Strategies for Monkey Minds, Leaping Lizards, and Hasty Humans
You’ve probably heard of the Monkey Mind, or the Poodle Brain, that restless mind of ours that goes and goes, even when we sincerely beg it, “Stop, just please, for a minute or two, just stop.” Wherever we are, in a meeting, lying down in Savasana, sitting in meditation, the Monkey Mind is running, dancing, jumping from one thing to the next.
Not only do we have a monkey for a mind, we have a reptile for a brain. It’s the part of ourselves that, in order to keep us safe and sound, is fully in touch with our fear and anxiety. It’s the part of the brain that gives us that uncontrollable urge to run out and buy a Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook in the middle of the night after we’ve seen the 11 o’clock news about how crazy it is out there.
The R-complex, also known as the “Reptilian brain”, includes the brain stem and cerebellum. The term “Reptilian brain” comes from the fact that a reptile’s brain is dominated by the brain stem and cerebellum which controls instinctual survival behaviors and thinking. This brain controls the muscles, balance and autonomic functions (e.g. breathing and heartbeat). It is, thus, primarily reactive to direct stimuli. – Wikipedia
It’s not enough that we have this as a natural part of being in the human form. Living in a 24-hour breaking-news world adds on an extra layer of challenge for anyone seeking *some* amount of quietude inside, no matter how short, no matter how fleeting. The exciting news is, there are wizards among us who have figured out ways to tame those inner monkeys and lizards. In Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck, she advises personifying your lizard: give it a name, draw a picture of it, talk to it, take it on long walks (okay, that last part might be just me).
I know I’m too old to make imaginary friends, but I’m also always desperate for ways to make it through an hour of strong-determination sit, or adhitthana. And let’s not kid ourselves, sometimes I can’t even stop thinking for 5 minutes in Savasana. So, I’ve made friends with my monkey mind and reptilian brain.
I named my monkey Moxie. Whenever I’m in Savasana or meditating and start to find myself doing homework, responding to emails, or flying to a distant island, I’d say, “Hey Moxie, not now”, and I’d imagine a really cute monkey that just wants to play giving me a sad puppy-eyed look, and then turning around walking off. Sure enough, 2 seconds later, Moxie would come back. “Seriously, Moxie, we’ll go plan for the next 50 years of our lives in a moment, okay?”. And on and on it’d go.
For my reptilian brain, I call it Smeagol. Yes, *that* Smeagol from Lord of the Rings. I don’t think the reptilian brain is a “bad” thing. It keeps me from climbing to high up without a rope and a harness, and it keeps me from leaping off into space when I’m way up high. The reptile is only undesirable when it tells me stories that may or may not be true about how winter is here, there’s only one source of food left, and a pack of wolves are around the corner, ready to make *me* into their dinner. That’s when the reptile turns from Smeagol into Gollum, and that’s when I have to calm him down, “There’s plenty of fish, Smeagol! So juicy and sweet!”.
There you have it, something to experiment with while taming the monkey, the poodle, the lizard so that we can do what Dona Holleman called in her book Dancing the Body of Light mounting Pegasus:
Having resolved the illusion of duality, instead of leaving the body behind in our search for spirituality we have to give it wings. In Greek mythology, the great winged horse Pegasus rescues the princess Andromeda from the fate of being devoured, and for this act of courage is placed by Zeus as a starry constellation in the sky. When we mount our physical body, mind, and emotions, onto our own Pegasus, the Body of Light, we can escape our fate of being devoured by the world and can fly up towards the heavens on the wings of joy, to become one with the luminous dance of the Universe. – Dancing the Body of Light, The Future of Yoga, page 312
Certainly, mounting Pegasus is no small task, and “become one with the luminous dance of the Universe” may sound mystical shmystical. But I suspect that as hasty humans, we can all benefit from a moment, no matter how small, of the excessive movement of our minds. How about you? What are your strategies in quieting down your mind?
In related news, in doing some research for this post, I discovered the tarsier, a primate native to the Southeast Asian islands with enormous eyes and long tarsus bones, hence the name. A tarsier is not a monkey, but it can surely climb, and it looks a lot like Smeagol. So I might have to make a new friend. Hmm, Tara the Tarsier?