What is the nature of mind and what happens when we meditate and/or practice mindfulness? Here's a sampling of metaphors, analogies, and parables from a variety of traditions.
Awareness of Thoughts
Huston Smith expands on the traditional concept of ‘monkey mind’:
“The mind is like a drunken crazed monkey with St. Vitus’ Dance who has just been stung by a wasp. Those who have seriously tried to meditate will not find this metaphor extreme.
I tell my hand to rise and it obeys. I tell my mind to be still and it mocks my command.”
In The Meditative Mind, Daniel Goleman quotes Indian philosopher Krishnamurti's advice to children:
“You have to watch, as you watch a lizard going by, walking across the wall, seeing all its four feet, how it sticks to the wall, you have to watch it, and as you watch, you see all the movements, the delicacy of its movements.
So in the same way, watch your thinking, do not correct it, do not suppress it—do not say it is too hard—just watch it, now, this morning.”
Dr. Christopher Willard offers several possible metaphors, including:
• Thoughts and events carried past on a conveyer belt;
• Thoughts marked on signs carried by marchers in a parade;
• Thoughts as autumn leaves landing softly on an empty and accepting blanket;
• Sitting on a train looking out the window (rather than climbing out every time you see something interesting).
"Breath is the anchor of mindfulness, helping us attach ourselves to the present moment. Sometimes it's what sailors call a floating anchor, the kind that allows a ship to slow down and not capsize in the storm, when other maneuvers are no longer possible."
Christophe André, Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-Five Paintings to Change the Way You Live
Experiencing the Present Moment
“No moment, however sweet, can last. On the other hand, neither will pain or sorrow—not if you allow them to flow freely…
Rivers exemplify the change that fills our lives. Every molecule of water moves continuously; its relationship to other molecules, to objects in the river, to the land it passes, is always changing.
You can stare at a spot on the river all day and never see anything stable. That’s why rivers are fresh and alive, rather than stagnant and stale. Though everything in the river passes away, the river itself remains constant, and constantly beautiful.”
“Every wood-turner, every sculptor worth his marble, every ballerina, practices what Zen preaches without having heard the word all their lives.”
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity
Orthodox priest John Garvey contrasts ordinary waking consciousness with the stillness we can experience through meditation or prayer:
“It takes an effort to be clear about the moment we are in. It requires taking time—time a lot of people claim they don't have, but they can surf the Web, read the Styles section of the New York Times, watch CSI: Des Moines (is that on yet?), etc....
Ordinary waking consciousness swarms, pops, bubbles up with reactions, opinions, lines of thought... Every serious religious practice encourages us to resist this swarming, while nearly all our current practices (Twitter, Facebook, texting, etc.) encourage nearly constant distraction...
I think of the [early Christian] fathers and mothers of the desert. They compare the way our minds ordinarily work to a hive swarming with bees, or a small pool of muddy water that needs time to settle.
It says something strange about our culture that even the value of stillness now has to be explained.”
(Personally, I prefer to call this ‘non-attacking attention’ since so many people misinterpret 'acceptance' and 'non-judgment' as condoning unethical behavior.)
“A useful metaphor for mindfulness is going into a darkened room and gradually turning up a dimmer switch so that the light reveals more and more of what is in the room.”
Paul Gilbert and Choden, Mindful Compassion
“As Chogyam Trungpa said, it’s like saying ‘oatmeal.’ Some people like hot cereal and some people hate it. Nevertheless, oatmeal remains oatmeal… Oatmeal is oatmeal, whether we want it never to be on the menu or we love it so much.”
Training the Mind
"Doing zazen [meditation]... is like going to the gym. When you first go... everything is hard. After a few weeks [it] becomes easy and you move on to more challenging things. But if you stop, you get out of shape again... You simply have to keep at it.
Further, you don't go to the gym merely to see how much you can bench-press or how fast you can run. You do these things to that when you are in the world... your heart and muscles are in condition...
You likewise sit in zazen so that when you are in the world you are more clear-headed, openhearted, energized to take on the anomalies of life with equanimity."
St. Nadie in Winter: Zen Encounters with Loneliness, Terrance Keenan
Paul Gilbert and Choden give a couple of useful comparisons that show how cultivating awareness is similar to and different from other types of training:
similarity: “Just like a marathon runner puts in hard work to train every morning even when it's cold because they are committed to taking part in a marathon, so too we need to actively cultivate the qualities of the compassionate mind, especially when the journey gets tough and we are up against all manner of challenges.”
difference: “If someone works as an apprentice carpenter, for example, the master craftsman can watch the apprentice closely and see exactly what the apprentice is doing, but this is not so easy with meditation, which is highly subjective inner work.”
Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help You Understand Your Emotions, Live in the Present, and Connect Deeply with Others
The Parable of the Sower
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.
Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
Mark 4: 3-9
I've seen two interesting, and very different, interpretations of this parable from Christian mindfulness teachers.
In a Mindful Teachers interview, Dr. Irene Kraegel explains that “in this parable, Jesus calls our attention to our readiness to receive God’s word.”
“Without mindfulness meditation, my mind tends to be quite full of “thorns” that prevent me from receiving the “seed” of God’s word. With mindfulness, I can spot these thorns early on and cultivate healthy soil so that God’s word has a much better likelihood of thriving in my heart and mind. Just as a farmer cultivates soil, I must cultivate my heart and mind to receive God’s word.”
For Pastor and Zen teacher David Parks-Ramage, “what this parable, this teaching story of Jesus, suggests to me is that I can make friends with my life.”
“In the course of things there will be outcomes that will be disappointing; my heart will be broken, dreams squashed. AND then quite the opposite.
In the course of life, I will know joy in my relationships, I will see the beauty of the sun setting over the Sonoma coast. All this is quite ordinary, to be expected, just as some seeds perish and others grow... I can be friends with it all. And as I discover this kinship with what is, something far more wonderful than good and bad, right or wrong reveals itself.”
The Two Basic Types of Meditation
Daniel Goleman gives an interesting (and potentially controversial) comparison of different types of meditation:
“The founder and early followers of every world religion had altered-state experiences. Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ forty-day vigil in the wilderness, Allah’s desert visions, and Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bo Tree all bespeak extraordinary states of consciousness…
Each path seemed to be in essence the same as every other path, but each had its own way of explaining how to travel it and what major landmarks to expect. I was confused.
Things first began to jell in my understanding, though, with a remark by Joseph Goldstein, a teacher of insight meditation, at Bodh Gaya.
‘It’s simple mathematics,’ he said. ‘All meditation systems either aim for One or Zero—union with God or emptiness. The path to One is through concentration on Him, to the Zero is insight into the voidness of one’s mind.”
I've included Amazon links in case you'd like more information about the sources of these quotes. I don't have an affiliate account and don't benefit financially if you order books through links from this site.
Dr. Sam Himelstein explains at the Center for Adolescent Studies blog about 'lion mind' vs. 'dog mind.'
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Have you ever tried to meditate? Did your mind wander a lot? Do you think it's like a monkey, or do you have a different image to describe a busy mind?
- Which metaphor(s) do you prefer for observing our thoughts (lizard, conveyer belt, etc.)? Can you think of a different image to describe this type of meditation?
- Had you heard or read The Parable of the Sower before? Which of the interpretations do you prefer? Do you know of any other parables that relate to mindfulness?
- Do you agree that “all meditation systems either aim for One or Zero—union with God or emptiness”? Does mindfulness meditation aim for One or Zero, or is this different for secular meditators and people of faith?
Present Moment Awareness: Quotations for Reflection and Discussion
Poems, Quotes, and Proverbs About Mindfulness and Meditation
All About the Breath Song Playlist
Be Here Now Song Playlist