Yappy Chihuahua Mind

Zen meditation practitioners encounter what is commonly called “monkey mind.” I’ve found I have (with apologies to nice Chihuahuas) a yappy Chihuahua mind.


To seek Great Heart with thinking
mind is certainly a grave mistake.

Zen meditation practitioners encounter what is commonly called “monkey mind”—our small, thinking minds that continually swing from thought to thought and from desire to desire. At a recent retreat, though, my small mind appeared with a slightly different personality. Instead of a monkey mind, I found I had (with apologies to nice Chihuahuas) a yappy Chihuahua mind. It was small, loud, persistent, and aggressive. And like many small dogs, it seemed to think it was big and tough…in utter ignorance of its actual tininess.

While it can find many things to yap about, my Chihuahua mind tends to gravitate to one of two themes. The first theme is that I’m not giving enough. That is, I’m not doing enough to relieve the suffering of the world. I hear yips at my heels, telling me to get going, telling me that it is irresponsible to just sit and let the world be as it is, telling me that I’m not measuring up. It often gets away with this for long periods of time, because it cleverly disguises itself as being on the side of the virtue of compassion, of Kanzeon, of social justice. When I look at it closely, though, it is self-centered through and through. The thoughts are all about whether I am sufficiently on the side of the right and the good, whether I am one of the good guys, whether I am effective. The actual suffering of the world is, during such times, not actually getting my attention at all. I’m separated from it by a cacophony of “me, me, me.” Zen practice reminds me to sit when it’s time to sit, and act when it’s time to act.

And I find that the self-blame yappiness is not at all inconsistent with my Chihuahua mind’s other favorite theme: I’m not getting enough. That is, I’m not entirely happy with my life at the moment and that means that something is wrong with the universe. My aches should go away. I should be getting more praise, or at least a chocolate brownie. Why do other people get things that I don’t get? This side is usually easier to recognize as a form of “selfing” than the I’m-not-doing-enough side. Yet it also can disguise itself for some periods of time, as appropriate self-care. “When hungry, eat. When tired, rest.” Only when I stop reaching towards the imagined solution to my discomfort, and sit looking into the ache or the craving, is there a chance of penetrating the sound wall created by my yappy mind.

Two months ago I wiped out on my bicycle on black ice, resulting in a concussion and fractured pelvis. That experience, and a similar one a couple years back (involving a bike, a pothole, and a shoulder blade…sigh) have given me a little more insight into all this “selfing” business. It seems that my mind-body has priorities, and the activity of creating a sense of a self as an ongoing entity does not actually rank very high in the list.

From what I experienced, I imagine my mind-body having a list it turns to when a concussion causes all the trauma alarms to go off and starts the red lights flashing:

Heartbeat? Check.
Breathing? Check.
Damage assessment? Check.
Mind engaged in seeing to urgent needs? Check.
Mind storing up memories to accrete to my sense of self as an ongoing being? Nah. That can wait.

I apparently left about a dozen identical phone messages for my housemates that morning, each about a minute apart, explaining that I’d dragged myself to the side of the bike path and needed rescuing. (One soon came and called an ambulance.) By afternoon, I’m told, I was on a five-minute loop, asking over and over again if my workplace and kids had been notified. I remember nothing of the accident or its aftermath. It wasn’t until quite late in the day that the “selfing” activity of creating a personal history clicked back in, and I could start to remember what I’d been told.

A second shock to my self-important yappy mind was that, when I was put out of commission for a couple weeks, the world insisted on keeping on turning. In fact, it got along quite well without many of the Very Important and helpful tasks that I had planned to do, and whose planning is always trying to claim precedence over attention to the breath when I sit in zazen. That’s humbling. In fact, I got to be on the big-time receiving side of the care of the universe, in the form of hospital folks, housemates, colleagues, and friends.

A third lesson from this experience came about from the keen attention I needed to give to my body over the next several weeks. In kinhin (walking meditation), we are told to put our attention on every step. Recovering from a fractured pelvis, I did kinhin every time I walked. This has led me to wonder about the old stories of Chinese Zen masters sometimes beating their students. Where did they aim their stick? I can’t think of anything that would get a stubborn student to attend to every single breath more quickly than a bruised rib!

So, then, I went on a retreat, doing kinhin with a cane and meeting, as I said, my yappy Chihuahua mind. In my state of heightened body-awareness, I was particularly struck by these stanzas from “The Heart of True Entrusting”:

This heavy burden weighs you
down—so why keep judging “good” and “bad”?
If you would walk the highest Way
do not reject the sense domain.

For as it is, whole and complete,
the sense world is enlightenment.
The wise do not strive after goals, but
fools still bind themselves with thought.

The One Way knows no diff’rences,
the foolish cling to this and that.
To seek Great Heart with thinking
mind is certainly a grave mistake.

Three things followed. The translation of “sesshin,” the word we use to refer to a retreat, is “to touch the heart-mind.” The first insight was that this is not a metaphor.

The second thing that happened was that the 4th Great Vow, “The Buddha Way is unsurpassable. I vow to embody it,” stuck with me on leaving the retreat. The emphasis has been on the word “embody.”

The third happened a few days later, at home. I find that I always gravitate towards “mentalizing” zazen practice. I get tempted again and again to think of meditation as a quest to achieve some particular kind of mind state. I get to thinking that I’m supposed to train my Chihuahua mind to become quieter and more peaceful. I believe that I’m supposed to talk my Chihuahua mind into seeing the reasonableness and the helpfulness of doing meditation practice. My yappy Chihuahua mind, while it puts up a show of resisting, is actually secretly quite happy with this program. It gets to remain the center of attention! “Yap! Ok, we’ll get quiet now. Quiet! Quiet! … Yap! Dang, a thought. Bad doggie, bad doggie!” and on and on. The resulting battle just creates more self-hate, more selfing.

I found myself, one morning shortly after sesshin, imagining a quite different conversation. I “heard” my body and senses—the mass and weight and auditory and visual receptors settling in, just then, on the cushion—tell my Chihuahua mind, “We’re about to do something wild and crazy! We’re about to do something that you won’t understand at all. But we’re going to do it anyway!” This was a friendlier, more accepting approach. I could pat the little doggie on the head, and accept it as part of myself, while—for at least the next 25 minutes—not completely buying into its feeling of self-importance. I could start to see something bigger.

For as it is, whole and complete,
the sense world is enlightenment.

(Based on a talk given a the Greater Boston Zen Center, April 8, 2017)





Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

One thought on “Yappy Chihuahua Mind”

  1. Lovely. Thoughtful. When my mind body appears most often while doing yoga, i experience great joy deep in the core of me. A peaceful, centered joy filled with gratitude.Thank you for your wisdom Julie. I am grateful for your healing. I don.t ride a bike because i fear cars. You are brave.Best, Linda

    Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S7.


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