The Jedi Master and the Monkey

In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda famously told Luke Skywalker: “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” I’m not one to disagree with a Jedi Master, but if we are not “crude matter,” why, then, does it so often seem as though the opposite is true?

As is the case most mornings, I awoke today not to the abrupt sound of an alarm clock, but to the blaringly loud stream of mental chatter that is my Monkey Mind. Some of its commentary is useful (“Brush your teeth. Wash your hands.”), but most of it is useless, at best, and destructive at worst. (“You shouldn’t have said that yesterday. You looked like a fool.” “Are you going to waste time again today or are you going to do something productive?” “Good moms don’t talk like that to their kids.”). This mental dysentery never seems to stop, not when I am sleeping, not when I am eating, not when I am meditating, not when I am writing. We all have Monkey Mind, which, like a radio or television station, broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even when we turn the dial and tune into a different station, even when we hit the “off” button.

Monkey Mind is persistent, loud and at times subversive. If we don’t rein it in, it will become unruly and run amok, like a dog without a pack leader, trying to dominate and control us. Perhaps even more damaging, Monkey Mind can create a believable illusion of false limitations. Thankfully, we have access to another voice within us, as well; a source of higher intelligence, even wisdom, a voice that runs on a quieter, more subtle frequency than Monkey Mind. This voice can be quite difficult to discern beneath the oppressive din of Monkey Mind, but nonetheless, it is, like its louder counterpart, constantly broadcasting regardless of whether we are tuned in to its frequency.

We have a choice, a very powerful choice indeed, of what station to tune into, of what thoughts we will entertain and focus on. However, if we don’t exercise that choice consciously, intentionally and frequently, Monkey Mind will make that choice for us.

Our bustling, noisy world of unlimited connectivity and 24/7 access to information and entertainment, is a playground for Monkey Mind, an environment in which it thrives. How, then, do we learn to access our higher intelligence, our source of wisdom? How do we find quiet spaces, internally and externally, so that we can consciously choose whether to turn the dial and tune into another station?

I believe the power lies in the most subtle of places: the pause. A single, fleeting moment, the pause gives us the opportunity to turn the dial to the quieter frequency of our higher intelligence. If we can become aware in the pause, even for just a moment, then we can begin to separate ourselves from Monkey Mind and realize that there is indeed another channel we can tune into. If we’re not paying attention, however, Monkey Mind will compel us to fill the pause with talking, thinking, doing, planning, stressing, checking our electronic devices, finding out what’s happening in the world or checking what our ninth-best virtual friend just posted on Facebook.

Like any new skill or craft, noticing the pause and turning the dial can feel awkward at first. But the more we practice it, the more natural it starts to feel and the more organic it becomes. Our ability to quiet ourselves, our thoughts, our judgments, allows us to perceive the subtle layers that lie beneath the surface. These liminal spaces provide us with the opportunity to choose whether to base our actions or inactions on the voices—the wisdom—of a clear heart and mind or on unspoken, yet loud, irrational fears and cloudy vision.

We often think of the pause, of quiet, in an auditory sense, as the absence of sound or as the space between sounds. However, quiet has other ways of expressing itself. Visually, quiet is the negative space in a photograph or painting, or even the space between characters on the written page or screen (like this ); mentally, quiet is the space between thoughts and judgments; and physically, it is the moment between actions. Our lives are a composite of sound and quiet, positive and negative space, thinking and not-thinking, busyness and stillness. When Monkey Mind compels us to fill the quiet spaces, however, we lose much of the contrast, the textural quality, the subtlety and the beauty of life.

As I write these words, my Monkey Mind is going full blast on its own station, interrupting my thoughts, writings and meditations on this subject several times with unhelpful chatter such as: “Who are you to write about this? Are you some kind of expert? Nobody is going to want to read what you have to say. Go do something useful.” In the past, I would have assumed these were the musings of the Voice of Truth and stopped writing mid-sentence. Now, however, I remember that I have the choice to pause, turn the dial, and tune into the quieter voice. And, for a fleeting, delicate moment, the crude matter with which I so often identify yields to a quiet inner luminosity. And I keep writing.

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