Taming Monkey MindNov 18, 2021
by Susan Bourgerie, MA, LP
It’s a typical morning. Before my feet even touch the floor I travel to the future - deciding what to have for breakfast, fretting about undone tasks on my “to do” list, planning a redecorating project, anticipating possible disasters. And I travel back in time to the way I handled a difficult moment with a friend, wondering what might have happened had I been more skillful. I think longingly about loved ones far away, worrying about their wellbeing. I’m distracted by the racket of the recycling truck outside my window, loading a mountain of glass. My thoughts are tinged with worry, regret, impatience, sadness and irritation. My mood takes a nosedive. My breathing becomes shallow, I feel tension in my neck and shoulders, my brow is furrowed and my head starts to ache.
This is monkey mind at work. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, put it this way:
“I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind. The thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. My mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined.”
Monkey Mind is a Buddhist term coined centuries ago to describe the unsettled, agitated, distracted, and distressed human mind. This Monkey Mind is filled with constant chatter, jumping from one thought to another, and never at rest. It’s said that our minds produce up to 60,000 thoughts per day, and that 98% of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday!
Even more disturbing is the estimate that 80% of these thoughts are focused on the negative. This well-research “negativity bias” – our tendency to focus more attention on what’s not right than what is – colors our perceptions and flavors our moods. Our thinking minds add fuel to the fire of everyday difficulties, compounding and maintaining high stress levels. Monkey mind creates stories that predict failure, humiliation, and more. If unchecked, Monkey Mind robs us of our innate resilience. Repeated negative thinking causes changes in neurotransmitters and hormones, and impacts the health of the heart, immune system, brain, endocrine system, and digestion. It can and does contribute to the development of anxiety and depression.
The very good news is that there’s a way to quiet the monkey mind, to reduce the suffering it creates, and to restore our resilience. This way runs counter to our usual attempts to quiet the monkeys by shouting at them, to fight and conquer them (pointless!), to scare them away with our hostility, or to run from them into mindless distractions.
The way to quiet the monkeys is the way of mindfulness – non-judging awareness and acceptance of whatever Monkey Mind is doing at any given present moment. In mindfulness meditation we learn a new relationship with our own thoughts, even those that create suffering. Rather than getting lost in them, trying to fight them off, or trying to shut them out, we learn to live in harmony with them, to use them skillfully, to discover the natural state of the mind that is our birthright – calm, clear, joyful, and compassionate. Meditation is the key to taming Monkey Mind.
Beginning the practice of meditation can be daunting. Sitting quietly, erect and relaxed, eyes closed, focused on breathing and the other sensations of the present moment…this is counter to all of our conditioning. We live in a culture focused primarily on doing, on achieving, on thinking. To spend time aiming for a state of quiet absorption, letting thoughts and feelings arise and pass without getting caught up in them – this is nothing we’ve even remotely been prepared for, and it can be uncomfortable.
When we sit down in silence it seems that Monkey Mind roars to life, making us inclined to jump up and do something, anything, to escape the monkeys! It’s difficult to believe that there’s any value in this silent witnessing of their shrieking. Yet experienced meditators and now the neuroscientists tell us that this practice has a remarkably calming effect on the mind, and that training our minds in this way actually changes our brains in the direction of less emotional reactivity, improved stress management, improved immune system function, increased capacity for attention, reduced rumination, and the development of greater empathy. And that’s only the beginning of the thousands of results reported regularly. (If you’re interested, check out the Mindfulness Research Monthly, a monthly bulletin that aims to build awareness of the latest scientific advances in mindfulness research. You can find it at www.mindfulexperience.org.)
Now back to the real world experience of introducing Monkey Mind to the practice of mindfulness. You may find it helpful to begin with simple awareness of breathing, sitting in a relaxed posture and focusing all your awareness on the sensations of your breath. Simply inhale and exhale, noticing when your attention is captured by one of the monkeys, and returning to focus on the sensations of the breath. This is one of the simplest ways to become mindful of what’s happening in the present moment, and it’s the foundation of mindfulness meditation.
If sitting still in this way is still a bit of a stretch, you can begin quieting your mind by practicing mindfulness in most any daily activity – brushing your teeth, washing your hands, walking down the hallway, drinking a cup of tea. All of these activities involve the body and create a myriad of sensations that we may totally miss when caught up in habitual thought patterns. Buddhist psychologist and teacher Karen Kissel Wegela writes of our “mindlessness practices” that desynchronize mind and body. “The body is sitting here in the room,” she says, “and the mind is off planning the day’s activities or entertaining a juicy fantasy life…or spaced out and blank…They lead to states of mind that dampen the vividness of life.” Interrupting our mindless states with moments of mindful presence in the activities of everyday life can open up a whole new world of color, sound, movement, and connection with others. Freed up to engage with the energy of life around us we come out of the trance of absorption in Monkey Mind and come alive.
All of these informal mindfulness activities are wonderful pathways to a more settled mind. However, the real transformation comes with the practice of meditation, difficult as that might seem. The instructions are simple. Sit down, relax, and pay attention to what’s happening in the field of your sensation in the present moment. Whenever attention wanders into the world of thought simply bring it back to breath and body. Period. Much has been written about this practice, and there are teachers that can be incredibly helpful. But essentially it’s just this: sitting quietly, watching your mind without judgment, and allowing it to settle on its own. If you simply outlast the Monkeys they will quiet down. Really. It’s possible to have a harmonious relationship with all that lives in our Monkey Minds.
Via the magic of YouTube I recently visited Arashiyama Monkey Park in Tokyo, home to many wild monkeys. I noted a posting of an interesting set of guidelines provided to visitors wandering among the wild monkeys living there. It strikes me that these instructions have parallels to the wisdom of mindfulness meditation instruction, and might help us relate to the wild monkeys of our unsettled minds.
Rule Number One: Don’t stare at the monkeys.
Staring can be very threatening to a monkey, since it can signify that a predator has you in its sights and is a threat. So apparently, when a person stares at a monkey it triggers a sort of “defensive aggression” reaction in the animal. The monkey’s fight response kicks in, and in a fight with a wild monkey a human will be defeated; we’re just not trained to win these!
If you’ve ever tried to fight with your Monkey Mind you know it only invites escalation, the opposite of the quiet mind. Monkey Mind will defend its territory! So in meditation we learn to “watch” the thoughts without staring – without getting fixated on them, or caught in hyper-focus on any one thought. We develop an “observing self” that can be curious and watchful without getting caught up in the antics of the thinking mind. One simple visual image used to facilitate the development of this ability is that we encourage the mind to watch from the shore of the river as thoughts go tumbling by like leaves and branches in the rapidly flowing water. Sitting still and watching this way and allowing thoughts to flow down river of time, passing quickly out of awareness.
Rule Number Two: Don’t take pictures of the monkeys.
It’s natural to want to capture in a photo the experience of walking among wild monkeys. But apparently the camera can be an object of fascination for curious monkeys and trigger an attack, so in effect the desire to capture the experience forever invites a bad outcome. It might seem a bit of a stretch here, but to hold on to our thoughts, particularly negative thoughts, as if they were worthy of memorializing, can give them far too much power. When we take that snapshot of a thought or story out of our memories and focus on it repeatedly we call it ruminating, and it’s a set up for fearful or depressed moods. Better just to stay on the riverbank, not inviting an attack of rumination that feeds dark moods and drains our energy.
Rule Number Three: Don’t feed the monkeys.
Feeding wild monkeys is not good for them or for us. Monkeys naturally eat a healthy diet of forest food, but apparently will learn to prefer handouts from humans and stop looking for their own food. Troops of monkeys that are fed by humans can double in size, which results in more conflict between them, and more aggressive behavior.
The same is true when we feed Monkey Mind. Monkey Mind’s thoughts feed on attention; what we pay attention to grows, sometimes crowding out the space we have for creative thinking or even simple enjoyment of the present moment. You may have heard the story of the elderly Cherokee tribal leader teaching his grandchild about life. He said, “A fight is going on inside me; it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil—he is fearful angry, jealous and negative. The other is good—he is happy, peaceful, positive and content. The grandchild thought about it for a minute, and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win, Grandfather?” The Elder smiled and replied, “Whichever wolf you feed.” Feeding the darker thoughts of Monkey Mind leads to more of them. We only have to stop paying attention and they will diminish.
Following the guidelines at Arashiyama Monkey Park will result in a safe and enjoyable visit, a few hours of living in harmony with wild monkeys. Following the path of mindfulness we learn to live in harmony with Monkey Mind. We can live in harmony with wild thoughts that might have, in the past, triggered painful reactive emotions or even self-destructive behaviors. We stop identifying with every thought we have, stop confusing the difference between a thought and reality. This frees us to see our lives more clearly, make better choices, and live a more peaceful and joyful life.
It may seem like a long journey from where we are now to a settled mind. But to walk “the mindful path to a calm mind” we can simply begin where we are. Monkey Mind is not a “bad mind”, only an unsettled and untrained mind, caught in unhealthy patterns. We can appreciate even this Monkey Mind, as it is the place we begin to walk a more mindful path. We have the power to do this. Tarthang Tulku, a contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teacher, has this to say:
“We can teach our minds to be calm and balanced; within this calmness is a richness and a potential, an inner knowledge which can render our lives boundlessly satisfying and meaningful. While the mind may be what traps us in unhealthy patterns of stress and imbalance, it is also the mind which can free us.”
So we can be grateful, even for Monkey Mind. It is the starting place for Settling…Taking the Mindful Path to a Calm Mind.