The Eye and the Monkey

I sit at my desk in the lobby.

Person walks up.

What’s your name please? I say.

Name she says.

Were you born on date I say?

Yes, she says.

Can I see your bracelet? I say.

She shows me her bracelet. Yes, that’s right. You can have a seat, I say.

Next person, it happens again.

It happens again. 

It happens again.

It happens again.

Then there’s a pause. I have to scan some papers. I hear something on the TV that catches my attention. The person I was checking in finally suddenly sits down and my attention is all over the place. The first part where you can get immersed in the process is called the flow state. It’s what enables me to sit in a chair for five hours and take in a whole 500 page book. That feeling when you are eating a meal so delicious you can’t think of anything else offers the same moment of focus.

Unfortunately, the second part is not uncommon. Your attention scatters. The flow is gone.

Do you ever have this feeling? The Buddha referred to it as kapicitta–monkey mind. Our attention can be like a monkey constantly leaping from branch to branch.[1] Over time, monkey mind went from a general way to describe consciousness to a way of describing the difficulty we have focusing. When you are sitting there and you just can’t focus you are trapped in monkey mind. When you are stuck in the kitchen and you can’t remember what you were doing monkey mind may be overwhelming you. The Buddha cautioned us against a lack of focus and simplicity.

Jesus was going down a similar line when he called on us to have a simple eye. What does it mean for the eye to be simple?  The Hebrew or Aramaic reference is unclear and if you look at different translations you will see a variety of terms simple, single, healthy, and good as possible translations.[2] Generally context is a good hint. Unfortunately this passage about the eye is in a list of sayings. Lists are particularly unhelpful. Even for a list this is harder than you would expect. The two nearest sayings seem to bear little relation to this one. They are both talking about greed.

Let’s start with what eye means here. Eye represents what your focus or concentration is on. Where the Buddha spoke of your attention, Jesus speaks of your eye as a metaphor for your focus. This gets us one step closer. If your focus is clear then your body is filled with Light. If your eye is full of evil then your body will be full of darkness. The use of evil or wicked may be less helpful than the concept of chaos. The use of body here is a circumlocution, just another way of saying self. 

Try this on for size. If your focus is simple then you will be full of light and if your focus is chaotic then you will be full of darkness. This is simplicity of mind. A simple focus is what we strive for. This can get us back to flow. Buddhists call this mindfulness. When you can get purity of focus and calmness of mind you are able to bring the fullness of your intelligence to bear. You know your boundaries and are best able to tell the difference between your viewpoint and those of your conversation partner. 

What is it to be full of darkness? Without focus we are vulnerable to arguments that would not otherwise have power over us. When we are not aware of ourselves it is so very easy for others to push our buttons. When we lack sleep we can be led to places without consideration.

How can you get to a simple focus? How do you get that monkey to settle down? In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh explains it this way: “When the Buddha was asked, ‘Sir, what do you and your monks practice?’ he replied, ‘We sit, we walk, and we eat.’ The questioner continued, “But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats,’ and the Buddha told him, ‘When we sit we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating’[3]. This is our goal.

So how do you eat and know you are eating? When I sit down at work for my granola bar for my mid-morning break, I try to let it fill my senses and send unrelated thoughts away. I think about the ingredients. I look at it. I see the nuts. I see the granola.I see the sweet base. I taste it with my mouth. My mind may wander, but I return to the present moment.

Walking meditation can be deeply grounding. We practiced one form of this with our work on labyrinths. Another approach allows you to narrow your awareness to the very next moment. Think about each muscle as it tightens and releases. Let the place where your foot will go fill your field of vision.

Sitting when we sit turns out to be the most difficult. Buddhists call this practice zazen. Zazen is hard because there may be no smells or sights like in eating. There is no movement like in yoga or walking meditation. This comes the closest to what we practice by sitting in what we Quakers call waiting worship or open worship. With nothing else capturing our attention, we have a pure openness to the Holy Spirit. Monkey mind may still creep in and start your attention wandering. You may be thinking about breakfast you had or lunch that’s coming. You may be thinking about work or an argument you had. How do we get to the simple eye?

To get to the simple eye we empty our minds of all distractions and just listen. Other Christians sometimes call this centering prayer. The Center for Action and Contemplation summarizes centering prayer this way, “Centering Prayer is simply sitting in silence, open to God’s love and your love for God. This prayer is beyond thoughts, emotions, or sensations. Like being with a very close friend or lover, where words are not required, Centering Prayer brings your relationship with God to a level deeper than conversation, to pure communion.”[4]

 Before we can get there, all the way there, we may need to place our focus on something else. Centering prayer offers the solution of a focus word. Zazen uses your breath as a focus. The flame of a candle can offer a visual focus. Thich Nhat Hanh offers a form of breath meditation where there is a phrase associated with inhale and another with exhale. You can picture love flowing into you and through you.[5] A guide to a few of these approaches is in your bulletin.

We empty ourselves of self so that we can be quiet enough to hear from the Spirit. We seek clarity of focus that we may be filled with the Light. This quietness within, this deep focus can come to us in a meetinghouse or a quiet room in your house. Some of the most extraordinary times may come to you in a moment of clarity while you move throughout the world. I leave you with this query: When has a moment of clarity connected you to the Spirit?


[2] pg 74, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol II

[3] pg 14, Living Buddha, Living Christ, 20th Anniversary edition


[5] Adapted by FGC with permission from Pendle Hill from Four Doors to Meeting for Worship by William Taber, Pendle Hill Pamphlet


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