When you find the toothpaste in the refrigerator. When you lie awake at 5AM. When the meditation bell rings and you realize you just spent 30 minutes grocery shopping. When your mind goes round and round in circles to the rhythm of whatever rimes with anxiety. Say hello to monkey mind.
Migrating from Buddhist teachings, the concept of monkey mind has today found its way into modern yoga vocabulary. In the popular understanding, monkey mind refers to the incessant, repetitive chatter of your mind, especially (but not exlusively) during meditaton. I´ll leave the Buddhist history of the concept to the scholars. My business here is to reflect on popularity of this metaphor as a cultural phenomenon in modern spiritual practice. As the use of “monkey mind” is beginning to enter colloquial language in yoga studios, meditation circles and even corporate environments across the western world my question, is what does this metaphor do for us? And what can we do with it?
Most of us are conditioned to experience our encounter with monkey mind as quite irritating. It is painful to experience a hyperactive mind. It is painful to be unable to stop. Adding to this is cultural conditioning. Modern yogis live in a world that is increasingly intolerant to waste of time, fuckups, unproductiveness, daydreaming and irrational behavior. We are expected to be focused, efficient, present, goal oriented and above all: In control.
The concept “Monkey Mind” seems to be doing some work here; externalizing that in us, which do not have “spiritual table manners”. Monkey mind is a concept that helps us distance ourselves from the things we are not proud of. It creates a comfortable split between “me” and that part of me which is hard to own. Here is an example: When our thinking mind has a brilliant thought, we say: That was me! When it has a random, superfluous, repetitive, embarrassing thought, we say: That was monkey mind. (I´m paraphrasing a dharma talk by zen master Genpo Roshi, go here to hear it live). Consequently, modern yoga and meditation practice easily slips into a domestication project: “Taming the monkey mind”. Disciplining that in us that does not comply to the cultural norm. Show that unruly beast in your head that you mean business!
Show who? Who is the real monkey here? You or your thinking mind? Let´s face it. Without our ability to think, we naked apes would not have lasted a minute in the evolutionary history of planet earth. No way we could have pulled off civilization without creative and wild thinking. Without the human mind´s ability to gnaw incessantly at a problem until it’s solved, we would still be living in trees.
So why is it that once we start doing yoga and meditation we suddenly see the thinking process as “not me”, something we need to tame and control, something we need to distance ourselves from. Maybe we have been taught to split our heads in two so we can maintain an illusion of control. Maybe we just can´t bear life in our own skin, maybe the pain is just too much to bear. I have no idea. I do, however have a feeling that separation, domestication and control is not going to deliver the permanent peace that yoga so boldly promisess. On the contrary it may be pushing us further into suffering.
My best guess is that if you really do have a monkey in your head, it is likely to behave like any other wild animal. It does not purr and cuddle when met with insensitivity and domination. If yoga and meditation becomes a project of externalizing or demanding docility and obedience from your mind, don´t be surprised if it gets up at 5 in the morning to slap you around while it can. In bed, on the yoga mat, in meditation, when bored, when anxious. Any chance it gets, your monkey will fight for free expression. And we fight back. Sometimes we become loud and irritable “schhhh!. Sometimes we do it with soft bells, smiley voice, endless patience and a hidden agenda of slowly and silently strangeling the monkey in our heads by teaching it how to sit still and be quiet. I´m imagining that to the monkey mind, both strategies feel like a cage, one slightly more manipulative than the other, yet still a cage.
When monkeys feel entrapped and need a way out they can keep a pace and intensity that will drive any human insane! Monkeys are strong, agile and incredibly fast. But that temporary calm of your inner monkey can be a deceptive form of compliance. When the bell rings, when you are trying to go to sleep, when somebody pushes your buttons, monkey mind will take the opportunity to drag you by the heels into your darkest, deepest shadow and have its way with you. Oh that battle ground of Man against monkey mind. Mind against itself. An auto-immune response to spiritual self-improvement. Fighting Monkey Mind is a battle you can’t win.
Unless, of course, you are willing to lose.
Very few people have taught the art of completely losing it. It’s a bold move to give up and leave the battle ground. It takes tremendous trust. I met only two teachers who extend this invitation to me – and really meant it. One, Genpo Roshi, teaches zen, the other, Godfrey Devereux, teaches yoga. In their respective approaches we find some interesting ideas of how to relate with the the monkey mind metaphor in new and productive ways. Both seem to have left the battleground of a split mind at war with itself to step onto a path of becoming intimate with that which we tend to externalize or push away as “not me”.
In zen (Genpo style) Losing it means allowing the splitting mechanism in our head to break down by becoming one with whatever happens. In relation to the problem of monkey mind, this could be done in many ways. If for example you are sitting, sit as monkey mind. Become one with the unruly thinking process. Let me just stress, sitting as is not the same as sitting with monkey mind. Sitting with is akin to witnessing or observing the mind. This is just another split. The observer and the observed. A trip to the zoo.
Sitting as monkey mind is different. It means no separation. No bars between you and the beast in your head. Enter the cage. Become monkey mind. In this version of zen practice it is just a matter of letting go and relaxing into that which is happening here and now. Genpo says:
“There is no barrier to begin with, nor a window to go through. The other shore does not exist. If this shore is not enough, it’s too bad”
(Genpo Roshi, 1994)
You already are monkey mind. Becoming one with it it not going to another shore, its staying here and becoming intimate with what we are. If we are full of confused, repetivite, imaginary chatter that is what we need to become one with. So here we encounter an approach of leavning the domestication project and unleashing the wild thinking process with no agenda of control. Becoming monkey mind means getting intimate with thinking. Honoring and empowering the mind to do its job and become one with thinking (if that´s what is happening at that moment, could be sensation, sound, emotion, action, anything). If 40 minutes of planning in seated meditation is what is going on, let it. You are still sitting. If reconstructed memory, imaginary scenarios, or incessant, insane, repetitive commentary is happening then allow it to run amok. You are already here sitting. There is nowhere else to be than where you are now. This is it. You have always already arrived where you should be. Whatever arises, the zen path of intimacy is to become one with it. Allowing yourself the freedom of having no agenda for what goes through your head. Even the agenda of having no agenda is unneccessary.
In yoga (Godfrey style) the practice of intimacy is primarily a somatic one. Similar to the zen approach yoga does not begin with splitting the observing subject (mind) and the observed object (body). The path of intimacy in yoga encourages an immersion into activities that are already expressing the unity underlying our ideas of body/mind. Feeling sensation is one such process. Feeling is not the same as observing, labelling, naming, verbalizing or visualizing what is going on in the body. Feeling has no split. It is an invitation to intimacy, to become one with. No bars.
Where was your mind when you were fully engaged in that first kiss from your first love? Doing its job: Enjoying it! Relaxing into the delight, completely gone in kissing. (If it was a really good kiss – that is). For yoga posture practice we could call Godfrey´s strategy: Give the monkey a banana. One implication is practicing pain-free movement. No intense, acey or sharp sensations, no alarm bells ringing in your joints. Yoga posture practice should feel soft and delicious like a good kiss.When your joints are not in any immediate threat or danger the mind does not have to think and work out ways to stop the threat or prevent injury. Neither does it have to disocciate into a dream land far away from the painful sensations that sometimes are our bodies. Hence it can relax into feeling whatever sensations arise (if you take ahimsa seriously and practice in a way that does not harm your joints) perhaps also enjoying the more and more subtle , elusive, soft sensations. In time we can perhaps practice intimcy with whatever sensations arise, even the ones that are not comfortable. Emotional pain such as fear, anger or grief often have a rythmic sensation-complex to them that can be felt deeply and appreciated for being what they are. But in yoga posture practice, the Godfrey-strategy would be to allow soft delight to draw us in and internalize the mind until we completely lose the battle of distinctions and splits and become one with sensation. Feeling sensations invites a becoming one with, simply because there is nowhere else we would rather like to be than here feeling the sensations that are our body at this moment in time.
So does that solve the monkey mind problem? Godfrey says:
“It doesn’t mean that the monkey mind runs away. The monkey mind is still there. Having its fun while disturbing no one. Because there is no one there to be disturbed”
(Godfrey Devereux, recorded teaching).
So similar to the “becoming one with” approach of zen, this approach to yoga invites us to feel sensation so intimately that the one who experiences disturbing thoughs dissolves into that which is experienced. From that place it doesn´t matter what that monkey supposedley living in your head is up to. You are the tingling in your fingertips, the delight of your breath, the throbbing of pulses, the spaciousness, tightness, hardness, softness, flow, warmth, coolness, rhythm, sound, thinking.
So in both approaches, as i understand them, monkey mind is not neccessarily a problem in itself. Our relationship to this concept of someone thinking crazy thoughts inside our head is what makes us suffer. If we do buy into the idea that there is a monkey in our minds then it seems the best thing we can do is become intimate with it. Turning away from it, fighting it, training it, taming it, domesticating it is a declaration of a war you can´t win anyway. Any fight with your mind is only a fight within your mind. (This includes the battle against your own tendency to fight with your mind btw!). The path of intimacy allows you to give up, loose that battle and win something much more satisfying.
When not under attack, monkeys can be quite peaceful creatures. Have you seen a monkey picking its fur or eating? When engaged in something interesting, they just chill out in quiet activity. One of my colleagues once tried to sit still and meditate until the monkey that was sitting in the tree a few meters away had moved. The monkey won. Of course! It was totally relaxed, it had no agenda. It was chilling out as monkey. Not trying to accomplish anything it wasn´t already doing.
The same thing is going on in you when you meditate or practice yoga postures. When you become intimate with what is happening, your mind goes quiet all by itself. No taming, stopping, stilling, cultivating, domesticating necessary. When a wild monkey is left in peace, it feels safe. When it feels safe it relaxes. When nobody needs its presence or activity, a relaxed monkey may actually use the break to get some rest.
For a more on the teachings of Genpo Roshi go here
For a more on the teachings of Godfrey Devereux go here