The term monkey mind originates from the Buddhist tradition to describe a mind when it is unsettled, easily distracted, uncontrolled and/or jumping from one thing to the next. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha (a person who has attained full enlightenment) story says that he observed a monkey swinging from one tree branch to another. In his observations he noticed how the monkey grasped one limb and then another. The Buddha observed how this is similar to our mind in that it grasps onto one thought and then another, and another, uncontrollably.
The mind is designed to think. That’s its job and it does it so well. This functionality enables us to be spontaneous, respond to events in the moment, and multi-task. This ability has been heightened in the modern age with the introduction of computers, smart phones, and social media. In fact, we often pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task both at home and in our personal lives. However, as a result, we have become more fractured, less productive, and feel less connected to one another.
For most beginners of meditation, they have a belief or an expectation that they should be able to sit and quiet the mind. When this doesn’t happen, they quickly discount meditation and believe they are unable to meditate. When we first sit to meditate, there are a myriad of thoughts that flood our mind. Thoughts about our day, our work, our to-do-list, the past and future. Our thoughts take us away from being present. We judge ourselves and our ability to meditate as being incapable of the task, and so we don’t pursue it. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Meditation is the observation of what is. When our mind is busy, we are simply in the observation that our mind is busy. When our mind is quiet, we are in the observation that our mind is quiet. Given that the mind’s job is to think, when we begin to meditate, we need to give the mind a job, a focus. In giving it a task to do, the mind can settle itself on one thing and keep returning to that task whenever it wanders. This is why meditation teachers begin by giving beginners a focus.
There are many focuses that have been shown to be of benefit in giving the mind something to place its attention on. In one of the oldest meditation practices, the Vedic tradition, the repetition of a mantra (a statement or slogan repeated frequently) is used to focus the mind. Examples of this type of mantra are the sanskrit words:
oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ
dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt
The recent development of the Transcendental Meditation movement is based on this practice but with a slight variation in that a meditator is given an individual and personalized mantra to use as their focus. A simpler approach has been the use of one’s own breath as a focus. Giving the mind the task of observing the inhalation and the exhalation allows the meditator to align their focus with the body. The breath is always with us, it doesn’t have to be remembered, it is always available. Meditators return their attention back to their focus whenever it wanders. This practice is repeated again and again throughout the meditation.
Just like any new skill, meditation takes practice and time to develop. I have been meditating for many years and I still use breath as my focus point whenever my mind wanders. Some days my mind is busy and clouded. Other days, my mind is crystal clear and alert. Regardless of one’s state of mind, the practice in meditation is to keep returning again and again to one’s focus (e.g. the breath or a mantra). As we continue to practice meditation, we become more focused, calm and peaceful in all areas of our life.
- Find a quiet place to meditate where you won’t be interrupted or distracted.
- Set a period of time in which you will meditate (e.g. 5 minutes). You can set you phone or an alarm clock so you aren’t distracted by wondering if it is time.
- Get comfortable either sitting on a chair with feet firmly planted on the floor or on a cushion on the floor cross-legged with level hips.
- Take a few slow, deep breaths and set your intention to be fully present for your meditation.
- Relax your arms with hands either on your thighs or placed in your lap. Have a soft gaze or close your eyes.
- Notice your inhalation and exhalation. Feel the rising of the chest as you breath in and falling of the chest as you breath out.
- Whenever the mind wanders return to noticing the breath, without judgement or commentary. Simply notice.
- At the end of your meditation time, notice how you feel. Observe your thoughts and emotions.
- Return often to your meditation seat (e.g. daily, weekly or monthly). The more often you meditate the stronger your practice will be.