Your mind is a monkey
…is what our yoga instructor keeps telling us, and every time I imagine a little monkey inside my skull, jumping up and down trying to escape, bumping her head against the bone, clawing at my eyes, ears, and nose from behind. It’s a cute monkey, the one inside my head, but sometimes she makes such a racket!
Like many a middle aged woman, I took up yoga recently, trying to find a way to move my stiff body but not too keen on joining a gym at this (st)age. Because of the pesky pandemic, our classes have been online. Our instructor is in India, we are in Japan; both his English and his Japanese skills are approximate (he does his best and we love him!), and one day he told us “your mind is a monkey.” Did he also say something about jumping around? It’s quite possible that my own brain made this up, I don’t really remember.
There are actually two things our yoga instructor tells us that have really stuck with me: to try and calm down the monkey brain, and to remove any force from our movements, physical and mental (the difficult to translate 力を抜く). I’m not much into spiritual mambo-jumbo, but I do like these. And I’ve come to appreciate how important and difficult it is to stop the monkey brain from jumping around and to let go of the excess of force we apply to our everyday goings-about.
I say “our,” but I suppose not everyone is quite as (in)tense and on edge as I’ve been lately. It’s a personality trait of mine, but I think the nature of academia has exacerbated it: I am never off, always connected to my students, colleagues, work in general — and some connections are trickier than others. Of course you enjoy reading and writing and teaching and (a little bit less) grading, or you wouldn’t have spent years doing it (although I think the sunk cost fallacy plays a role here); you can even find some fulfillment in putting together timetables and sitting on random committees. But in time you forget about long vacations where you don’t need to bring your work computer, about books to read for fun; heck, you tackle even a hobby such as pottery as something you might write an academic article about one day, and your partner doesn’t want to watch movies with you because you point out holes in the plot and criticise the dialogue for poor writing…
When every waking hour you are plugged into your work, it’s easy to forget how to pull out the plug (also 抜く) . Your monkey brain is literally jumping from one work-related task to the next loosely work-related task, and you need a yoga instructor to tell you what you should have known all along: your mind is a monkey; teach it how to come off the silly jumping around and relax, sitting in a hot spring like these wise guys in Jigokudani.
And while I don’t long to be irresponsible or completely dis-invested in my job, I do sometimes dream of closing my work email at 5pm every day, kicking back my chair and picking up a book I don’t *have to* read, thinking to myself: not my circus, not my monkeys!