A few years ago I unfortunately offended a friend with some careless behaviour. I have apologised several times, but every time I apologise he does an Eeyore (Winnie the Poohâ€™s donkey friend). â€˜Actions speak louder than words,â€™ he herumphs. â€˜Apologies are meaningless.â€™
As well as Eeyore his stuckness reminds me of the famous story of two Zen monks, an elder and a junior, both committed to celibacy, who were travelling across country and reached a rushing river. On the riverbank was an attractive woman who was nervous of the water and asked for help in crossing. Without hesitating the older monk picked her up, carried her across, lowered her gracefully on the other side and then carried on with the journey.
A few hours later the brooding young monk could not contain himself anymore. He was upset by his elderâ€™s actions and, under the guise of politeness, enquired: â€˜Do you think it was appropriate, considering our oath of celibacy, to carry that woman across the river?â€™
â€˜I put her down,â€™ the elder replied, â€˜as soon as I reached the other side. But you, my young friend, are still carrying her.â€™
This is common, isnâ€™t it? We all carry things in our minds that we have trouble unloading. We carry stories for too long. OurÂ monkey mindsÂ canâ€™t let them go.
In eastern meditation there is this idea of theÂ monkey mindÂ and its problematic behaviour. Sitting in meditation the monkey mind can chatter away â€” bills, irons left on, gossip, television programmes and pop tunes that will not switch off. Chitter chatter.
But the monkey mind is also a crucial part of the survival mechanism of the human brain. In my recent book,Â The Power of Modern Spirituality, I devote a long section to explaining how this part of our brain is hardwired to interpret and tell stories that make sense of what is happening to us. This is one of the ways in which our species, with no fangs or claws, has evolved. It is because of our ability to imagine, interpret and create narratives that we can plan harvests, cooperate and organise together. We can imagine and create the narrative.
But this neural activity can also be problematic. The stories our monkey mind compulsively makes up may not be true. For example, there are those characters who, when asked for directions to somewhere, instead of simply sayingÂ I donâ€™t know,Â make up a route. It is automatic and unconscious behaviour. Many of us do the same, for example, when we make up stories about why people havenâ€™t contacted us when they said they would.
Some of these fictitious stories â€” that person doesnâ€™t like me! â€” may sadly then become glued into our brains. Â There is something about the emotional charge in the story that enables it to hook into and become cemented in our psyches. The young monk couldnâ€™t unglue his upset at his seniorâ€™s inappropriate action carrying the woman. The story was embedded.
A similar thing happened to me when I had a disagreement with some old friends. I could see and understand their side. I could even feel compassion for the whole situation. But even with this calm self-awareness my monkey mind was whirring away, almost addicted, to a story about how my feelings were unjustly and badly hurt.
It is especially in these times of inner turmoil that I am really grateful for the wisdom of spiritual practice. There are three particular strategies that help me manage my monkey mind and unhook my charged emotions.
The first strategy isÂ compassionate self-reflectionÂ in which I give myself time to contemplate and fully understand my feelings and thoughts. This helps loosen the glue and dissolve the emotional charge so as to heal, resolve and integrate them.
The second strategy is that of deliberately relaxing my mind, coaxing it into beingÂ comfortable with emptiness and unknowing.Â To do this I merge my usual relaxation techniques with a mantra and an attitude that affirms:Â The more I know, the less I know. I surrender to the mystery of unknowing.Â This helps my mind expand and detach itself from the attachment.
And the third practice I use is that ofÂ forgiveness. I am still learning about forgiveness and increasingly I am experiencing it in a new way. Previously I felt that forgiveness was an ethical and loving act of spiritual generosity. It was a choice I had to make and sometimes an effort to put into practice. Nowadays I feel it to be more aÂ surrenderÂ to cosmic realities.
Forgiveness brings me home to an awareness of the soulsâ€™ journey and its purpose. Classical spirituality is very clear about the purpose of the soulsâ€™ incarnation.Â We as souls are sent as agents of love to redeem and transform. As spirit we incarnate into matter. Cosmic love and innocence incarnate into creatures of flesh and blood, naked apes. And this is a difficult and challenging process.
In many traditions, this learning journey is even described as sacrificial. The soul is sacrificed, like the sun deity Osiris slain and scattered into a thousand parts, and then slowly brought back together. Similarly at the core of Christianity is the tortuous event of Jesus, deityâ€™s beloved child, on the cross, an explicit symbol of spirit crucified in matter. And on this cross, Jesus compassionately requests:Â Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.
Forgiveness acknowledges that the whole process of incarnation â€” spirit into matter â€” is necessarily fraught. Innocence and love meet flesh and blood. But the result is magnificent. Through this process we integrate spirit and matter, and emerge as beings of compassion, wisdom and consciousness.
The pain, injuries and irritations then are just an unavoidable part of this process â€”Â they know not what they do â€”Â which is framed in this magnificent cosmic narrative of the soulsâ€™ long journey and the inevitable wonder of its outcomes.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not inviting nor condoning suffering. Indeed our purpose is to heal and relieve pain. I am just reminding us that there is no natural entitlement to a trouble-free life. But there is an entitlement to spiritual growth and the expansion of our hearts and consciousness. Forgiveness then brings us gracefully home to our true cosmic context and magnificent destiny.
This heroic epic of the soulsâ€™ true journey is a far better narrative for Eeyores and monkey minds.