April 20, 2012
Today is an anxious day. Yes, I know it's 4/20, and enthusiastic potheads everywhere will be bong-hitting, joint-lighting, and baked-goods-eating their way to a non-anxious existence. But it's also Hitler's birthday, the anniversary of Columbine, and supposedly, the day that Kony 2012 supporters will take to the streets (remember the Kony video?).
Can't blame me, then, for being attracted to this excerpt from Daniel Smith's upcoming book "Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety," published in the New York Times today. Judging by the excerpt, it looks like the book's going to be damn good. Smith has that talent and skill of telling a story that is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious—the quality that some comedians have who can make you laugh uncontrollably by their good-natured yet vicious self-deprecation.
As you might expect from a book with a title that includes "monkey mind," Buddhism gets some airplay:
We were in Scott’s kitchen. He was starting dinner for his family, scraping minced garlic and onions into a cast-iron skillet. The smell of sautéing aromatics is a kind of natural sedative, an airborne Valium. It loosens the tongue. I spoke for a long while about all the things I thought might have caused my anxiety—in particular the traumatic way I lost my virginity (16, two women, bong hits). When I finished, Scott gave the pan an expert toss and said, in the tone professors use with their least-perceptive students: 'Jesus, Dan. Maybe. I guess. But listen, it’s not like we were raised by Buddhist monks.'
There are two things to say about this statement. First, contrary to popular belief, Buddhists can actually be very anxious people. That’s often why they become Buddhists in the first place. Buddhism was made for the anxious the same way Christianity was made for the downtrodden or A.A. for the addicted. Its purpose is to foster equanimity, to tame excesses of thought and emotion. The Buddhists have a great term for the mental state these excesses produce. They refer to it as 'monkey mind.' A person in the throes of monkey mind suffers from a consciousness whose constituent parts will not stop bouncing from skull-side to skull-side, flipping and jumping and flinging feces at the walls and swinging from loose neurons like howlers from vines. Buddhist practices are designed to collar these monkeys of the mind—to pacify them. Is it any wonder that Buddhism has had such tremendous success in the bastions of American nervousness on the West Coast and in the New York metro area?
I am loving that description of the monkey mind.
And speaking of out of control monkey minds, do you remember those suspicious Buddhist monks from Buddha Buzz last week that were roaming around China drinking beer and signing women into hotel rooms? Turns out it wasn't a weird Chinese government plot after all, as the conspiracy theorist in me thought. In fact, it's being reported that the two are singers who were once cheated out of money by a "devout Buddhist" and wanted to "draw the attention of the media and Buddhist authorities to religious hypocrisy." Not sure how well that worked, but at least the mystery is solved. And I did enjoy the picture in which real monks confronted them:
More seriously, the flurry of news around the Tibetan self-immolations continues. The Dalai Lama, speaking in Hawaii last weekend, responded to questions about them on Radio Free Asia: "This problem started from totalitarian, blind sort of unrealistic policy. So, the people who create that policy must think seriously about this—that's my response."
And yesterday the International Campaign for Tibet released a video of the self-immolation of Lobsang Jamyang, who lit himself on fire in January. It's hard to tell in the video at first because so much is going on, but you can see the Chinese soldiers releasing tear gas into the crowd, knocking Jamyang over with a pushcart and then kicking him as they douse the flames.
Image 1: By Clang, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/understanding-my-anxiety.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1.
Image 2: From ifeng.com.