We all have the mind of a monkey. This analogy, slightly humorous though it may be, is actually quite salient. Consider that we humans have around fifty thousand separate thoughts each day, many of them on the same topic. You might imagine that each thought is a branch, and you, or at least the attention of your conscious mind, is indeed a monkey, swinging from thought-branch to thought-branch all day long.
This might sound like it might be fun, but in our troubled human way the thoughts that are often in our minds are concerned with the fears and pressures of life: What will happen if I lose my job? I wonder if my partner might be unhappy with our relationship? What if I don’t have enough money when I retire? Irrational fears perhaps, but made real by our own constant attention. How infuriating and exhausting it becomes.
The Buddha, who coined the word some two and a half millennia ago, termed this mental state “Kapicitta.” Of course, he defined it best when he said; ‘Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.’ Beautifully and poetically put, but why does this monkey rule our thoughts, when we are supposed to be in charge?
Causes of the Monkey Mind
Under the conscious spark of awareness, we are accompanied by the ego – the chattering monkey of our internal monologue. With the noise of this monkey going on, it becomes near on impossible to be present and focused on the moment we are in. Instead we are carried away through the treetops!
Because of our innate capacity for thinking, it is easy for the Monkey Mind to feed on stimuli. When we give our attention to too many things at once, spend our lives rushing from one appointment to another and focus on what we are yet to do instead of what we are currently doing, these are like dozens of trees with enticing fruit for our monkey to chase.
Amazing! Look at him go, there he is worrying about your date next Tuesday, oh, now he’s up that tree criticising your performance in work last week, then he’s reminding you that the car needs servicing. The point is; we actually need the monkey on our side. He’s useful in that in our busy lives he keeps on top of things. The problem occurs when, like all small monkeys with lots of things to do, he’s quite excitable.
The result of the Monkey Mind, which has not been adequately trained, results primarily in mental and physical fatigue. We’ve all had days where it feels like we’ve achieved nothing and there’s a mountain to climb tomorrow, and yet we can’t relax. Because we cannot relax, the monkey mind says, “Hey, why aren’t you relaxing? You have another BIG day tomorrow!” Is it any surprise that cases of depression, anxiety and stress disorders are on the rise?
The problems human beings faced in the days of Buddha are still with us, and while we have perhaps advanced in some ways since then, we are the same fragile species. What is clear is despite our technological achievements we have yet to master being in the world.
Taming Your Monkey
The problem is, you cannot fight the Monkey or castigate it into submission. But you can, understand it, tame it and live in harmony with your furry companion.
The Buddhist perspective recommends quiet meditation. Through understanding of the Monkey Mind, the monkey feels like he is being listened to, and understood. If his fears (your fears) are slowly reasoned with, when your mind is calm through meditative techniques, it turns out that the terrible consequences of not being enough are actually not that terrible. The future is always uncertain; none of us know what is coming tomorrow. We all have plans, dreams and goals we are working towards. Approaching the new day with anxiousness inhibits our ability to be in the moment and truly love the journey that we are undertaking.
Other techniques that can be used to harmonise with your monkey include moving meditations such as Qigong, Yoga and Tai Chi. After all, sitting quietly and not thinking is hard for us to do at first. With the focus relocated to the body from the mind, these internal arts allow us to use our physical forms to cultivate the intrinsic stillness of the soul. The endorphin rush of physical exercise such as running similarly quietens the Monkey Mind.
In accordance with the ethos of maintaining physical health to attune mental health, we should also eschew stimulants, food that is high in refined sugar, and alcohol.
Finally, there is serious investigation occurring into Brainwave Entrainment, which has been asserted to tune our brainwaves into the states usually achieved through long hours of meditation practice. Personally, I enjoy meditation too much to replace it entirely, but when I am working or writing, Theta and Alpha binaural beats music seems to induce a heightened degree of presence and awareness, and a correspondingly quiescent Monkey Mind.
The first step to living amiably with your Monkey Mind is becoming aware that it exists, that it is part of you but doesn’t define you and doesn’t need to result in suffering every time it swings through your forest. The Monkey lives within us, but it does not control us if we are aware of its presence. And through reading this post, you have already taken the first step towards changing your wild monkey into a graceful deer.