Monkey Mind and Other Trials


So, confession time.

Today’s blog is bound to be a hot mess. Not polished or pretty. At all. So if you’re looking for perfection, I’m sorry, this ain’t going to be it. Feel free to go read someone else’s blog now or something really great. Go get yourself some Dani Shapiro, Stephen Cope, Liz Gilbert, Sharon Salzberg, David Huddle, God, I could list names for hours. Megan Steilstra, Cheryl Strayed. Or Geri Larkin, who I think is really one of my dharma writing heroes. She writes the middle way like nobody else I know. I especially love her book, Stumbling Toward Enlightenment. She embraces the mess of living that is the spiritual path full on. She invites us all to stumble along the way with her. Anger and love, greed and crazy generosity and everything.


I just wanted to reflect on a whole bunch of things that have been coming up, popping up in the messy way things do. And I confess that today my mind is in the thrall of an especially pernicious case of monkey mind, which is to say, this will come in the order it comes and that’s that.

Call me lazy if you like but today, I’m choosing, consciously choosing to just speak it, tell it to the page as it comes rather than allowing myself to get pinned to the wall of perfection-craving which can lead to not saying anything at all because you know, nothing, then, will ever be good enough. And I’m sure we have all been down that road. Yes?


Part of the reason I’m sitting here doing this is because yesterday a Facebook friend, writer, Michelle Goodman, who does some self help coaching (amongst other things) wrote a terrific essay about how she feels that when it comes to the “self help racket,” that most (or many) people in it are doing it because they need that kind of help themselves. She shares, in the essay (which you can read here) a funny little anecdote in which Depak Chopra was about to go on stage somewhere and asked if the khakis he was wearing made him look fat. Ah, the ego we all have. Funny little ego. It tries so hard doesn’t it? Which reminds me of a few things.

Stormy Sea at Night by James Hahn

So, here goes nuthin’.

  1. It’s true what they say: You teach what you need to learn.

    I know that for me, this is so totally true. I was drawn to writing (my whole life, literally since I could a crayon), meditation, tai chi, and most recently, yoga, because my own inner self was just phew…crazy, depressed, anxious, uncertain and hyper-verbal, or rather hyper word-centric (if that’s a thing). Also, I do not like to go the gym. My husband, he is another story. He loves the gym. And that makes sense because he teaches martial arts. But me, give me a couch and a stack of books, a notebook, some pens and a little food and leave me for days. I will be just fine thank you. But all that comes with a price of course. That’s a lot of sitting on my ass. The body does need to move after all. I fell in love with meditation, mindfulness and mindful movement exercises because they totally re-formed who I was. No magic bullet. No abracadabra. But with daily practice, I’m a much happier person. And yes, I’m still crazy in some ways but these practices show me every single time I show up for them, that there is another way. And this is why I love to teach these things. I want you all to feel better too. And no side effects!


  2. Where did that pedestal come from?

    It’s easy for teachers of these sorts of things  (any self help, meditation, mindfulness, martial arts, whatever) to either place themselves on pedestals (Look at me! I’m a Teacher! I must know a lot!)

    Or for others to place you there. Think perhaps cult of personality, or over-blown reverence or just people handing off their own personal accountability, which does happen to the best of us. (More on that later too.)

    Or we may internalize something that says basically, as a teacher you have to be better, think better, act better than everyone around you. (By the way Tara Brach wrote about the problem of the teacher on pedestal beautifully. And I love that one of things I find most compelling and authentic about her is that she is very clear and up front about her own struggles and foibles. She doesn’t, in my opinion, present a false front of perfection at all. She wrote about this and shared it on Facebook and of course now I can’t find it but her blogs are wonderful and you should read them.)

    You have to be a role model for God’s sake, right? Otherwise what will people think? And why would anyone listen to you? My own teacher advised me to always be on guard about my own thoughts, words and actions in this regard. And while I think this is not bad advice, I was able (clever girl) to turn it into a tool for a highly painful and eventually destructive, schizoid sort of tug o’war. On one hand, trying to live the most noble way I could, (damn it!)  way above and beyond my actual karma, that is my habitual patterns at that time, which meant, that I was suppressing this shit out of pretty much everything. No music. No writing. No reading. No wine. No hanging around with friends just talking. After all wasn’t all that so  much idle chatter?

    So of course, this was not a very good example, even if nobody ever caught on, because I was trying to force things, trying to demonstrate an inner peace far beyond my actual truth which was A) a lie and B) the exact opposite of what was going on in my lived experience.
    Which brings me to a deep realization. The truth is I was teaching way before I ever should have been. (More on that another time.) This clearly is a deep topic and I have many more thoughts. I think that this is a huge issue actually. Because when we teach before we are ready, we can cause problems even with our good intentions. And for fledgling teachers who need help with their moral compasses in addition to learning how to teach something intense and deep because you know it really impacts people, that is some serious shit right there. There should just be like a warning sign of some kind, like the ones that go on the driver’s ed cars that say: STUDENT DRIVER. Except these would say, STUDENT TEACHER, so we can all know to stay back an extra 100 feet or so.

    I’ll just say this for now: Sometimes we get, as I did, Very Excited about something that is totally changing our lives for the better. It feels fucking revolutionary after all. To go from massively depressed, maybe bi-polar but maybe not, even vaguely and occasionally suicidal, creative but what do I do with all THIS,(see hands thrown in air, gesticulating at the air) lost-girl to feeling happy and grounded through practice and having the Great Questions answered finally (think late night convos in high school and college about the Meaning of Life and you get the idea…) well, it kind of makes you want to go out and share that shit with everyone. And you’d like that sharing to begin as soon as possible thank you very much.

    Teachers need time to ripen and mature no matter the subject. Certainly, we know that small things can lead to huge outcomes and shifts and all I’m saying is that with time and practice hopefully, we gain some sliver of wisdom enough that hopefully we know not to run too fast with those scissors and to carefully weigh what we say to who and sometimes realize that saying nothing is frequently the best advice we might give.
    I’ve been at this a while now and know more and more that I know very little and that there is So Much More. And that I continue to study with wiser ones and read and meditate and do my yoga and all that. And sometimes if you ask me something I might just say, I have no idea. Let me think about that. Which is better than offering insight I may not feel sure of. One of the great Zen teachings is this idea of don’t know mind. When you don’t know something this is not a problem people. This is a good place to be. There’s nowhere to go but up.


    “But compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.”
    ~ Cheryl Strayed

  3. Compassion was what was missing. 
    “By regarding ourselves with kindness, we begin to dissolve the identity of an isolated, deficient self. This creates the grounds for including others in an unconditionally loving heart.” (~Tara Brach)

    So, I came to see that what I had done as a young teacher was cut myself off from everyone and everything which created a LOT of pain and absolutely ZERO joy. Then, I began to study teachings from not only Tara Brach but Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Jack Kornfield, Stephen Cope, Swami Sankarananda and many others.

    And what I really found that what had been missing was compassion for myself and others. Until I could really begin to find love and tenderness for who I am, right here and now, struggles and all, and realize or as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, remember who I really was, I would be mired in suffering without escape.

    And, very importantly, I learned that forcing things was never going to be the Way. Rather, I set my aspirations in a certain way, I set my intention daily and I do what I can, right here and now, to the best of my actual ability. I love the daily or even hourly or even moment by moment, capacity for re-setting intention because this just makes sense to me.

    Think about a sailboat. Maybe you’ve never sailed. That’s okay. A sailboat can’t just go in a straight line anywhere. It has to go zig zagging across the wind, back and forth, heading generally in the direction her captain wants her to go. There are continual course adjustments to allow for things like drift, changing wind and other weather conditions. This is how we are too. I might be aiming for Buddhahood but right now, I’m just a struggling boddhisatva. I can keep resetting my intention and now get lost in the fire-swamp of self flagellation and pity. We gotta love ourselves dear ones. It all starts there.

  4. Meditate Through That Monkey Mind.

    This morning my mind was something like this: I wonder how long my husband set the timer for? God I’m cold. Shit, I’m feeling hot. I think I’m going to scream from feeling restless. Maybe I’ll just scream silently. Aughhhhhh. Oh crap, maybe it’ll be better if I start with three deep slow breaths like the way we do when I lead a meditation. This isn’t working. That hold the breath thing just reminded me of how pent up I feel. I wonder if this is caused by allergies? Crap. Start again. Where’s Sylvia Boorstein when you need her? There there dear. It’s okay. There there. Which brought a little relief. I’m the ocean. The ocean is me. I am al things. We are all things together. Rama Rama Rama. My body finally started to settle down. There’s that’s feeling better. Breathing in. Breathing out. Breathing in…This went on for a while. Then this: Oh my back hurts. How much longer are we gong to sit here? I should have sat like I do in yoga. My back injury isn’t ready for this. Never mind. Hillary, it’s okay.  Let go let go let go. May I meet each moment fully. May I meet each moment as a friend… And then somewhere in there the timer went off.

    My husband was beaming from sitting. And for that, I was very happy. I wasn’t beaming to say the least, but was glad that at least I found a way to just watch it all and accept the mind and where it was without critique or judgement. Poor dear mind. It tries so hard. Every time, I just kept restarting. Coming back to the practice or bringing my attention to the sensations of breathing.

    Each time the mind wanders off or has a fit of some kind, acknowledging that with compassion and kindness and returning once more. In the past I might not have labeled that a so-called “good meditation” (even though we create those labels, they aren’t really real or true, just more judging and cutting the world up into separate pain and suffering producing bits) it did give me LOTS of practice letting go and I think, as Robert Frost would have it (if you please, pardon the adaptation), this will make all the difference. It always has before.


Of course there’s so much more but it will have to wait for later. One of the things on my mind is how yoga practice and I are getting along and how often I cry at yoga, feeling pain in the body which is really a reflection of the heart and it’s losses, and how much I love how the physical practice of yoga teaches me so much about myself, what a great mirror it is. One of last night’s lessons was a reminder about an old lesson: Take it easy Hill. Slow down. Don’t force it. Accept this body, this mind, this heart as it is. See where the edge is sure, but don’t force it. Go in the middle way. More on all that later.

So, that’s it for today. For right now.

Make today , this evening ahead of here or what ever time it is where you are, amazing dear ones. It’s yours. It’s ours. We truly are the ocean and the waves. We inter are.


Yours truly,






Author: Hillary Johnson

Improvisational documentary and fine art photographer.

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