In my last blog I drew a distinction between your awareness of your thoughts and the thoughts themselves. What’s very challenging for most people is to leave the thoughts alone: to allow them to pass like clouds moving across the sky.
Earlier this year I was on a silent retreat, which was led by an excellent teacher called Burgs. Each time someone asked a question about how to deal with something that came up in their meditation: an intense sensation in their chest, anxiety, fear of death or whatever, his advice was almost always the same: sit with it, watch it, allow it to be there.
They were probably hoping there would be a clever way around it he could offer them, but there wasn’t. The temptation when we’re facing stress at work, or a break up or fear about the future, is to avoid the feeling by distracting ourselves from it with social media, busyness, alcohol, sugar, cigarettes or whatever.
None of these things work in anything other than the immediate term! It’s like scratching an itch: it feels great in the moment but it’s actually only doing more damage.
The invitation is to think of the mind as like a gorilla and your awareness as David Attenborough. Sometimes the mind will be rampaging around, sometimes calm and relaxed. Sometimes agitated, sometimes affectionate.
In this clip you can see how, whatever the gorillas does, Attenborough just sits and watches, with an attitude of curiosity, kindness, patience… even awe. Through watching it you come to learn how it behaves and can respond to it more skilfully. Through not intervening you avoid aggravating it further.
Imagine if when one of the gorillas started to get agitated, we saw Attenborough leap up and try to pin the gorilla to the ground to make it be still. Or if he offered it a cigarette because it looked stressed. Or started playing on his phone because he didn’t like what he was seeing.
“What are you doing?” We’d scream at the TV. “Leave it alone!” And yet with our own minds we’re constantly trying to resist or ignore what’s happening. It’s often so difficult to just let it be. But much like a gorilla, interfering only agitates it further.
People often say they can’t meditate because they can’t make their mind be still. Well you’re not trying to stop the gorilla from doing anything, you’re observing and allowing whatever he does to happen. He’ll calm down eventually.
So next time your mind is tearing around like an angry ape, see if you can take a moment to switch into Attenborough mode. Observe what’s happening with curiosity, kindness and patience and you will notice that gradually, by resisting giving it a poke, your mind will start to settle and greater clarity will arise.