Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Living Monkey Mind — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on January 6th, 2008


When I gazed out the window on New Years morning, the overnight snows seemed like a blanket resting comfortably across the urban landscape, softening the edges of the buildings, blurring the lines between the road and the curb, and making the morning seem brighter, cleaner than usual.

A bright, clean morning is not a vision I usually get looking out the window of my apartment on Chicago’s south side.

It took me awhile to realize why this morning seemed different than the myriad of other snow covered mornings here in Chicago.  It was because this morning, the city was still asleep.  Usually, when I get up either it is still dark, or it is late enough that the roads have been cleared, the sidewalks scraped, and the city awake.

But not this morning.  This morning after the New Years Eve parties, there truly was not a creature stirring.  Even the ever-present and perpetually distracted squirrels were absent.  The world had halted, just for a moment.

It was as if the entire world had found a single moment of awareness, and Mother Earth was taking a deep breath.

Breathe in… breathe out… one.

Breathe in… breathe out… two.

It did not last long, this moment of stillness.  Soon, the truck came to scrape the snow off  the street, and someone wheeled a loud snowblower around the corner to clear the sidewalks.  Mother Earth’s moment of awareness was broken by the distraction of vehicles, the noise of snowblowers, and even the frantic movement of scattering squirrels.

The world had returned to the distraction of Monkey Mind.

It is a funny phrase, Monkey mind.  When I first heard a Zen teacher use it, I thought it was a commentary on evolution, or perhaps a metaphor for living in our primal instincts.  When I first discussed this sermon idea with my Zen Sensei, Joshin, he came over to me and pretended to pick fleas off of me.

Zen teachers have odd senses of humor.  Of course, I told him I believed in recycling… if he picked the fleas off of me he had to eat them.   He stopped.

Monkey mind is a phrase used to describe an aspect of the mind that becomes apparent in Zen meditation.  It is the part of the mind that wants to swing from thought to thought, to swing from distraction to distraction, like a monkey might swing from branch to branch.  Zen Buddhist Science Fiction writer Frank Herbert called it the “Gadfly distraction”, like a fly buzzing from one piece of refuse to the next.

When sitting Zen meditation, learning to step away from monkey mind, learning to step away from creating stories about every little noise you hear, or to step away from the millions of thoughts that pass through our minds and simply focus your awareness on the experience of being is key.  This is done by focusing your attention on your breath.  You experience the breath coming in to your body, filling through your nose and into the bottom part of your lungs.  You then follow how it exhales, how your lungs empty and how your breath re-enters the world around you.


Many people practice maintaining this awareness on the breath by counting each inhalation and exhalation, counting up to ten.  For some, this counting falls away over time, but the focus on the breath does not.

Sitting down and following the breath is, at its most basic, Zen.  One teacher of mine described Zen as “Sit Down, Shut up, and Pay Attention”.  Following the breath is how we step back from the mind out of control, swinging from branch to branch or buzzing from thought to thought.

While monkey mind never goes away, with time and experience the Zen practitioner can come to have more and more time of true awareness and connection with the world around them that is not blocked through the overactive nature of Monkey mind.

UU minister and Soto Zen Priest James Ishmael Ford introduces the idea of monkey mind by telling of the three most common experiences that beginning practitioners of Zen have.  The most common Monkey Mind reaction to sitting Zen meditation goes like this…

“Gosh, I’m horrible at this!  What in the world did I think I was doing thinking I could learn to meditate!  I bet everyone is staring at me and laughing at me.  I’m just a bad person… I will never be enlightened!” And so on, and so forth.

The second most common Monkey Mind reaction that people have to beginning to practice Zen goes something like this…

“Gosh, I’m great at this!  I’m a meditating fool!  I should have been doing this years ago!  I really am Buddha, ain’t I!  Some of the people who have been sitting here for years ain’t as good at this as I am, and I just started last week!  Enlightenment, here I come!”  And so on, and so forth.

Those of you who know me, even a little bit, can probably guess which of these two forms of delusion I initially fell prey to…

Enlightenment, here I come!

The third monkey mind reaction, and one it perhaps took a UU minister to realize was happening, is one James calls “the Unitarian Option”.  It goes something like this…

“Gosh, but it’s such a good thought.  I don’t want to let it go.  I mean, it might be just the kind of thought that could change the world.  Aren’t we supposed to keep our thoughts if they are really good?  I mean, I only agreed to this meditating thing so I could think these really good thoughts.  I know, next time I’ll bring a pad of paper, so I can write down the good thoughts before I let them go…”

James said he confiscates pads of paper when they appear in his Zendo.

One of the hardest concepts of Zen for myself, and for many others of us raised and imbued in the western Christian traditions is that, there is no guilt that attaches for falling into Monkey Mind during meditation.  It is expected that you will.  Even the most experienced Zen Masters experience Monkey mind.  Enlightenment is not ridding yourself of this experience, but rather having the awareness of knowing when it is happening and, without guilt or shame, coming back to the breath…

Breathe in… breathe out… one.

Breathe in… breathe out… two.

After three years of practicing Zen meditation, and after a year of taking that practice quite seriously, this past summer I reached a point of “Ok, I get it… what’s next?”  I had reached a point where I could recognize Monkey Mind, I had a light enough touch to return my awareness back to my breath, and to do so without guilt, shame, or frustration.

I began to wonder… “Is this all?”  Isn’t is supposed to be more profound?

This was in the beginning of my time with you all here at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, last September.  I was getting bored with the practice of meditation, at the same time when opportunities for distraction were increasing.

There were all of these wonderful committee meetings, community meetings, classes, planning sessions, worship events, and so much more occurring in the life of this congregation.  I was involved in a large wedding.  I helped present a memorial service for a friend.

As I stepped away from the practice of meditation, I found myself swinging from task to task, from event to event… I found myself buzzing from meeting to meeting, with barely the time to catch my breath.

“Monkey Mind” was not just something that I experienced in meditation, but also something I experienced in life.  I was living Monkey Mind.

When I spoke about this with Barbara, she turned to me and said “Meditation’s addictive…. Who Knew?”

Our lives flow from our minds.  Our lives flow from our spirits.  Our lives flow from our souls.  The lives we live are an outer reflection of who we are inside.  If we are scattered in our mind, if we are scattered in our soul, there is a very good chance that we will become scattered in our lives.  If we feel guilt over the way our mind works, the chances are we will also feel guilt in the works of our bodies.

This kind of scatteredness is often celebrated in our society, and in some ways it seems necessary to survive in the modern world.  We call it multi-tasking… and it is one of the Chief Modern American Virtues.

We are expected to maintain a conversation, answer emails, respond to the cell phone, send text messages, read the new manual to our computer, fix the computer when it stops working, plan dinner, prepare the flyers for the activist event that evening, smile at everyone around us, answer more emails, hand around a petition, and more, and more, and more, and more!

Breathe in… Breathe out… one.

Breathe in… Breathe out… two.

Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Han tells his students to practice awareness while washing the dishes.  He chides his students for trying to wash the dishes to get them done so you can go on to something else.  He chastises them for washing the dishes while thinking about the laundry, or the television show you just watched, or the work you have to complete tomorrow.

Instead, you wash the dishes with the same kind of focus you would have on your breath during meditation.  You feel your hands in the water, you smell the soap bubbles.  You hear the water running, you sense your hands moving the drying cloth over the plates.  It might even happen that when there are no more dishes to wash, you are surprised… and you then move on to the next task in your life, no matter what it might be, with that same kind of focused awareness, experiencing the events of your life to the fullest.

While that might sound wonderful, it seems almost impossible in this busy, hectic, tree swinging monkey minded multi-tasking world in which we live.  There are house payments to make, there is work to do, and the children need attention.

This church that we love is always asking us to serve on this committee or that, or tells us about some social injustice in the world that we need to care and do something about.

I think we might be surprised by how much we could accomplish one task, one practice at a time… but I know how daunting that seems.  I have spent years honing my multi-tasking skills, and I am not one to let them go lightly.

And yet, the world has begun to seem quite different to me than it did before I began sitting meditation.

Breathe in… Breathe out… one

Breathe in… Breathe out… two.

Perhaps you don’t want to get up at 5am to go somewhere and place your rear-end on a cushion for two and a half hours.  There are mornings I can’t do it either.  But somewhere in your life there is space for a practice of awareness, space to step away from the busyness of a mind swinging from thought to thought, buzzing from place to place.  By finding it, we can slow down our lives and connect deeply with this wonderful experience of being human.

I asked one of the members of the young adult group here at UCE if there was any part of her life where she slowed down, where she focused on fewer things, where she felt connected on a deeper level to the world.  After a few minutes of thought, she shared the image of herself, early in the morning, sitting in a coffee shop, working on a mathematics problem, and feeling the sunrise outside.

A moment of awareness… a moment of coming back to the breath… of stepping away from the distraction of Monkey mind, of focusing on one thing, and by doing so being connected to the world all around.

You can find those moments, perhaps in reading a poem slowly as your day begins.  Perhaps you might take an evening or two a week to sit outside, watching the stars.  Perhaps you might follow one of the well trodden paths of the ancient masters of awareness, by becoming involved in Yoga, or Zen, or Tai Chi, following a path to awareness that has been walked before, many times.

Perhaps you could find a path towards that stepping back from the flittering mind that is all new, and uniquely you.

Perhaps you might, as so many have before, find that moment of awareness through a practice of prayer.

Many of us go through life like a skipping stone, touching the water briefly as we glide along our trajectory, skipping one, two, three, four.  Finding a practice of awareness is that moment when we skip no more, when we settle on the water, with little splash, and begin to sink deeper into ourselves, and discover the depth  within, below the surface, rarely seen, but there in all.

Breathe in… Breathe out… one.

Breathe in… Breathe out… two.

Coming back to the breath, or watching the sunrise, or experiencing the wonder in the eyes of your child, or focusing on one single person long enough and deep enough to truly meet them… it is in these moments that our souls can deepen, our spirits can broaden, and we become more than we were before.  We do not become more by doing more, but by being more.

It is not more busyness that will change the world, but more awareness.  When I think of my own life, I have been so busy with that project, this essay, building that website, re-writing this policy, editing this article, meeting with these people, joining that organization… I have been so busy with all of this that for so long I missed the point.

Humanity has tried to address the problems of the age with more, busier, faster since the dawn of time… and it has only created larger and more immediate problems.  We have piled so much on life that we scarcely have time to breathe.

If it were just about me, if it were just about you, if it were just about each of us as individuals, then perhaps it would be selfish to take the time for a practice of awareness.  But it is not… it is not about us at all.

When I think about those people who have changed the world for good, the prophets, the visionaries, the heralds of peace… what I find in their lives is a practice of deep awareness.  Buddha and his years sitting under a Bodhi tree. Jesus and his prayers on the mountaintops.  Gandhi and his lived practice of peace.  Clara Barton and her lived practice of radical compassion.  Mohammed’s communion with his understanding of God.  Martin Luther King’s life of prayer.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Pope John Paul II

William Ellery Channing

Louisa May Alcott

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anne Frank

Mary Oliver

Langston Hughes

Henry David Thoreau

So many, so many of those people whom I consider to be prophets, who call us to see reality and ourselves in a more holistic way… so many of those prophetic lives were founded in a deep spiritual practice that gave them the ability to step back from the monkey mind, and see, live, and speak in a different way.

The gift I think our faith can give to the world, the gift I think our church can give to our community, and the gift I think we can give to each other is the realization that, these exceptional people were exceptional because they had this awareness… and that we can have it too.  As Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said, our liberal faith calls us to an awareness of ourselves and the world around us as a Prophethood of all Believers.

Our world desperately needs not one vision from one prophet… but thousands of prophets seeing, speaking, and visioning together for a world transformed.

That is what we are called to… and it all begins by washing the dishes with awareness, being with the rising sun with awareness, listening to our children with awareness, sitting Zen with awareness, reading a poem with awareness, writing a poem with awareness, watching the stars with awareness.

Following your breath, as it comes in through your nose, perhaps envisioning taking in all the world’s hurt and anguish.  Exhaling the breath, sending with that breath all the love, hope, and faith your soul can bring to bear.

Doing all of this with the awareness that we are all connected, that we all have inherent worth and dignity, and that compassion is the hope for us all.

Breathe in… Breathe out… one.

Breathe in… Breathe out… two.

Not much, right?  But it could, But it has, But it will change the world.

So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: