Monkey Mind, interrupted.

by Paul Raworth Bennett

Recently, highly stressful events in my personal life have made me want to improve my relationship with my own mind.  Yep, that’s right – between me and my own mind.

For much of my life, my mind has gone by the name “Monkey Mind”, and he’s played some nasty tricks in my career, my personal relationships, and in other key areas of my life.  Also known as “Restless Mind” or “Distracted Mind”, Monkey Mind is stealthy and he definitely punches above his weight, but the truth is he’s actually a bit of a coward.  Born in my subconscious and raised in my thoughts, Monkey Mind enjoys nothing more for dinner than a stressburger, with a side order of negative emotions, washed down by copious amounts of denial.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all live with Monkey Mind.  Even enlightened Buddhist monks need to put him in his place because although we can subdue him, nobody can chase him away for good.

Monkey Mind is a chameleon whose visits are completely unpredictable and whose strength varies enormously.  At his mildest, he gently blows on the sails of our consciousness such that our mind drifts off course without our even knowing it.  When he’s feeling a bit more churlish, Monkey Mind can shove us back towards rumination or hurl us forward into anxiety.  And when he’s at his nastiest, Monkey Mind’s hoots and screeches can our throw our thoughts into a roiling, chaotic sea.

Regardless of the intensity, Monkey Mind’s basic desire is to rob us of the precious gift known as conscious awareness.

In order to subdue Monkey Mind, I’ve recently started attending a weekly local meditation group.  Over about a half-dozen sessions, I’ve enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, the peace and quiet, and the people I’ve gotten to know.  But that tenacious little beast has played a mean-spirited game by serving up thoughts such as “Am I meditating correctly?”, “What should I be feeling right now?”, and “Nothing’s happening; am I wasting my time here? ”

So thus far, thanks in part to Monkey Mind, I’ve experienced limited therapeutic benefit from meditating.  But as meditation is all about letting go of one’s thoughts, I’ve realized that there’s no need to search for its benefits because the very act of doing that only chases them further away.

Last night, something unexpected happened.  As usual, we met in a nearby church, discussed a couple of meditation concepts, and did a few exercises (which sounds kind of ironic, because the most common form of meditation has you just sitting there, doing nothing).  Once again, the get-together was pleasant and relaxing.  But it wasn’t as if anything in my mind had really changed.

As I started to drive home I immediately started to lose myself in thoughts such as how long would it take me to get home, should I speed up to try and get through that green light up ahead, where should I stop for gas, and so on.  Thinking “enough is enough!” I pulled over, got out of the car, pried Monkey Mind off my head (his favorite roost, unfortunately), shoved him into the back seat, threw him a few bananas, and resolved to just ignore him for awhile.

After getting back in the driver’s seat, I decided to practice a little mindfulness, which is a type of meditation that’s well-suited for when you’re “doing stuff” as opposed to just “sitting”.  In this case, mindfulness meant simply focusing on the experience of safely driving the car.

As I resumed my journey, I attended to things like the feeling of the steering wheel in my hands… the sound and vibration of the motor… the smooth and precise shifting… my feet on the pedals… the smell of the fresh evening air… the visual menagerie of red and white lights… and how it felt to be just calmly rolling along.

Within just a couple of minutes I became infused by subtle feelings, of peace and serenity, that I’d never experienced before.  I stopped thinking about the time, the traffic, the other cars, and where I’d stop for gas.  Thoughts would arise, I would notice them, and then they would just drift away.

I even had a visceral sensation of being somehow joined to the other drivers who were travelling in the same direction as me – behind me, ahead of me, changing lanes in front of me, whatever.  One car looked to be about six feet behind my bumper.  Normally this would irritate me, but this time the feeling of being annoyed didn’t even appear.

Amazingly, even though I was definitely in an altered state I was fully alert, responsive, and in control of the car.  The sensations somehow combined and carried me to a new place that I want visit again, and again, and again.  As a matter of fact, I’d like to move to that place, where the resident spirits will give you your very own home for free.

Hearing the sound of gentle snoring, I peeked quickly at the back seat.  There was Monkey Mind out cold, lying flat on his stomach, clutching a half-eaten banana in his left hand, looking like he’d gone waaay over the legal limit for banana smoothies.

So I finished the drive home and went to bed, leaving Monkey Mind to sleep it off in the car.  And I realized that although he’s devious, he’s no match for mindfulness.


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