“If a man is interested in weaving, he shouldn’t keep a monkey for a pet.”
So says the Indian proverb shared by Sri Swami Satchidananda in his commentary on Patanjali’s sutra 2.45: “By total surrender to God, Samadhi is attained.”
That advice has me imagining monkeys speedily undoing the threads on looms with their little monkey fingers the very minute their owners turn their backs. While The Yoga Sutra and their commentaries are often inscrutable to me, I think I get what Satchidananda means here; there seem to have been countless times when I’ve prepared my “loom” by setting a resolution, and then went right out and got myself a monkey.
For example, I would resolve to finish—or to start—a particular writing project. But then I’d begin saying yes to all sorts of things that interfered with my writing schedule, like social activities or time-consuming new hobbies, or even staying up way too late—which certainly hasn’t been my problem since I moved to the high desert, where it’s dark and cold at night and I go to bed so early that sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night feeling perfectly rested. In fact, this year I’d like to resolve to stay up a touch later, late enough so I sleep through the night. And yet I’ve adopted a monkey in the form of a movie-in-bed-after-dinner ritual that puts me right to sleep.
There seem to have been countless times when I’ve prepared my “loom” by setting a resolution, and then went right out and got myself a monkey.
But not all pets are distracting and mischievous. Might there even be some that help us weave the tapestries of our resolutions, rather than tearing them to shreds? I wonder if sometimes, when we fail in our resolution-keeping, it’s because we self-handicap ourselves with monkeys rather than adopting loyal pets—the people, activities, and approaches—that might keep us inspired and help us to further our goals. No one said we had to go it alone.
For instance, last year I wanted to commit to doing more aerobic activity, mainly to forestall the age-related physical and cognitive declines that no longer seem merely theoretical. Over the chilly winter, though I faithfully practiced yoga at my slow pace near the wood stove, I had a very hard time leaving my casita for the walk, hike, or jog I had resolved to take. My cat was not helping with motivation—my notably unfrisky cat didn’t seem to want me to leave the house either, which would deprive him of a lap. As soon as the snow melts, I’ll get moving and go breathe some invigorating outdoor air, I told myself. But after the snow came the mud, and I admit that I was not excelling in the aerobic-resolution department.
Then, last March, my husband came home carrying a very small and dirty puppy. To be fair, I had consented to this puppy, a caramel-colored, kohl-eyed cross between a mutt and a mutt; I’d even met him before at our neighbor’s house. But I did not know this was the day he’d be joining us, and I suspect that I blanched. I had never wanted a dog and had been successfully talking my husband out of the dog-thing for ten years, by saying, rightly, that we had no space and were not home enough. And besides, we had a cat. But now we had acres of space. We were always home. I had no real grounds for objection anymore, except for the cat (who was now more of a lump anyway, sleeping more than seemed healthy, even for a cat).
Not all pets are distracting and mischievous. Might there even be some that help us weave the tapestries of our resolutions, rather than tearing them to shreds?
Everything I had dreaded came to pass. The dog took up a lot of time. Peed inside. Chewed on shoes and table legs and door jambs. While I tried to write, the dog tried to play tug-of-war with me and his toy octopus. Or I was distracted by the relentless and demonic growl issuing from the closet where the cat had barricaded himself. Or I would get on my yoga mat only to have the dog nip my nose or lick my ears. And I learned that if the dog was quiet for any period of time, it was probably because he was eating some important structural component of the house.
During the tizzy of those first months, I tried to take the puppy walking, but he seemed to be magnetically attracted to pear cacti and cane cholla. Many of our walks ended with me carrying him home and my husband holding him while I tweezed out the thorns from his paws. This dog was my monkey, I thought—getting in the way of pretty much everything.
But soon we began to figure out the shape our relationship would take, this dog and I, and the weight of our days shifted to accommodate each other. Now we have our system. If I take him for a long walk in the morning and evening, he will then consent to allow the humans in the house to move their concentration in non-canine directions for the rest of the day.
It is winter now, and my nose runs during our frosty walks up the dirt road on the mesa, but the dog is still pulling along the sled of my last year’s resolution: Here I am hiking twice a day, whether I like it or not. Sometimes I am less than eager to go, especially in the morning, when it is cold or windy. But the dog expects these walks, and lets me know by sitting on my foot and looking up at me. If this tactic doesn’t work, he emits a whine akin to the whistle of a teakettle. And when I change out of my bathrobe and put on my hiking shoes, he gets so excited that I feel a little excited too. Of course, I walk him. And, almost magically, he’s figured out how to avoid cacti without even looking down, a real high-desert dog.
Once we get going and I warm up, I usually enjoy these walks. I’ve seen bluebirds rise like flapping fractals from the junipers. I’ve seen arrowheads and pottery shards and rocks that look like crystallized honey or the blackest meteors. I’ve watched our long shadows cast stripes across the chalky road. And I’ve laughed at how the dog’s profile, made large and silly by the slant of the light, looks like a dog shadow someone makes with their fingers: mouth open, tongue lolling, ears bouncing.
This dog, an accidental addition to my life, has helped me with last year’s resolution to the extent that I am now thinking about the value of intentionally adopting a “pet” to support other efforts.
Our walks do take time. When I was thinking of adding cardiovascular activity to my life, I was thinking that 20 minutes would be about right. At least an hour of my day is now spent perambulating with the pup. But there are compensations. I get some good thinking done on these walks, which make me alert for the succeeding hours. And by exercising and breathing in fresh, middle-of-nowhere air and the therapeutic smell of dirt, perhaps I am increasing my life span; perhaps the hours I spend this way will all come back to me.
The cat, while less than thrilled, has the new situation under control, and even seems a bit livelier. I swear he provokes the dog, strutting across his sightline. When the dog chases him, the cat darts to the high ground, swatting as if his paw were connected to a tensile thread, until the dog finally gives up his pursuit.
The dog, an accidental addition to my life, has helped me with last year’s resolution to the extent that I am now thinking about the value of intentionally adopting a “pet” to support other efforts. I do not mean a breathing creature—necessarily—but rather, anything that holds us to task. Maybe this year, if we are setting a resolution for the year to come, we should think about what would facilitate that resolution. If I am really going to bed too early, could I skip—or more realistically, postpone—movies in bed until a couple of hours after dinner, perhaps giving myself the “pet” of a reading hour, followed by a gentle yoga hour, before I migrate bedward?
If you want to read more, would joining, or starting, a book club support your effort? If you want to learn Spanish, would scheduling a trip to Mexico spur you to study more diligently? If you want to do more yoga, would signing up for a teacher training help?
Perhaps when we close our eyes and sit in a comfortable seat for meditation, we could not only invite fewer monkeys in, closing the door on the thoughts that disrupt us, but also invite in the pet of the breath. The pet of the candle flame. The pet of a mantra. And for a few minutes, things may grow quiet enough that we can see a new pattern emerging in the warp and weft of the mind’s loom.