Help! There’s a Monkey in my Mind!

I was chatting with a handyman while he installed an air conditioner at my house. “So what do you do?” he asked over the noise of his drill. “I teach meditation,” I said, noticing bits of drywall falling onto my zabuton. “Oh, meditation…I tried that once. Couldn’t do it. Too many thoughts in my head.” I smiled at the familiar refrain and said, “Yes, the monkey mind. I know just what you mean.”

“Whaddaya mean, monkey?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Well, think about the way a monkey swings from tree to tree, going from fear to desire and thought to thought. That’s what our minds do without a focus,” I said. He laughed at the image. “Meditation is simply paying attention on purpose,” I continued, “and it can help interrupt that cycle and bring you peace.” “Huh,” he got quiet and continued drilling.

“So I guess you’ve tamed your monkey, since you’re a teacher and all,” he said as he worked. I burst out laughing. “No way, dude! I wrestle with mine every day. I’ve just learned a few techniques to help keep him in check. It’s something that comes with practice.”

He looked encouraged and began to tell me about his experience with recovery from drugs and alcohol. “I’m doing so much better these days but I still have so much stress,” he said, shaking his head. “I just think there’s got to be a better way, you know?” “There is,” I said, and handed him my card.

monkey mind

Ah, the monkey mind. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, even for just one minute, you’ve met your monkey. He’s the one who leads you over past hurts, drags you into future planning, and gets you started on a grocery list when you’re trying to focus on your breath. He’s insidious and distracting and incredibly frustrating. And the bad news is, he never goes away.

But the good news is, you CAN tame the monkey. The human mind has over 100,000 thoughts per day. That’s what our minds do: they make patterns and analyze and invent ideas. Our minds are incredibly creative tools. You can use that brilliant brain of yours to make friends with your monkey and find more focus, and therefore more peace. Here are a few tips:

When I lived in the UK they had an expression: ‘Slowly, slowly, catch a monkey.’ In other words, don’t get angry and wave your arms and threaten the monkey because he’ll only run away. Instead use kindness and sweetness. I like to use humor and imagine that I’m working with a child or a cute little animal. “Hey, little monkey! Aw, you’re so cute. Want a juicy banana? Come and sit quietly next to me while I meditate.” When I realize my attention has wondered off yet again, I laugh inwardly and say, “Ah, it’s happened again. That’s so funny. Come on back now.” Self-criticism won’t get you anywhere. Be compassionate towards yourself.

Give the monkey something to chew on. Use a mantra or repeat a phrase over and over (such as ‘I am at peace’ or ‘Breathing in, breathing out.’). Even if the monkey is shrieking and flying all over the place in the background, keep focusing. Eventually the monkey will get bored because you’re not giving him any attention and will quiet down.

Open your eyes slightly and keep a soft focus. Find a point on the floor to gaze at, or a candle flame or symbol, and use the visual as an anchor. I use a Buddha statue in my meditation space. When I get distracted I open my eyes and look at the Buddha. “Huh, he seems to be doing okay. I’ll try again.”

Practice, practice, practice. Practice some more. And then practice some more. Focus in meditation comes with practice. Every time you find you’ve wandered off, just bring your attention back again. And do that over and over and over. You will still have distractions but you’ll learn to recognize them for what they are. You’ll become more adept at ignoring them and keeping your concentration. And then one day you just might be surprised to find that little monkey asleep in your lap.

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