Do you have a monkey mind?
So, what's up with the monkey?
Some time back, I was eating at a local sushi restaurant and, while we were waiting, the server brought out a plate of sample rolls for us to try. "What are these?" I asked. "Monkey brain," she said. I paused momentarily, then saw it was comprised of mushroom and other non-cranial parts and smiled. When I returned home, I told the kids I had monkey brain sushi. "Eew!", they said, and then stared at me. "It wasn't REAL monkey brain, was it?"
Monkeys are fascinating animals. They swing, climb, jump, goof off, chatter, screech and are more fun than a barrel of . . . . wait. We humans have always had a certain fascination with monkeys, especially with their similar features and mannerisms. One thing that's hard to imagine one of our primitive friends doing; however, is contemplating nuclear fission, or sitting cross-legged and meditating to Yanni (Ouch. Sorry, that made me wince!)
In Buddhist philosophy, the notion of a monkey mind describes a mind that jumps from issue to issue, or figuratively from tree to tree, trying to scatter about, but not being in the present moment. It conjures an image of a monkey swinging from branch to branch, lured by another banana, while he still holds an uneaten one in his hand. The person with monkey mind has trouble with focus. He stays on the surface and doesn't reflect. His mind chatters with self-defeating phrases like "I'm not good enough" and "life is hard" (seehttp://innerpeace.org/monkeymind.shtml#discover.)
Our tendency to compare ourselves with others, where we let our insecurities overrule our more evolved, meditative self is another example of monkey mind (i.e. "Am I prettier than her?") A monkey mind also gets overwhelmed easily by thoughts of all the actions it needs to take. It makes them seem complicated or impossible, so much so that the mind feels paralyzed and confused.
The who . . . what . . . where am I?
It's pretty pervasive today, when you think about it. We're all affected by this ceaseless cacophony of stimulation - cell phones, ipods, TVs, texting, IMs, speed dating, video conferencing, interruptions, overcommitments, etc. I absolutely love how Ellen Degeneres discusses this topic - she heads downstairs to get something, sees the cat and has to rub it's tummy, then notices the dust on the floor, goes to get a mop and gets distracted by one thing, then another, then another. We're overstimulated!
We try to sit still and all we can think about is what we have to do, whether we remembered to file our taxes, whether we remembered to tell the kids to do their homework, whether we promised a friend we'd call her back today. Not long ago, I tried this meditation technique where you imagine a 24-second digital clock - like they have at a basketball game. The objective is to visualize the 24 second clock, and completely wipe your mind clear of any other intervening thought. The number 24. Nothing else. Then, very slowly, you decrease to 23, thinking of nothing but the number. Then 22 . . . 21 . . . 20 . . . all the way down to zero. The catch is, if even for a fraction of a second, your thoughts travel to anything but the number (like a sound in the room, your comfort level, your sister's annoying phone message, your shopping list, etc.), you have to start over at 24.
Sounds easy, doesn't it? If you have as much life stimulation as I do, it can take many tries! If you can slowly and quietly go from 24 down to zero, thinking of nothing but the number, with no intervening thoughts, you will theoretically have a reached a state of meditative relaxation.
Have you ever forgotten what you were going to say . . . as it's coming out of your mouth? ;-)
More monkey business
Most of my online research refers to "taming" the monkey, and I don't know, something about that sounds wrong. ;-) But I get it - I intuitively know that part of emotional intelligence is paying attention to our thoughts and actions, and acting with deliberate intent. Not letting our thoughts take hold of us, but observing them, and choosing to hold or release a thought and let it go if it feeds the chatter, instead of our peace.
I write to reduce the chatter. Writing focuses my energies - it channels my thoughts in a direction of my choosing. I can alter and direct my moods by what I introduce and feed my mind. William James (1842-1910), the famous psychologist and philosopher (and brother of novelist Henry James), said "the greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his state of mind." In James Allen's 1902 book, As A Man Thinketh, he writes, "Just as a gardener cultivates his plot, keeping it free from weeds, and growing the flowers and fruits which he requires, so may a man tend the garden of his mind, weeding out the wrong, useless and impure thoughts, and cultivating toward perfection the flowers and fruits of right, useful and pure thoughts. By pursuing this process, a man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life."
I'm not going to let this mindless chatter dominate me. There are so many amazing things on which I can focus my attention - my kids, my family, my lover. It's an amazing ride we're on, and we can choose to push our way through it kicking and screaming, writhing in pain, acting with superficiality or with integrity and authenticity. We can bring others down or try our best to brighten their lives in some small but meaningful way. We can laugh at circumstances and ourselves. We're not monkeys, though we may sometimes feel that way.
William James also said, "we don't laugh because we're happy. We're happy because we laugh."
And I intend to.
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