I don’t remember how long ago I read Thomas Merton using that phrase: “Monkey Mind” to describe his own struggles with focusing. But I do remember it, and knew it was true. If it was true of him, how much moreso it is of me.
It’s always been true, but internet accessibility and use has exacerbated my problem. I remember back in about 1976, when I was working on my Masters at Hopkins. I was taking a course which included reading two volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I found that the only way I could read it was to descend into the bowels of the Eisenhower Library, to the fourth level down, locate a distant carrel, and sit there with nothing but that book. Then, I could concentrate on it.
I didn’t have that trouble with other texts; generally I could read in the midst of all kinds of noise; I would become so absorbed in my reading that I wouldn’t hear my mother asking me a questions.
That was when I was in my twenties. Today, I am much worse. I have to read in my bedroom at my desk, with no background music or noise, and with nothing else on the desk. I close the laptop and put it on the other side of the room.
Writing poetry is the same struggle; maybe even worse.
Praying is the same way. The monkeys are winning.
And even when I was preparing to write this blog entry, my monkey mind had me scrolling through Google for some good images and words from others.
Here are some good words from others:
From Chris Rothbauer:
We all have monkey mind; it’s the natural condition of the human race. Our mind rushes between obsessions, obsessing over money, grades, promotions, love, the latest episode of our favorite television show, and and even obsessing over our obsessing. In fact, if it exists, it’s possible for monkey mind to obsess on it before moving on to yet another obsession and starting the cycle all over again.
From BJ Gallagher in the Huff Post:“Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.
Buddha showed his students how to meditate in order to tame the drunken monkeys in their minds. It's useless to fight with the monkeys or to try to banish them from your mind because, as we all know, that which you resist persists. Instead, Buddha said, if you will spend some time each day in quiet meditation -- simply calm your mind by focusing on your breathing or a simple mantra -- you can, over time, tame the monkeys. They will grow more peaceful if you lovingly bring them into submission with a consistent practice of meditation.
I've found that the Buddha was right. Meditation is a wonderful way to quiet the voices of fear, anxiety, worry and other negative emotions.
I've also found that engaging the monkeys in gentle conversation can sometimes calm them down. I'll give you an example: Fear seems to be an especially noisy monkey for people like me who own their own business. As the years go by, Fear Monkey shows up less often, but when he does, he's always very intense. So I take a little time out to talk to him.
"What's the worst that can happen?" I ask him.
"You'll go broke," Fear Monkey replies.
"OK, what will happen if I go broke?" I ask.
"You'll lose your home," the monkey answers. “
From Michael Brown, in his blog Stumbling Along the Spiritual Path:
Our minds are often like a tree full of monkeys. If you think of this image, all the chatter, noise, and leaping about represents the myriad of thoughts that go through our heads everyday. I wonder how many random thoughts the average person has everyday beyond the self generated thinking required for our daily tasks? In Buddhism you sometimes hear the term "no mind". What is this "no mind"? "No mind" is the space between thoughts. Without some effort on your part, you will never be aware of this space. Some types of meditation will train you to let go of thoughts and increase the space between thoughts. I know I have an overactive mind. My own incessant need to be thinking all the time sometimes makes me crazy. Even writing these daily thoughts makes me crazy at times because I am always thinking about things I can write about. I write daily thoughts five days a week and now have around 400+ of them posted on my web page. A lot of thinking went in to all that writing. It doesn't help that I can be a perfectionist and sometimes obsess over choosing the right words. A thought will come and I can spend hours developing it in my head while hoping the finished product might be worthy of being committed to paper. I sometimes have a difficult time focusing. I am easily distracted because my thoughts are all over the place. I head down one road and often end up on a side street. Right now I am reading three different books because while reading one I get distracted by another. Recently, I was reading an in depth biography of the Beatles. Then I got into the Chinese philosophy of the Tao Te Ching and the 60's history by Tom Brokaw. I got back into the Tao Te Ching and then I bought "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. Between the reading and the writing and the demands of daily work and living, I sometimes have a case of the "monkey mind". The ironic part of this is I'm pretty sure some of you think I have it all together all the time. The truth is that I'm as wired and frazzled as most of you, at least some of the time. My mind sometimes wears me out. The good news is that I do know the antidote. I need to quiet my mind and the way to do that is to spend more time in the space between thoughts. I need to spend less time expanding my mind and more time quieting it. I need to be still more often and stop filling my life and head with noise and information. Being still and being quiet and allowing most of my thoughts to float away will increase the space between my thoughts and allow me to be in a state of "no mind". I think the Christian monk, Thomas Merton, would call this space between thoughts the "ground of your being". It is where we meet God and ourselves. Outside of this space we usually only meet ourselves coming and going.
So I will try again tomorrow.