Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Of Monkeys and Monasteries

On Sunday morning Christine and I roused ourselves at seven in the morning for a long drive to the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York. We planned to spend the day chilling with Buddhist monks and nuns, trying to be mindful. It was an hour and a half trip fueled entirely by peanut butter smoothies and adrenaline, with only the robotic whispers of a faulty GPS and a blazing sun to keep us from dozing off on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

We arrived at nine, just in time for the impending day of mindfulness. Christine and I rushed into the meditation hall, past granite boulders announcing, “You Are Home.” We were greeted by a calm, soft-spoken monk in a brown robe. He told us that we could sit down, or we could go for a walk in the woods. Or walk the barren garden. It didn't matter as long as we enjoyed the silence. For all of our rushing, we seemed to be the only people in a rush.

Christine and I lingered stiffly in the doorway of the enormous meditation room, barefoot and unsure. It smelled delightfully like wood and campfire. To our right, a circle of monks and nuns were chanting with some people in regular clothes. Ahead of us, empty chairs and cushions were lined up in rows on the floor and a nun was misting orchids with a plastic spray bottle. Another lit up sticks of incense that made me sneeze. One monk noticed us creeping by the door and suggested we sit down in the empty arena of cushions until a question and answer session with the teachers began.

We took a seat on some cushions in the sunlight and soon the seats around us filled up. After a few minutes, I turned around and every cushion and chair was occupied. In front of me, monks struggled to pull the tail ends of their robes over the back of their meditation cushions.

A few nuns lead us in a Buddhist-style sing-along that reminded me of my days in Vacation Bible School. They sang songs about how we are all part of one tree, one sea, one sky. I smiled wryly and performed some of the hand motions. Christine hummed along.

A gong sounded and a line of teachers walked to the front of the room. They sat on their cushions and adjusted their robe tails. Sunday was the end of a retreat for members of the Order of Interbeing and a question and answer session was scheduled. (Something I found out later: Everyone is a member of the Order of Interbeing.) Since half of the overflowing room consisted of people who were visiting for the day, there were a lot of questions that had nothing to do with the retreat. Someone asked if pain and suffering are the same thing, another asked how to control feelings of “specialness.” One woman asked the best way to deal with a rogue contractor.

A teacher tackled questions about what young people should know about the practice and how to control a certain syndrome called “monkey mind.” She especially wanted young people to know that they should take care of their bodies. When you wake up in the morning, you should massage your face and thank your eyes for seeing and your mouth for taking in food. Massage your abdomen and thank your organs. If you have a hangover or ate a lot of heavy food the night before, you should apologize. The mind is important, but when you feel sick you only think about how much you would like to feel better.

Then the teacher talked about monkey mind, which is a problem that everyone has. (Also known as “monkey nucleosis.”) There’s a monkey in your brain that wants to grab things and hold onto them, not unlike a real monkey. The trick is to catch it in the act and stop yourself when you want something. She caught the monkey’s wrist in the air and held onto it. “Ha, I caught you,” she said, smiling at the monkey. “If I want something that badly, I probably shouldn't have it.”

Photo courtesy of For all of your monkey image needs.


  1. Interesting! I like the idea of "monkey mind." I've never heard of it before. Your trip seemed like a lot of fun!

  2. Me, too! It was the first I'd ever heard of it, but I realize now that I have the worst monkey mind ever. :P