Like photo flash, it hit me. “You mean I don't have to listen to the voice in my head?” I was reading The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle was telling how one day he cried out, “I can't live with myself any longer.” But who is the “I” and who is “myself?” It meant, he realized, that there had to be two of him, “I” and the self that he couldn't live with.
“I”, he decided is the eternal, deep, real self, the self with ego stripped away, the self in our deepest moments. And that self that “I” was so fed up with is the ego, which I once heard described as “man's description of himself to himself.” Leaving sexism aside, the ego is the narrative we weave to make sense of ourselves and our world. It is filled with fear, dread, excuses; it never stops the endless conversation, often reprimanding or replaying the worst of the past or foreboding the future.
A friend describing his ADHD son observed his mind was like a bingo machine with balls rattling nonstop and periodically randomly ejecting a thought. Meditators describe it as monkey mind. I have lived win uneasy partnership with it for years. I have tried to calm it, shut it up, bore it; i have meditated which was rather like hide and seek; I have fought it, argued with it, placated it. To no avail – Monkey Mind has gone its merry way.
Never did it occur to me that I had a choice, that I didn't have to listen to it. Once I started observing it, I could clearly see it performing acrobatics in my head. Tolle says that a mind is fine, to use when you need it. It's very useful for problem solving or balancing your visa statement. The trouble starts when Monkey Mind gets in the driving seat, when you start to believe that it is you. MM, however, believes exactly that. What's more, being of a fearful nature, it is afraid of annihilation. As Tolle says, “it creates a false mind-made self that casts a shadow of fear and suffering.”
That's why it is so difficult to stay present: MM is perpetually running back to the past: our pasts give us our identity. Happy or sad, Monkey Mind hangs on to the past – if it lost it, who would it be? That's why it is so difficult to let go. MM is also preoccupied with the future, after all, that is its continuance. But to be in the NOW? There's no time for that. Monkey Mind is too busy cramming in activity, guarding against disaster in the future or checking the past is still there. That's how it knows it is alive.
So I started watching my thoughts. Meditators often find it helpful to label them (this is a work thought; this a school worry) and let them go. I didn't go that far, but I watched and the more I did, the stronger became my awareness of my deep, unchanging self. I started seeing Monkey Mind like an unsettled horse or a dog that needs to chase a ball. I could see its activity, its frenetic energy, its scatterbrain. And as I watched, my mind grew bored, it quieted down. Perhaps it sulked! The occasional present moments lengthened.
I also let go of the feeling that I must be active or I was wasting my life. I had bought into the “list” mentality. How much have I done today? Not have I BEEN today? When, in reality, life is a deep pool of NOW. It is interesting that when I stop wearing myself out mentally, I still do things. Of course, I do, but they present themselves more calmly to me. I KNOW that I need to call someone, help a neighbour, find a book at the library. I still do my daily activities, but find I tend to discard the inessential, ignore the clamouring, guilt-ridden goads of Monkey Mind.
What incredible freedom – I don't have to listen, I don't have to believe Monkey Mind, I don't have to engage with it. I am nowhere near there yet, but I can see sunlight amid the brambled forest. Why on earth didn't I think of it before?
The Power of Now: a Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle