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Mindful Thoughts

Monkey Mind

By January 14, 2010One Comment

In the fall, one of my colleagues in the philosophy department brought to campus a Tibetan lama, of the Bon tradition, which you’ll excuse me for summarizing, is kind of like Tibetan Buddhism, but also different. I claim no expertise, and though the lama talked quite a bit about Bon, what I remember most from his talk was the way he described our minds, and here by “our” I mean us, humanity. The whole lot of us. Our minds are like monkeys, he said. We have monkey minds. He said this with the same good grace and humor with which he said most everything, playing with his prayer beads all the while, looking out at his audience with benign amusement. I think this is probably a good way to look out at the world. With benign amusement.

What a terribly useful way to think about our minds, as if they were monkeys. Chattering incessantly, in constant motion, easily distracted, agile, mischievous, and yes, even liable to throw poo at any given moment, a la Madagascar (“If you have any poo, throw it now!”). I have tried my hand at meditation on and off for several years now, and initially understood my purpose to be the emptying of my mind. I was to attempt to think of nothing. As a teacher, you suspect this should be easy, because your students appear to be doing it almost all the time, but thinking of nothing is very, very hard. I would count my breaths, attempting to get to ten without having thought of anything but my breath. And then I would fail and begin again at one, and at the end, feel as if I had meditated mostly on my inability to get to ten. Well, who knows where I got these ideas, and maybe in principle they’re right. I didn’t feel like I was completely wasting my time.

But then came the monkey mind, and the lama saying that the purpose of meditation is to get to know your monkey mind. And there’s something much more comforting in this. Ah, yes, our minds our monkeys, but like monkeys, it’s not particularly our fault. A monkey is what it is. Your monkey mind just is a monkey mind. It is doing what minds by and large seem apt to do. There’s a cuteness, and harmlessness to the monkey mind (unless you think of the fairly scary monkeys in India that will walk up to you and steal your bottle of 7UP, but that’s another story). You can forgive your monkey mind, offer it a banana. You can imagine looking at your monkey mind with benign amusement. That seems like a good thing.

And if you go with this monkey mind idea, the point of meditation is to sit still for a moment and observe the monkey. What does it do? Where does it go? Where does it direct the poo it’s throwing at any given moment? The point is not to think of nothing, but to attempt to observe your thinking. Eventually, I think even the lama would say the point is also to quiet the monkey mind, but let’s be sensible. First you have to know what it’s up to. This kind of meditation I can do without feeling like a complete failure.

So let me tell you what I have discovered about my particular monkey mind. It’s a mean, mean ass little monkey! The poo this sucker throws is liable to be very stinky and possibly toxic. When my thoughts are flowing, they much more often than I would like flow to bad places. That moment at a dinner party when I said something vaguely stupid or potentially hurtful to someone? My monkey’s built a solid nest right up in that moment. The hurtful thing that someone said to me yesterday, one week ago, two weeks ago, last year? Oh, yeh, my monkey’s camped out right there. If a thought reeks of jealousy, anger, sadness, or loneliness, my monkey is all about it. My monkey mind not only has tread a well-worn path to moments in the past that were ugly; this monkey is creative enough to invent moments that haven’t even happened, but that would definitely suck. Slights that haven’t been committed, people leaving who just showed up, and anger about things that haven’t even happened. My monkey mind, I have to conclude, is kind of demonically mean.

My wise friend Jane, who is not a Tibetan lama (but perhaps should be), said to me the other day, “I don’t understand why people don’t seem to want to be happy.” And I thought, “My god. How simple but utterly true. What on earth is the matter with us?” And I don’t know who I mean by “us” there. I would honestly like to know if other people’s monkey minds are as demonic as mine, or if this might be some kind of special disorder all my own (I suspect not). Do other people’s monkey minds work as hard as mine does to make sure that I’m not happy? And what the hell is that about?

I’ve had conversations before about whether or not people can in fact really ever change in important and meaningful ways. A lot of folks I know will argue not, and especially in the context of relationships. Do not expect the person you’re with to change. This is a dangerous assumption, they’ll tell you. If he’s an asshole now, he always will be. I don’t know if I ever believed that. It seemed to make a kind of sense at the time, but I’m certainly hoping now that it is very possible for people to change. Difficult, perhaps. But definitely possible. The question is, how? There are many paths I suspect, but mine involves imagining a simultaneously fuzzy and scary primate. If you can see what that damn monkey is up to, I believe it must also be possible to stop it. To strive for a kinder and more benevolent monkey. To look at it with benign amusement and then ask the monkey to knock it the fuck off. That’s my hope, at least.

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