What French Monks Taught me about My Monkey Mind

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In a rush of a possibly naïve attempt at personal growth, I stumbled on the documentary “Into Great Silence” about monastic life inside of Grande Chartreuse.  It follows the lives of Carthusian monks in the French Alps.  Here’s the kicker; they have taken a vow of silence.  There is almost no speaking.  No background music.  No commentary.  (Think feet shuffling, creaking floors, and the quiet that accompanies no cars, no airplanes, no sirens…)

It took 16 years to get permission to film it and even then, only the director was allowed to film.  He used no artificial light.  I thought that I would learn about the “Great Silence.”  I didn’t expect to experience the great silence.

In my defense, it wasn’t like I’ve only watched Law and Order and West Wing.

I’ve tackled books on faith, spirit, the Tao Te Ching, compassion, the Amish, trials, prayer, meditation, the Quakers, the Mormons, solitude, forgiveness, love, fearlessness, grace, dharma, Buddhism, inner peace, grace, enlightenment, atonement and the Holy Ghost among other things.

I’ve read a handful of books about the lives of nuns (Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns and Stalking the Divine) and priests as well as Buddhist monks.   I have read books on silence as well (Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality and Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings.)

I felt prepared to watch “Into Great Silence,” to learn about monks, to get a monastic fix without having to actually take vows.  I hoped to siphon a bit of spiritual deepening by watching others.  Truthfully, I hoped to learn something.

And I did.

Here is the truth:

My brain is chaos.

I have the attention span of a fruit fly.

I could not sit still.  8 minutes into the film and I am jumping out of my skin.

 

Beautiful, rich, deep bells echoing over a snowy mountainside

More snow?  Am I really sitting here watching it SNOW????

A monk in creamy thick robes, kneeling and still in prayer.

Could they cut this to get to the next part?  What is he praying about?  Do his knees hurt? (insert 100 questions I have but will not be answered because I am quickly realizing that this is not just going to be about “great silence” but is going to actually BE silent. 

A single, small candle in an ocean of black.  On my computer screen it is the size of an eraser head.

How long is this going to go on?  I wonder if there is anything else to watch on Amazon         Prime?  How am I supposed to learn anything if they don’t tell me what I need to know??

The monks are singing.  Their voices echo in foggy complements of each other.

Ok.  That’s nice.  Singing monks.  I like this.

14 minutes into the movie.  It is 162 minutes long.

Here is where the learning happened.  It occurred to me that my reaction to this movie—which was delivering exactly what its title said by the way—was an indication of my monkey mind.  The swinging monkey that flung itself across the bars of my brain, from one reckless thought to another.  That undisciplined, inattentive, spiritually immature monkey.

What does that say about ME?

My mind looked to check email, learn interesting facts about the monks, find out the weather tomorrow and check to see if there would be a movie on later.  Anything but sit quietly and be with the monks.  Anything but slow my pace.  Anything to not reflect on how much I was totally lacking in the qualities I saw before me on the screen.

Simplicity.

Prayerfulness and meditation.

Attentiveness to the task at hand and only the task at hand.

The importance of consistent spiritual practice, rather than occasional or spiritual practice that is an after-thought.

 

I’m 84 minutes in and only now am I starting to appreciate these guys.

So I’ve decided to stop writing and actually watch.  Just watch.  Not watch and do something else.

Let’s see how it feels.

Who do you hate (and love?)

This New York Times’ article caught my attention this evening.  A good question indeed and I read on.  I love a deep question and I was already knee-deep in a pit of pondering about this one.

Who do I hate (and love?)

Then, ½ a second later, I realized it was an article about March Madness—which lost me and my oh-so-attentive interest—but not before I’d read the opening, which asked…

Which teams do you delight in their losses and which team’s wins fill you with happiness?

But I needed my version of that idea.  When I think of the people I love, who do I love and whom do I hate? not love?

Who did I delight in their joys and who failures did I enjoy not mind as much?

This is tough to be honest about.  Imagehttp://www.findyourtattoo.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Love-and-Hate-Tattoo.jpg

I don’t think I have people I hate, not love—and we’re talking about people I actually know here, not just historical people or people in the news.  I mean we can all get behind hating say, Hitler, right?—there are people  who I don’t always love when they have everything go their way.  The group is small, but it is there.

How does one get into such an esteemed club, you may wonder?

a)    take take take and never or rarely return energy given by others

b)   make everything always about them

c)    treat people I love badly

d)   treat people I love—including me—badly.

e)    Any combination of the above choices.

Now to be clear, it isn’t that I want anything bad to happen—most of the time—but sometimes, it is nice to watch them struggle a little or a lot.  Usually I don’t mind this because it feels like a karma is coming back to bite them in the butt a little.  A little karmic retribution.  Buddhists sometimes refer to this as paying your karmic debt.

For example, I often hope that they will have someone do to them what they did to me—whatever that is—so that they can find out how much it sucks.  So they can have that moment—the moment of enlightenment when they think, “MY GOSH I CAN’T BELIEVE I WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR CAUSING THIS AMOUNT OF PAIN.”

Then there might be groveling on their part.  Humble, gracious benevolence on my part.  Aren’t you lucky I’m nice enough to allow you to be forgiven on my part?

Weirdly it never really works out like this.

Usually, the person who has to deal, is me.  The person who needs to move on is me.  No karmic thunder bolts.  No Ah-ha! moments.   No retribution.  In fact, often my vice-like grip on the reality of being hurt or wronged is the cause of even more suffering on my part.

This is suffering that comes from wanting something to be something other than what it actually is.

Which is why I’m so grateful for the other part of this article?  Who do you love?

That group is bigger.  Robust.  Entertaining.  Compassionate.  Intelligent.  Talented.  Thoughtful.  Intuitive.  Insightful.  Warm.  This group is the “A  game” of the people I love group.  If they were in March Madness, these people would be “top seeds”—whatever that means—it would mean they knew what they were doing.  It would mean if you fill in brackets to win the pool at work, your money should be on these people.

So who exactly do I love?

Here’s a basic checklist.  You might find it helpful.

  • People who show up—really show up—when things are ugly or hard.
  • People who, when they tease me, I feel loved and known.
  • People who will share their dinner and—dare I say it?—dessert with me.
  • People with passion.  I don’t even know if I care what your passion is anymore.  But have some passion.  Star Trek, geology, photography, writing, working with people, music, whatever.  Please geek out about something.
  • People who answer questions I ask because they know that—no matter how scary it is—it is better to have people know who you really are.
  • People who like Coke Slurpees.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it—like a good house—has good bones.  It is a good place to start.  It makes me grateful that my who do you love list is pages and pages longer than the hate list.  That gives me hope.

What is on your checklist?