Taming the Monkey Mind

Monkey MindIdeas, thoughts and feelings jump around in our heads all day long — like a monkey in a tree.  Sometimes we are conscious of them, other times not.  Try sitting quietly in a room just counting each inhale and exhale of your breath without loosing track of the count.  How high can you count with out some thought interfering?

Well, it is OK to have a thought come up, but if you follow that thought to the next thought (the monkey jumping to a new branch) then you may loose count of your breaths.  Give it a try (if you haven’t already).  Tell me how you do.

I was challenged to do this counting exercise decades ago.  I thought it would be simple to sit and count breaths for 20 minutes.  After just five minutes of counting, I jumped up very frustrated.  Two years later, a bit more skilled, I could now fall asleep with little effort (which had been a problem for years) and I was much less quick to anger.

This metaphor of taming the monkey mind is common in Buddhism and Yoga where it is used to illustrate how our minds are restless, unsettled, and undisciplined.  Learning to focus the mind is considered a very valuable skill.  Once we can calm ourselves during meditation, it is easier to practice the same focus in our daily activity.  Some people can skip the meditation because they practice this sort of activity in some aspect of their normal daily life.  For instance, I may also practice this when I am swimming laps (usually about 40 laps).  Keeping track of laps without letting thought distract me is very difficult.

But what do you do when a thought comes up.  How do you deal with that thought?  How can you avoid thoughts before they emerge.  There are many ways to work with the thoughts that inevitably bubble up during periods of concentration.  I will talk about a few of them in a coming post.  Taming the monkey mind is considered a starting place in many meditative practices.  For me, it was more than enough for a couple of years — actually, it still is almost all I can handle !


Wiki Article on: Monkey Mind


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

6 responses to “Taming the Monkey Mind

  1. I just tried, and I can apparently do the breathing counting indefinitely. Must come from so many years of meditation and self-hypnosis.

    It’s also why I do rock climbing. You lose all distraction, and it’s just you and the rock, since you would fall off otherwise. Same reason for reading difficult philosophy and economics essays — it forces a sustained level of attention.

  2. Ian

    Awesome, I’m excited to start getting into some of this stuff with you.

    I’ll try this exercise later today.

  3. @ JS Allen
    Did you seriously get to 100? Wow, your concentration skills must be excellent. You are right, rock-climbing, philosophy and economics build concentration immensely. It shows that concentration is only one skill. Zen was also use to train Samurai — not a very lofty goal.

    @ Ian
    Hey bro. Try counting up to 5 or 10 and then repeat. Set slowly to higher number. I will write another little post about dealing with thoughts, but I am curious about the various methods you find naturally in the beginning. Let me know.

  4. Ian

    I managed 19 minutes, or count to 75 before my son did something naughty and my wife shouted, and that broke my concentration.

    Numbers I found pretty simple. I think I’d have managed 100 okay. Unlike previous times I tried, I didn’t fight thoughts, but didn’t allow them to ‘swing’ as you said. The numbers helped that, though I did catch myself factoring them into primes around 30-40.

    All in all quite a good experience, though I still found it quite boring. Is that heretical?

  5. Yeah, I’m sure I could do 500 easy. I think this is related to the post you did about free will being “no”.

    As a kid, I remember challenging other boys to see who could hold out his arm the longest (90 degrees angle from body, horizontal with floor). Nearly everyone gives up within 5 minutes, since the pain gets too distracting and creates a vicious mental cycle. People convince themselves it’s impossible to go more than 5. But if you just tell yourself “no!”, the pain vanishes and you can go for an hour. The mind is a whiny little bitch and will nag you to death unless you’re firm with it.

    So I theorize that once you hit 101, it becomes a lot easier, since you will have broken through the artificial psychological barrier.

    This also reminds me of your post about earworms (little musical snips). In periods of my life when I was suffering from debilitating and painful injuries, or severe withdrawal from different substance dependencies, I remember time taking on a tremendously narrow focus (after one injury, I found it was very rewarding to count time by seconds, then minutes). I definitely remember counting breaths in some of those times. The interesting part is that it becomes easy because you are so distracted by pain. The pain erases any ability to think about tomorrow or next week, so it is just you and the breath. Any repetitive boring thing can become affixed in your mind, which is why earworms are more common when people are under physical stress. Sometimes I think this is why folks like John the Baptist would go wander in the desert.

  6. Andrew

    “I still found it quite boring.” – Ian

    This made me laugh. I often wonder if transcendence, or heaven, or any goalpost, is really as exciting as we are lead to believe.🙂

    “The mind is a whiny little bitch and will nag you to death unless you’re firm with it.” – JS

    Great line. To steal a line from Homer: A [the mind]! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!

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