Monkey Shines

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

— Mary Oliver

“If it moves, people will watch it,” wrote the longtime TV critic Marvin Kitman, who took a rather jaundiced view of the medium. His thrice-weekly column for Newsday appeared before smart phones, personal computers and social media, but the same principle still applies. The main difference is that you no longer have to get up from your chair to change channels if you get bored with what you see on the screen. The objective remains the same: to keep things moving so people will watch. Technology writer Nicholas Carr has observed, “The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements.”

Building on Marshall McLuhan’s theory that all technology is an extension of the human body, we can see that social media fits right in with his contention that so-called “electric media” are extensions of the central nervous system. Indeed, to an extent that McLuhan himself could not have anticipated, we might think of social media as extensions of the human mind. All we have to do is review our browser history to appreciate the extent to which our digital ”thoughts” illustrate what the Buddha might call “monkey mind.” Buddhists use the term to describe the mind’s tendency to jump from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. However brilliant we may think we are, our minds are no more able to maintain an extended train of thought than a drunkard is able to walk a straight line at a police traffic stop.

My 11th-grade English teacher, Kenneth Thomas, taught us a valuable lesson in the workings of the human mind. As a classroom exercise, he had us write down absolutely every thought that came into our heads, uncensored and unedited. The purpose was to show us the critical difference between an interior monologue as a literary device and the way we actually think.· Molly Bloom's soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses or the heroine’s ruminations in Virginia Wolff's Mrs. Dalloway may give the appearance of a stream of consciousness, but their thoughts were carefully crafted to achieve a certain literary effect. Left to its own devices, the mind’s output is closer to the gibbering of those monkeys swinging from branch to branch.

Buddhism and other spiritual traditions have developed various techniques for taming monkey mind — a task nearly as daunting as handing those monkeys a bunch of typewriters and expecting them to produce the works of Shakespeare. You could spend a lifetime at it — many lifetimes, in fact. According to Buddhist tradition, some 10,000 lifetimes might be required to achieve enlightenment and to end the cycle of reincarnation. Christians have an even tougher time, since they presumably have only one shot at getting things right. There have long been Christian contemplatives, but Christianity has mainly been concerned with overcoming sin. For much of history, sinners who did not atone sufficiently for their transgressions before they died could expect to spend the Christian equivalent of 10,000 lifetimes in purgatory.

Seekers who do not relish hanging around 10,000 lifetimes for enlightenment or salvation might reasonably want to short-circuit the process. For starters, think how long the full circuit would take. If the average lifetime is 50 years, give or take — or even half that — 10,000 lifetimes would occupy roughly the entire time Homo sapiens have existed as a separate species on this planet. So if you began your spiritual journey around the time anatomically modern humans first climbed out of trees, you would expect to achieve enlightenment right about now.

The journey of 10,000 lifetimes begins with a single single step. So if you want to save yourself an exceedingly long, exhausting journey, don’t take that first step. All those mantras, prayers, prostrations and penances designed to get you from here to there are essentially steps on a journey to nowhere. What is it exactly we hope to accomplish? Enlightenment ostensibly, but in reality a new and improved “me,” a “me” to a higher power, without all my problems and shortcomings. That indeed is a worthy ambition, one that will keep me happily occupied for a lifetime — or many lifetimes, as the case may be. Until I eventually realize enlightenment or salvation or whatever you want to call it has nothing to do with perfecting the self; indeed, it has absolutely nothing to do with “me” at all.

“God whose love is everywhere can't come to visit unless you're not there,” wrote the 17th-century German mystic, Angelus Silesius, in one of his more enigmatic statements. This might suggest that God is elsewhere, but how can this be if his love is everywhere? The problem is that our minds are usually elsewhere, off on a spiritual journey perhaps, looking for God in all the wrong places. “All individual ideas, understanding, endeavors, searching, or argument become a source of fantasy,” warned the 18th-century Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade. “Those who damn their souls do so by attempting to achieve through their fantasies what those who save their souls achieve through submitting to [God’s] will.” And what is God’s will? For those of us who find ourselves swinging from branch to branch in the thickets of monkey mind, I can think of no better admonition than this verse from Psalms: “Be still, and know that I am God.” No prayers or penances are required. All you have to do is to pay attention.

Angelus Silesius, The Cherubinic Wanderer
Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment
Psalm 46:10

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