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Enter The Monkey

April 15, 2012

You may have noticed that when you sit down to meditate, your mind goes elsewhere. It skitters out of the present into the future or the past.  Without knowing exactly how it happened, you find yourself planning the rest of your day, or reminiscing over the past or rehearsing a completely fictional scenario in which you are either the hero or the villain. I have personally engaged in many lengthy imaginary conversations while sitting quietly on a cushion.

Your mind may express strong opinions about your sitting.  It may declare that sitting is pointless, boring and uncomfortable.  Or it may point out that although sitting, in general, is an excellent idea, sitting right now is not such a good idea and that right now you should be doing something else, like reorganizing the sock drawer.

The mind that restlessly leaps from place to place is traditionally compared to a monkey, and it’s often called monkey mind. The style of thinking that monkey mind prefers – meandering from topic to topic — is called discursive thinking. Monkey mind is less concerned with the actual experience of here and now than it is with interpretations of the experience of here and now. For instance you might experience a scratchy feeling in your throat.  Monkey mind will seize upon that sensation and play with it.  It might wonder whether that feeling is the beginning of a cold, and how that cold is going to affect your coming busy week, and how you got the cold anyway, and it must be your sniffling roommate and why can’t he remember to cover his mouth when he coughs? Soon monkey mind is busy scolding the not-present roommate about a potential illness.

This type of mind that interacts with interpretations, stories and other thoughts is called conceptual mind.  We could define conceptual mind broadly as that aspect of mind that interacts with anything other than the immediate experience of the five senses. Here’s a description of the activity of conceptual mind given by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (one of the Bad Lama’s teachers):

Conceptual mind takes the nonexistent and makes it existent. It takes things that have already ceased and makes them exist now. It takes that which has not yet been produced, that which will arise only in the future, and brings it into the present. As for what does arise in the present moment, as soon as it arises, it ceases. Immediately upon having arisen, it is gone. But thinking mind takes that and keeps it hanging around as if it were some kind of a thing, a hard and solid thing. That is the activity of conceptuality.

As we saw in the example of the scratchy feeling that leads to condemnation of the roommate, conceptual thinking can be triggered by sensations and emotions.  Conceptual thinking can also trigger sensations and emotions.  For instance, if you choose to think about a situation that made you angry in the past, you may find your anger arising again, and you may also find that your body tenses up and becomes warmer.  Although the conceptual mind deals in interpretations and stories – things that don’t exist in the here and now — those stories and interpretations can have effects in the here and now.  These effects could be either beneficial or harmful: psychosomatic illness is not just a “made up” illness; it is the body’s reaction to a persistent thought.

You might find that you are unable to “just sit” because your monkey mind wants to do something.  It wants to interpret your experience, compare it to other experiences, and then it wants to interpret those other experiences, too. On and on it goes, leaping from story to story. You may think that if you could just get just get rid of this monkey mind, your sitting would be perfect. But attempting to rid yourself of monkey mind is not a good idea for several reasons. First, if in your practice of sitting, you attempt to rid yourself of monkey mind, you are not “just sitting.” You are engaged in a monkey hunt. And if you undertake a monkey hunt, you may find that the monkey will try to bite you. (If you’d like to test this hypothesis, you can undertake an experiment: during your next practice session, rigorously suppress any thought that arises. Notice what happens.) Second, if you do manage to completely suppress the monkey mind during meditation, you haven’t managed to rid yourself of it for good.  It will reappear after meditation, and when it does, you will be unsettled by it, because you will have had no practice in working with it. Finally, the monkey mind is a natural component of your own mind, so attempting to kill it is an act of self-aggression.  Sitting should not be a practice of self-aggression.

Because the monkey mind appears to be the primary reason that we can’t just sit, we must learn to work with it. So we begin our practice of meditation by noticing the state of monkey mind.  If it’s very agitated,  we help it calm down. This process of calming the monkey mind down is called taming the monkey mind. Once it is calm, we can begin to transform it into wisdom.  This is called training the monkey mind.

We tame the monkey mind by working with its natural tendencies. Monkey mind loves to comment and speculate about everything, so we can give it something to chatter about. Since we want to stay in the here and now, we allow monkey mind to play with an object that’s in the here and now.  Our bodies are always here and now, so the basic method of taming the monkey mind is to keep bringing it back to the body — not to ideas about the body, but to the actual physical sensations of the body.  The monkey mind is very light and variable, the body is heavier and more stable, so as the monkey mind interacts with the body it begins to slow down and settle. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this process “synchronizing mind and body.” (This is a very nice phrase, as it points out that usually the mind exists in a different “here and now” than that of the body. When we tame the monkey mind, we bring it into the same here and now in which the body is dwelling.)

So here’s a meditation instruction: when you realize that you are no longer just sitting, but are actively engaged in the play of monkey mind, bring your awareness back to your body.  Let yourself be aware of the sensations of your body.  Don’t worry if monkey mind shows up again.  Let it rest on the sensations of the body.  This is the process of taming the monkey mind.

Repeat as necessary.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Shaw permalink
    April 20, 2012 2:55 pm

    Ahh, the pesky monkey mind. Like every other practitioner of meditation (I presume) I struggle with calming and training the conceptual mind quite often. However, this semester at Naropa I have made some significant strides toward enjoying a more peaceful and spacious state of mind during my sitting practice.

    My natural reaction to the arising of thoughts during meditation is to become irritated and frustrated with myself that I can’t keep my mind still. This only makes matters worse. This is when the “monkey hunt” typically ensues, and as you say, this is an act of self-aggression which never amounts to anything but further suffering.

    Over the course of the semester, however, I have made progress toward forgiving myself when thoughts arise — as they invariably do — and nudging myself to return to my object of meditation…usually following the breath. With each successive sitting, Im finding that the spaces between thoughts are becoming more expansive, and that my reaction to the arrival of thoughts is less severe.

    I don’t recall who said it, but it has always been a useful analogy for me: Trying to force the mind calm is like trying to smooth a pond with an iron. You must leave it be, and it will still itself.

    -Jeff Shaw

    • April 24, 2012 2:35 pm

      It sounds like you’re on the right track, Jeff. I’ve also spent time monkey hunting and found it to be painful and unproductive. May your peaceful and spacious states of mind increase! (And may you rest calmly in the midst of unpeaceful and cramped states of mind.)

  2. Lori Stultz permalink
    January 27, 2013 2:48 pm

    The hardest part I find about “taming” the monkey mind is the actual recognizing of how crazy it is going. It is also fascinating to me how quickly the monkey mind can go back to work after bringing one’s awareness back to the body.

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