In Buddhism, monkey mind is a term used to describe restlessness, that jumble of thoughts that clouds one’s mind and is often hard to untangle. Most meditation practices, all aimed at stilling the mind in order to reach detachment, teach us to focus our mind on one item only for a sustained period of time, be it a mantra, an affirmation, a sound, a color.
Despite my 17 years of on and off meditation practice, I can still fall prey to stupendous cases of monkey mind and, even if, conceptually, I know I should drag my meditation cushion out of the closet and sit on it, I choose to remain tangled in the jumping jacks of my thoughts, none of them particularly helpful, unable to see the tunnel, let alone the light at the end of it.
Tiredness usually plays a part in this process. It all starts innocently enough, a minor annoyance maybe, followed by someone’s unhelpful comment or my version of how things should be and are not and it all snowballs from there. My worst habit is to revel in this momentary darkness, perversely enjoying where it will lead me, invariably to an unkind word, to shutting out those around me or to a generic black mood, unpleasant for anyone unfortunate enough to stand in my path.
Other times it is just an inability to focus. Have you ever tried to follow the inane train of your thoughts? The best way to do it is to actually sit still. It goes something like this:
What shall I have for dinner tonight?
There are some tomatoes on the counter I haven’t used yet
Forgot to call Richard back today
What did he want anyway?
I have plans with Meg tomorrow. Can I fit a work-out in?
All the while interspersing a mantra in between random thoughts to try and reel my mind in. If nothing else, I have learnt to forgive myself. If I could sit in the absence of thoughts for hours at a time, I would be Buddha and look like a female version of Keanu Reeves. For now, I content myself with a few minutes of stillness at a time.
A few days ago, during a particular ferocius episode, I chose to watch with some detachment what was happening to my mind and I observed that it was definitely I, and not outside circumstances, that was creating a chain of endless negative thoughts. Maybe sometimes it’s easier to blame the world at large for the minor unpleasant details of our life, when it would be so much easier to stop at the first annoyance and turn it around on its head, or sever it altogether after dealing with it.
At least, I can now recognize when this happens and know it is temporary – eventually I will apply the brakes and halt my downhill rush. I watch the dogs and how they focus on one thing, and one thing only, at every junction of their day. They make choices and stick with them, they go from chasing a bird wholeheartedly to sensing it’s time for dinner and devote their whole attention to the bowl of food. Funny, I trained them and they learnt some. Now I watch them and I learn more.