” time-out sign, he said, “Stand up.”
I rose. He asked, “Driving here today, what went through your mind?”
I said, “I was feeling bad that I lost my temper with my son. Maybe I ruined his day.”
Jack took out a post-it-note and wrote, “Fretting about this morning’s event.”
He said, “Give me your left palm.”
I reached out and he slapped the square slip of yellow paper on my left hand.
“What else were you thinking?”
“I was rehashing that my friend told me last week to ‘get a grip’.”
Jack said, “Give me your left hand again.”
He wrote, “Last week’s incident” on another post-it note and added it to the first one on my left hand.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“I was wondering what I might cook for dinner. And do we need dessert?””
“Give me your right hand.”
He wrote, “eight hours from now.” He stuck the paper on my right hand.
“Yes. Should I go to the hospital tonight to see my sick neighbor?”
“Again, I need your right hand.”
He wrote, “Thoughts about later,” and added it to “eight hours from now.”
I stood with many woulda-coulda-shouldas from the past, what-ifs and worst case scenarios about the future and a pile of yellow stickies covering every finger. He instructed: “Extend your arms, left hand out to the left, right hand out to the right, arms wide and parallel to the floor.”
After a few minutes he asked, “What are you experiencing?”
“My arms feel heavy. I’m not sure I can hold them up.”
He said, “Here you are in this present moment, carrying all these thoughts from the past, which we’ve put on your left hand, and all these thoughts about the future, which we’ve put on your right. You’re lugging all of them around. Much of your mind’s busy-ness is weighty, not needed here and now. Too much thinking. Can you feel the burden of your mind patterns? They’re like over-sized baggage. Extra.”
I plopped into my chair in what felt like surrender, let out an emptying sigh, “Ahhhhh. I see. But I’m really good at too much thinking.”
We laughed and the hard work of taming the monkeys began. I bought a book about over-thinking. Jack reminded me that peace of mind would not come from agitating it with more reading. Then I talked to him about my signing up for an upcoming on-line meditation program for women who think too much.
He said, “You’re trying too hard. What happens when you focus on now? What do you notice?”
I looked around. I told Jack I saw his statue of Laughing Buddha, that I spotted the picture of Mary cradling baby Jesus. I heard cars whizzing outside his window.
Jack asked, “What are the monkeys doing?”
He said, “That’s your homework. Rest your mind wherever you are. Be aware of what’s happening in you and around you. Awareness is not about thinking. Awareness is noticing, observing, bearing witness. Awareness is stop, slow down, pay attention.”
Today I’m still learning so I still practice. These days I use a question to help me: “What’s happening now?”
When I do a “T” time-out from thinking and ask something like, “What’s here now?,” the layers of the past and the future far-extending post-it notes drop away. The monkey thoughts quiet down. And I feel mind-sober, at least in this moment.
Susan Lebel Young is the author of Lessons from a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart and Food Fix: Ancient Nourishment for Modern Hungers. She can be reached through www.heartnourishment.com or firstname.lastname@example.org