Breathe deeply; Taming the drunken monkey within

A few years ago I briefly joined a Seattle-based Zen meditation group.

My very Catholic mother was horrified when I told her; she'd been praying for years that I go back to Sunday Mass. She calmed down some when I pointed out that there had been some good books written about Zen meditation by Catholic priests.

"It's not a religion; it's more of a philosophy and health-improvement tool. You can keep your own beliefs if you want, " I said, stressing that the biggest part of Zen Buddhism is what adepts call "sitting."

All sitting really is, at least at the basic level I practiced it, is meditation.

Now the Zensters have a saying connected to deep meditation that stretches back in to the dim past: "The mind is a drunken monkey."

This you will never quite understand until you do a little meditation of your own.

But like all busy humans, as soon as I dropped out of the Zen group I conveniently forgot how much chatter goes on inside even the healthiest head.

Not that I'm claiming the inside of my head is anywhere you'd want to be without a pretty experienced guide. There are some black holes nestling pretty close to the Wilken core that compete with anything in outer space.

But I've gotten into yoga recently: one more attempt to stave off the inevitable stiffening and wrinkling without resorting to the aid of Dr. Whacker's magic Botox needle. And that little lurch back toward health has again shown me the drunken little monkey in all his glory.

Since my pert, flexible yoga teacher has been to India, we meditate along with the physical torture of the asanas (a fancy way to describe postures you never thought you could do, but eventually can do).

Once again I have been forced to realize we humans think we're running our own show when often are simply rerunning patterns of thought that have been with us for years and years and years.

If you don't believe me, read the section of your daily newspaper labeled "Lifestyle."

This morning's Seattle Times (as I write this) has a favorable review of a new book by an Olympia diet doctor claiming he can help you lose weight. I'll wait while you stop in shocked surprise. "Maude, there's a book that can make you skinny!"

I'm not saying this guy's advice won't work. It sounds pretty good. Eat less. Always eat breakfast and lunch. Don't eat carbs for dinner, and try not to eat dinner past 5 or so. Eat smaller portions.

You know the drill. Anyone with even a tiny weight problem has been reading these reviews since at least the day I started perusing the daily paper, circa 1960.

Yet and still, most dieters, even those who are eventually successful, have to try again and again.


I blame the drunken monkey - the mind inside the corpulent, pudgy or just slightly flabby bodies we carry around. Our minds keep us from settling down enough to do the right thing, even for our own stomach.

People want to call every habit they can't break an addiction. Some may be. Some probably aren't.

But the one habit everyone has - even the most spiritual Zen masters say they fight it every day - is thinking our thoughts without stepping back and seeing what's going on inside our skulls.

This morning, for example, before I started writing, I decided to meditate for 30 minutes to calm my thoughts in order to give you something a little more coherent and less emotional than what I often lay down.

My ability to focus on my breath, the simple in and out required to stay above ground, was minimal. I kept having thoughts. And they were grooved.

I'm without a current girlfriend. And it might not surprise you, but I was stunned to see that my mind kept picking over former lovers like a tongue repeatedly rooting around a rotting tooth.

I would shake my head like a graying golden retriever climbing out of a puddle and go back to the breath.

Freelance writers usually don't make a lot of money.

I discovered, again to my surprise, that when I wasn't thinking of women I was thinking of money. Either my lack of it, or a self-calming fantasy: I evidently do a lot of interviews with Oprah about my writing. She really seems to like what I do. At least in my early-morning theater of the mind she does. She wants me to put my writing in a book so she can pick it for her millions of fans.

I proved something to myself in that half-hour, and I'll bet I'm no different from you.

I guess all I'm saying is the next time you spew a political opinion, or lay out one of your friends to another friend with your gossip-dripping fangs, without stopping to think before you speak, you might eventually remember that me and my drunken monkey aren't the only folks up the thoughtless tree.

Now, follow me.

Breathe in, breathe out, let go. Observe what you're thinking.

"Yes, Oprah, I do write my columns on a word processor. Yes, I love you, too, Tiff. Where's that check from those editors?"


Let's try it again.

Breathe in, breathe out, let go.

That ought to keep you busy.

Dennis Wilken lives in Queen Anne. He can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]