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Finding the Quiet Mind
By Robert Ellwood
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1983 Robert Ellwood
All rights reserved.
Stop the Action
It's been called the Monkey Mind.
It's that stream of consciousness which keeps flitting from one thing to another like a monkey jumping from branch to branch.
Within the course of a single hour, your mind will concentrate for a little while on what you're doing—reading, sewing, working, watching TV, whatever it is. Then it will drift off to fantasize about something you did yesterday or are going to do next weekend, or to daydream about someone you met a year ago. You'll get hungry or thirsty and that sharp physical need will gnaw at you until it's satisfied or, if that's impossible at the moment, you put it down with a firm act of the will. You feel a harsh twinge of anxiety, even nausea, as something reminds you of an unresolved problem you have or a difficult appointment tomorrow. And so it goes.
The play of the Monkey Mind is not all bad. Some of it is and some of it isn't. But it all adds up to one thing: You're not in charge. You're not thinking. Your thoughts are thinking you. And they in turn are slave to whatever cherries or lemons the slot machine of the world happens to turn up. Externally, the machine flashes up all sorts of beckoning objects to want, thrills to seek, goals to pursue. Within, the mighty organ of the emotions plays symphonies—often discordant—with your appetites, memories, daydreams, moods, feelings, angers, fears, joys. Unchained in this monkey paradise, the beast has to jump very fast indeed to keep up with the whirling wheels and the raucous music.
And the Monkey Mind can't stop by itself.
Then there's the Sloth Mind. Sometimes the Monkey Mind does seem to slow down, but the result is not much better. In fact it may be a lot worse, so much so that you deliberately try to run around and stimulate the Monkey Mind into as frenetic a pace as possible to keep the Other Thing from having a chance to break in. That Other Thing, the Sloth Mind, is pervasive anxiety and depression. It's when you can't shake that clammy, jittery feel in the hands and that haunting fear something bad is about to happen, when you just can't seem to stop thinking about the things that worry you—they keep popping back up in the mind like werewolf jack-in-the-boxes. You may not even know what you're anxious or depressed about, you just are. It may get so bad you go to bed.
Blaise Pascal wrote that the human condition is one of "inconstancy, boredom, and anxiety," and more recently Lewis Thomas in The Medusa and the Snail wrote that while we humans are "a spectacular, splendid manifestation of life," with language, affection, and music, also
We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth's creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.
When the Sloth Mind is hard upon us, that's the aspect of human nature which crawls to the front and sits there sullenly, unwilling to move aside. You don't know why; like mornings when there's fog, it's simply there.
Finally there's the Cow Mind. It just wants to chew its cud and not be bothered. Perhaps you've struck a compromise between the Monkey Mind and the Sloth Mind. You're neither too up nor too down. You don't expect too much from life and you've built walls around yourself to keep out the bad things. You don't give, you don't get, you just get along. You coast through your work as best you can, then you eat, read the sports page or a lightweight magazine, watch TV and smoke, then go to bed.
If you have a family you spend some time with them but don't let them get to you too much. The next day you do it all over again. You don't know why you're living but you don't want to die, mainly because you don't want to get sick and because you don't want anything as dramatic as dying to happen to you. Maybe the Cow Mind is o.k. so long as nothing big like divorce or dying happens, and so long as you're content with gray and don't especially want a rainbow full of colors.
Suppose you want to shoot the Monkey, liven up the Sloth, or kick some life into the Cow. Many, many people don't like who they are and try all sorts of ways to switch. Some drink or take drugs. On a more salutary plane, some jog, some write, some make love, some labor for good causes. Some combine several of these.
Another antidote is meditation.
Meditation may not be for everyone. If you really try it and it doesn't seem to work for you, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. You have nothing to worry about or feel guilty about. You'll just have to find another way to get your mind in harness, that's all.
But if you want to give meditation a fair trial, be sure a fair trial is what it is. Read this book. Work at it, and don't give up too soon. Don't expect too much or too little from meditation. Go about it in the right way and with the right attitudes. If you need to change your style of life and your values to make them compatible with seriously practicing meditation, do so. Otherwise the trial is bound to fail.
It's like learning any new skill. The first few tries will often be disappointing and the temptation to quit will push itself forward persistently. But I have known very few persons who could not reach a satisfying level of ability in meditation with enough perseverance.
It is important to realize exactly what meditation can and cannot do. Here at the outset, let us emphasize that meditation is not a psychological cure-all. It will not solve serious mental problems and its practice by persons with real mental illness may do more harm than good. People who think they may have a definite mental health or emotional difficulty should seek assistance from trained helpers. Meditation is not magic, and will not magically remove the causes of anxiety, depression, or lethargy. It will not remove temptations and distractions, pay the bills or solve family problems.
What it can do is affect the way the mind works so that it responds differently than before to these things—with more calmness, with greater access to reservoirs of inner joy and strength. This means being less distracted by the Monkey, less bogged down by the Sloth, less out of it than the Cow. Meditation is a counterweight within oneself to all those things. It matches the way they sap one with new inflows of peace, energy, and happiness, for meditation can touch and tap a place accessible to the Quiet Mind, the mind just being itself, from which those positive powers flow.
Many people may want some of these good things, but are not sure they want to meditate, or even that they can. Here are some common reasons for rejecting the practice.
"Meditation is too exotic. It comes from alien religions and cultures that are not my own and I would feel strange, even disloyal, if I got into it."
"Meditation is really for religious specialists, like monks and nuns. For someone like me to get involved in it would be going in a little too deep. I'd be over my head, and probably either couldn't handle it, or would become a religious nut."
"It's too difficult and technical. I've seen some books on meditation that made it sound like organizing a mission to Mars."
"It takes too much self-discipline. I don't like feeling I have to do anything more than the bare minimum on a regular basis. I'm a hang-loose kind of person who would rather just let it happen spontaneously."
"Meditation is just a kind of self-hypnosis. It's a deceptive trick you play on yourself, making yourself believe things are all right when really nothing has changed. I'd rather just have my honest ups and downs."
"Meditation is a self-centered escape from the real problems of the world. It doesn't feed the hungry, heal the sick, or solve the great political, ecological, or scientific problems we have. It's just spiritual self-indulgence."
During the course of this book we will answer these objections, and perhaps some others as well.
We will see that practices like meditation have been known in virtually every culture and religion, Eastern and Western. It is the rightful heritage of every human being.
Moreover, we will see that although meditation can be made to sound very difficult and "advanced," appropriate only to monastics and holy men living in caves, this attitude is one-sided at the least and almost criminal if it discourages any "ordinary" person from seeking its benefits. For the fact is that while there are more and less complicated techniques for inducing the mind into the meditative state, and for superimposing religious meaning on it, the essence of meditation is amazingly simple.
It is so simple, in fact, that one who came to meditation thinking it was some "big deal" might feel a touch of disappointment until he or she was able to realize that simplicity is precisely the point. It is gearing the wheels of thought down to a much lower, simpler ratio than we are used to. It is letting the waves of the mind settle down, and nothing is simpler than a clear, still, deep pond. It is so uncomplex that it would be impossible for it to accomplish anything as tricky as self-deception, unless that's what you want it to do, or what you want to think it's doing.
It is true that meditation takes some self-discipline, some work. But if that idea throws you, ask yourself if you don't really want a little more self-discipline. People without self-discipline are not really happy. They are the ones who never accomplish anything and are always at the mercy of the Monkey, Sloth, and Cow Minds. Maybe what you need is something in your life that will tighten the screws of self-discipline a few notches.
But on the other hand, beginning meditation doesn't mean you're going to have to start living like a monk in some austere order. A good meditation need not take longer than a good shower. It can be as regular, and can slip as unobtrusively into your daily regimen, as bathing or brushing your teeth. It's true, as we shall see, that meditation practice ought to have an effect on your lifestyle as well, but it doesn't mean you have to wear sandals (unless you want to) or a hair shirt. It just means getting all the facets of your life together.
Finally, let us dispel the notion there is anything escapist, unworldly, or non-problem-solving about meditation. Meditation makes people calmer and happier. Calm and happy people see things as they are and are good at solving real problems.
Of course, anything, including meditation, can be used as a crutch and an escape. But is harder to do this with meditation than with Monkey Mind stuff, or with the crutch and escape of ordinary habits and hobbies. That is because meditation at least forces you to be alone with yourself and face yourself, not the favorite pastime of your ordinary escapist. On the contrary, history is full of persons from the Buddha to Gandhi and Mother Teresa who were both great accomplishers and great meditators, and who left more of a mark for good in the world than thousands of more "practical" people.
In this book we will stick to the simplicities of meditation, dealing with it as something as plain as an ironing board and as everyday and natural as eating breakfast. It will not be promoted as religious, as salvation or enlightenment. It will not be viewed as some great mystical glory-road that will expand your consciousness out to Neptune or teach you the secrets of the ages. Some meditators think of meditation as a way of getting in touch with the Reality behind religion and so see it as part of their spiritual life. That is all right. Others prefer to think of it chiefly in terms of its psychological value here and now, on a one reality or one-world-at-a-time basis. That is all right, too.
Birds presumably never think about the nature of air or of flying, nor fish of the nature of water and swimming. But conceivably a diving bird who occasionally plunges out of the air to swim, or a flying fish who sometimes glides through the alien element of air, would think about air and water, swimming and flying. In the same way, though you may usually not bother to think about what consciousness is, or even what life is, you may find when you start meditating and dive or leap—however you want to put it—into other ways of experiencing consciousness and life, you start to wonder what they're all about, what mind and life really are. But though meditation may start you thinking, the value of meditation does not depend on your having any one right answer to the big questions.
The important thing is that debates, whether within ourselves or with others, about the metaphysical meaning of meditation should not be allowed to stand in the way of actually doing it and letting it improve our life. Like all such, these philosophical disputations are quibbles about words and concepts, not the thing itself. Better to do meditation and let it speak for itself about its meaning and value.
In our approach, the basic fact about meditation is that it is just the Quiet Mind. It is the mind taking a little time out just to be itself, to step outside the games of life and find out what it is when it is not preoccupied with Monkey, Sloth, or Cow business, when it is just itself. My experience and that of many others is that, when this time out is allowed, remarkable things can happen to the mind that deepen, recharge, and refresh.
Here are a couple of accounts of experiences in a meditation experiment in a university class I taught some years ago. For the most part the students had not meditated before. We talked briefly about various methods, such as counting breaths, then allowed fifteen minutes for the exercise: afterwards the students anonymously wrote up what transpired. For example:
That was the fastest fifteen minutes I've ever consciously experienced! My body relaxed almost immediately (that posture really works!). I began to concentrate on my breathing. I didn't start out counting my breaths, but that's what it gradually evolved to anyway from just concentrating on them. I began to count in rhythm—one, two, three, etc., all the way to ten and then I started over. I found that even when my mind strayed (it did that quite a few times—for instance a fellow behind me couldn't seem to control his giggles, which was quite distracting at first) anyway—even when my mind strayed, I found myself still counting my breaths—never missing a count all the way through a distraction. Eventually my mind seemed to detach itself just a few inches above my body. I was aware of a numbness in my body.
When I opened my eyes—things somehow seemed a bit different than from what they had been when I closed them (desks, chairs, people, etc.). Oh!—I just remember—at one point I felt so good—a surge of sort of "euphoric bliss" welled up for an instant. I felt like laughing out loud, but I didn't. And then the feeling went away.
And another student:
Originally, I became very conscious of breathing, sounds, pulses, etc., within me. I found sight to be distracting and found images on the inside of my mind to be much more unique. Throughout I tried not to notice voices and sounds but only after some period did they not distract me (although I was vaguely aware). I felt as though I were inside my mind. I desired experience. Coolness, mellowness, and calm approached me. I felt as though I were in a cave trying to push myself back into the darkness away from sight, sound, and especially time. My mind kept wanting to move the body position, but after a short period forgot about it. The experiences were few, but very real. My mind persisted in distorting everything to irrelevant thought. At the close, I found myself very unconcerned with things that had been troubling me.
These accounts represent only novice, experimental meditations. With repetition, they could become smoother, less ego- involved, perhaps more deeply joyous. At the same time, we must not forget that moments, indeed often severe crises of distraction, self-preoccupation, and dryness will dog even the most experienced meditator. Like any great art, meditation is always a struggle yet always rewarding. It seems sometimes hopelessly futile and sometimes so supremely worthwhile as to make everything else in life seem futile by comparison.
These narratives nonetheless display several basic characteristics of meditation. We see a change in the ordinary experience of space and time. Time may seem to the meditator to run faster (or slower) than usual, and he or she may have a sense of "lightness," even of floating in space. Awareness of the automatic body functions, such as breathing, heart, pulse, may be heightened. One may "see" the activity of the mind as though watching its parade of thoughts and attentions like a movie on a screen, as though there were a Watcher within one's own brain. As the meditation deepens, a joyous calm may spread, then sharpen into ecstasy. Finally, coming out, somehow one knows he or she has been Somewhere Else and undergone a seachange: things look different, he feels different, problems aren't what they were when he went in.
Excerpted from Finding the Quiet Mind by Robert Ellwood. Copyright © 1983 Robert Ellwood. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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