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  • Karl Thunemann

Grappling with Monkey Mind

Before this project was really under way, I struck up a correspondence with a younger relative who is spending a year in a rehabilitation program. Early on, I invited her to ask me about my sock monkey. She obliged by asking, and I realized I could fill my promise by writing an epistle just for her.

I’ve forgotten exactly when I first encountered the concept of “monkey mind.” It probably arrived early on in my life as a meditator, when I was one of many millions of Americans groping about in the dark, trying to figure out just what it means to be a meditator. In texts on the art, we read about monkey mind—the woeful habit of the mind to swing like a monkey through the jungle from liana to liana, unable to stick to one thought for even 15 seconds. We disparaged this quality in ourselves. We were embarrassed to imagine someone standing inside our beleaguered brains, observing our total inability to get a grip.

But if a grip was not in the offing, at least we could come to some acceptance of this phenomenon, even to present a plausible vision of somebody actually meditating. I stopped thinking about monkey mind at all, except to be reminded of the idea when practicing tai chi and performing the briefly repetitive move known as repulse monkey. Tai chi is a martial art, and all moves have “applications” in hand-to-hand combat. In repulse monkey, one is simultaneously retreating and repelling waves of attackers.

And what about my friend, monkey mind? I have changed its tai chi role entirely. I no longer repulse monkey, resolving instead to greet him.

As time wore on, I realized I had little interest in—or capacity to—employ the applications of tai chi in self-defense. For me, it offered a very limited scope. Facing a challenge, I planned to strike a defensive pose, hoping that my would-be opponent would dissolve in hilarity at this ludicrous sight, Thus I might scurry away before he regained his attacking composure.

Still, I love the beauty of tai chi, the poetry of flow between yin and yang. I privately resolved to re-purpose the meaning of as many of its moves as I could. Inspired by a series of short movements known as two fishes in eight-angled diagram, I sought to give it ecological purpose. This was difficult, because the term (but not the moves) has fallen into disuse. Persevering, I thought of two fishes essential to the eastern Pacific whose survival is threatened.

First, the Pacific sardine, which I have seen a few times in aquariums, always to be mesmerized by its remarkable collective intelligence, displayed by the school’s unfailing capacity to execute intricate, simultaneous maneuvers. I picture myself deep inside the school. And second, the Chinook salmon, from its journey seaward to its return home to spawn. I picture myself as a Native American casting my net from a famous rock now submerged behind a dam on the Columbia River.  This final pose—single whip—is the heart of my tai chi heresy.

And what about my friend, monkey mind? I have changed its tai chi role entirely. I no longer repulse monkey, resolving instead to greet him. This makes the move a reunion, a celebration. I picture monkey as deeply gratified by this recognition. After decades of denigration, he is delighted to be welcomed, to find his quick, darting mind to be the toast of the party, the source of great curiosity and creativity.

I acquired my sock monkey to play a part in a solo performance, Declamations of a Tai Chi Heretic, I would pass him from hand to hand to hand—greeting, not repulsing. Then I would fling him to an audience member in the move known as slanted flying. Unhappily, there have been few performances. My pal Gertrude gave this monkey a name—Marcel, after Duchamp, the sculptor who introduced the world to “ready mades” by putting a urinal on display under the title Fountain.

My Marcel ought to be happy. He shares a shelf with two sculptures I commissioned and a carved folk figure from Cape Breton. But he looks unloved—or at least unused. May I pass him around more and extol the beauties of monkey mind.


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