Have you ever had a friend or loved one ask you, “Where did that come from?” when you said something totally unconnected to a current topic of conversation?
Or, have you ever tried to sit quietly without entertaining any thoughts or feelings, only to find that your mind and heart kept filling up with unbidden emotions? No matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t be mentally still.
Welcome to your “monkey mind!”
In contemplative practice, the monkey mind can also be called the “discursive mind” – that perpetual conversation going on in your head. Your thoughts jump around seemingly out of control and the more energy you spend trying to rein yourself in, the more intense those monkeys seem to be.
The truly tricky thing about this internal dialogue is that it runs constantly like subconscious programming, and most of us aren’t even aware of it. The monkey mind is so much a part of our everyday existence that, like breathing, it just happens over and over again. And, it wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t also routinely shape our responses to life! Rather than creating a response based on what would be the wisest course of action, the monkey mind reacts. This often only adds to problems, misunderstanding, and personal stress.
To help move from reaction to creation, contemplative practices such as meditation work at training the mind. Some kinds of meditative practice, for example, consist only of sitting and calmly noticing each and every thought that crosses the mind. and, then letting each of them go.
Developing mastery over your monkey mind takes time, practice, and a great deal of compassion towards yourself. Called maitri [pronounced “MY-tree”] in Buddhist philosophy, this self-aimed compassion gives you permission to love yourself no matter how crazy your mind is, no matter how hard it is to rein it in, and no matter how long it takes you to do so. Developing maitri is so important in the training of the mind; in fact, it is often the principal focus for those beginning a regular practice of meditation.
You can work on recognising your monkey mind by noticing when you instantly react to something or someone. Having this kind of awareness is great – it is the first step in not giving control of your life to your unconscious programming.
The next step is to love yourself anyway, monkey mind, snap reactions, and all. This is often a harder step than the first; it is also the more rewarding. Because, a well-sculpted maitri progression inevitably expresses itself in positive ways. It not only strengthens your self-esteem, it also broadens your spiritual relationship with the world around you.