How to Tame a Monkey Mind

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

monkey 2

Within Buddhism, the term ‘monkey mind’ is sometimes used to describe people that have very unsettled minds. If you have a monkey mind, it basically means that just like a naughty monkey, your mind constantly jumps from one thing to another and only very rarely does it actually settle down. People with monkey minds might be engaged in some kind of task or conversation, but they quickly succumb to boredom and their mind begins to wander off again. The monkey mind condition normally becomes apparent to people when they start learning meditation. Indeed, people that are new to meditation frequently experience great difficulty in holding their concentration on a single meditative object (such as the natural flow of their in-breath and out-breath). We are not aware of any empirical research that has attempted to quantify the prevalence of the monkey mind condition, but we would estimate that most people would admit to having experienced monkey-mindedness to a greater or lesser extent.

In general, people with a more severe form of monkey-mindedness are quite easy to spot because in addition to being mentally restless, they are invariably also very physically restless. Of course, there can be many reasons – including medical ones – that may influence the degree of physical unrest that a person exhibits. However, generally speaking and based on our experience, if a person finds it difficult to sit still and always has to be doing something, then this is a sign that they may be afflicted by monkey-mindedness. Another good indicator of monkey-mindedness is when an individual is following a certain line of dialogue or conversation and they suddenly go off on tangents and introduce completely-unrelated topics. In fact, we encounter quite a number of people that can thread together what seems to be an endless string of completely-unrelated topics and hold (what they deem to be) a ‘conversation’ for hours on end. Perhaps the monkey in the mind of people like this is bigger than the average-sized monkey or perhaps it is just particularly naughty and restless – who knows?

Although monkey-mindedness often reveals itself through an individual’s physical demeanour and comportment, some people try to conceal their monkey mind. For example, as part of our vocation as Buddhist monks, we have been present at or facilitated a large number of meditation retreats, and as with most of life’s pursuits, there is a tendency for people at meditation retreats to try to give the impression that they are very experienced and/or are much more accomplished than everybody else. You would probably be surprised at the lengths that some people go to in order to convince others that they are a ‘serious’ meditator. Indeed, some people sit in what they believe is meditation for hours on end without flinching or moving a muscle, and whilst keeping a very solemn expression on their face. For people who are new to meditation, seeing others behave like this can actually be quite intimidating – we’re not sure that it creates a hostile environment but it certainly doesn’t help people to feel welcome and at ease.

Despite their attempts to convince people otherwise, you only need to observe these ‘serious meditators’ when they get up and leave the meditation hall to see that their mind is far from disciplined and serene. Because such people are more interested in giving the impression of practising meditation rather than actually practising it, then it doesn’t take long before the ego-monkey in their mind reveals itself and does or says something that is selfish and/or hurtful to others. In fact, on several separate occasions, we have observed a meditator sitting very seriously, but due to trying to supress or ignore their monkey mind, they allow psychological pressure to build-up. The next thing that happens is they suddenly can’t take it anymore and they end up rushing out of the meditation hall.

The wisdom and lesson that can be learned from the above example of the overly-serious meditator is that if we try to ignore or supress the monkey mind, it can lead to both internal and external conflict. The same thing happens if we are too rigid and serious in our efforts to tame the monkey within. In other words, in order to begin taming the monkey mind, in addition to a certain degree of meditative-technical knowhow, we need a great deal of patience, gentleness, perseverance, and a good sense of humour.

If we understand that on the one hand, taming the monkey mind requires lots of effort and is arguably the most important thing we will ever do in our lives, but on the other hand personal and spiritual growth takes time and cannot be forced, then we create the optimum frame of mind for enjoying the process of transforming unwholesome habits and for progressing along the path of awareness. In order to tame the monkey mind, we need to become aware of its undisciplined nature but in a manner that keeps things light, spacious, and airy. As we discussed in our post on ‘the absorbing mind’, the simple act of observing and becoming aware of our thoughts and mental processes helps to objectify them and to loosen their hold over us. However, if we try to watch our thoughts and feelings too intensely then despite our efforts to do the opposite, we end up giving them too much power and importance.

Therefore, when we practice awareness of our thoughts and of our mental processes, we should do so with a very big and generous mind. This means that we accept the mind as it is and that we don’t try to manipulate it. If the mind is particularly wild and out of control that’s absolutely fine – all we do in this situation is take the unruly mind itself as the object of our awareness. In effect, what we are doing is setting the mind free within the field of our awareness. Because we are not holding onto the mind or offering it resistance by trying to keep it under control, it has no alternative but to begin to calm and settle. Believe it or not, attempting to modify the mind actually runs contrary to the general principle of meditation which is that tranquillity and wisdom are naturally present in the mind and will arise of their own accord when the correct conditions come about. One of these ‘correct conditions’ is simply observing and nourishing the mind through meditative awareness. A metaphor that we have used previously to help explain this principle is that of a garden fish pond – every time the garden pond is stirred or interfered with, the water becomes muddy and unsettled. However, if a person sits quietly next to the pond and simply observes it, the water becomes perfectly still and clear again.

The monkey mind will remain a monkey mind for as long as we choose not to tame it. We might decide that we don’t have a monkey mind or that we do have one but that it doesn’t need to be changed. However, if we are being truthful with ourselves and if we examine the mind closely, unless we are already very spiritually enlightened, then we are likely to see that it is only very rarely (if at all) that we experience true peace of mind. Indeed, irrespective of whether or not we are aware of the wild nature of our minds, having a mind that is always racing around – constantly jumping to and fro between the past and the future – eventually causes us to become physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. In fact, it is our personal view that a lot of mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, and depression arise because people have very unruly minds and are without the knowledge of how to properly tend to their thoughts and feelings. However, it is also our view that by practising full awareness of all of our thoughts and mind movements, we can begin to take care of our monkey mind until it gradually learns to sit in perfect stillness and quiet.

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Simply Being With Nothing to Be: A Commentary

Simply Being With Nothing to Be: A Commentary

Simply being

Over the course of the last six months or so, we have been gradually populating the ‘Spiritual Songs and Poems’ section of this blog. Included in the ‘Spiritual Songs and Poems’ section are what in Buddhist language are known as ‘vajragitis’. Vajragiti is a Sanskrit term that comprises the word vajra which means ‘indestructible’ or ‘diamond’ and the word ‘giti’ which means song. So the vajragiti is a form of ‘diamond song’ that can be used to transmit what are often very profound and essence tantric teachings. Within certain Buddhist traditions, and as is the case with the vajragitis composed by ourselves, these songs often reflect the spontaneous expression of a person’s understanding or realization in relation to an aspect of the spiritual path. Given that such transmissions are generally intended to be digested at the intuitive rather than the ‘academic’ level, their intended meaning may not always be apparent. Accordingly, and in response to a number of requests we have received for further elucidation in relation to several of our own vajragitis, today’s post takes the form of a commentary upon the four-verse vajragiti called ‘Simply Being with Nothing to Be’. The full 16-line vajragiti is presented first followed by a commentary on a verse by verse basis.

 

Simply Being with Nothing to Be

 

Nowhere to go, nothing to do
No reputation to build, none to defend
No possessions to amass, none to protect
This is fearlessness born of Apranihita.

Simply here, simply now
Simply birth, simply death
Simply content, simply aware
Simply abiding, simply being.

 

No space, no time,
So no here, no now.
No self, no other,
So no attachment, no aversion.

 

Letting go with nothing to let go of
Practice with no path to walk
Simply being with nothing to be
This is the all-pervading wisdom of Dharmadhatu.

 

Commentary

 

Nowhere to go, nothing to do
No reputation to build, none to defend
No possessions to amass, none to protect
This is fearlessness born of Apranihita.

The first verse of this vajragiti is concerned with renunciation. In order to enter the spiritual path we need to renounce unskilful paths. Renunciation of unskilful attitudes and behaviours is therefore a prerequisite for entry onto the spiritual path. Many people believe that spiritual renunciation means forgetting about the world and everything we know. However, this represents a mistaken understanding because rather than forgetting about or turning one’s back on the world, true spiritual renunciation means completely surrendering oneself to, and becoming fully immersed in, the world. In order to surrender ourselves to the world we have to let go of all our attachments and all our aversions. We have to let go of hope and fear. If we harbour hopes then we leave ourselves exposed to suffering. Hope means that we are not content with the present moment and that we wish to try and change it. However, the only way to really change the present moment is to immerse ourselves fully in it – hope stops us from doing this. If we have hope, then we automatically have fear. We are fearful that our hopes will not be realized. Many people think that in order to be happy they need hope. But this kind of happiness is very conditional and is reliant upon the presence of external factors.

When we completely surrender ourselves to the world, and when we completely surrender ourselves to ourselves, then life becomes much less of a struggle and grind. When we renounce the path of always wanting to be somewhere else, be someone else, or have something else, then deep spiritual peace can take root in our mind. It is at this point that we can make the present moment our home. There is nowhere else we need to be and there is nothing else we need to do. If we have a good reputation, that’s just great but if we don’t then that’s great too. It really doesn’t matter. The same applies to material possessions and wealth – if we have them then it’s really marvellous and we can enjoy them – but if we don’t have them it’s just the same. Because we are not attached to things like wealth, career, or reputation, then we don’t have to spend all our energy being stressed and worried about these things. A lot of people are so caught up with these things that they never get to know who they really are, and before they know it they are old, at death’s door, and full of regret at having allowed their life to fly by meaninglessly.

It is letting go of our attachments that allows us to truly experience spiritual freedom and taste what it means to abide in fearlessness. This newfound fearlessness is completely unconditional and even extends to concerns such as death. We experience the spiritual fruit of fearlessness because we have absolute contentedness and are totally without desires. The Sanskrit word for ‘desirelessness’ is ‘apranihita’ – it means we have renounced worldly ways to such an extent that if need be, we are actually free to wholeheartedly engage in so-called worldly activities.

 

Simply here, simply now
Simply birth, simply death
Simply content, simply aware
Simply abiding, simply being.

 

Being without fear and desire means that the mind is left with no alternative other than to dwell in the here and now. There is nowhere else it can go and nowhere else it would rather be. There is nothing left for the mind to do other than be present with itself and with the unfolding present moment. From the state of authentic renunciation, we can sit with total contentedness at the centre of all universes and observe the birth and death, the becoming and dissolving of all phenomena. We can observe the beings who are born and who pass away – one moment they are present but the next moment they are gone. One moment they are happy but the next moment sad. One moment they are in the company of friends and family but the next moment they are all alone. We see that beings come and go, planets come and go, and even the universes come and go. We observe the passing of time and the passing of space. Ah la la, what joy to abide in the present moment!

 

No space, no time,
So no here, no now.
No self, no other,
So no attachment, no aversion.

 

Although being able to maintain an unbroken flow of present moment awareness means that we can truly taste great spiritual peace, there are still subtle levels of ignorance and attachment associated with the state. So the third verse of this vajragiti is where we completely leave behind and transcend relative concepts such as the present moment. This is where we fully realise that time and space are nothing other than man-made concepts, and that consequently, there can’t exist a here and now. It is also where we fully understand that ‘self’ and ‘other’ are also concepts born of ignorance, and that accordingly, even notions such as attachment and aversion must be rejected. The mind that transcends notions such as attachment and aversion dwells in total equanimity and sees the all as one. At this point, all things are equalised in the expanse of unconditioned truth. There is no good and there is no bad. There is no self and there is no other. There is also no non-self.

 

Letting go with nothing to let go of
Practice with no path to walk
Simply being with nothing to be
This is the all-pervading wisdom of Dharmadhatu.

 

Having transcended all concepts including that of a spiritual path, we can enter the path of no-path. This is where we realise that there never was a path to walk, nor was there a fruit to obtain. It dawns on us that, all along, we were the Buddha, that every sensory object we have ever experienced was the Dharma, and that every being we have ever met was the Sangha. We understand that the only thing that kept us from experiencing this was our own mind, and that we only need undergo the slightest shift in perception in order to become a fully-enlightened Buddha.

When we try to let go, we see that there is nothing to let go of, and nobody to let go of it. This is because an inseparable part of the whole can’t let go of the whole – however much it tries the wave can never separate itself from the ocean. When we try to practice we see that there is no path to walk – we already are the path. And even if we let go and just try to ‘simply be’, we see that ‘simply being’ also constitutes an implausible concept. We find ourselves with no alternative other than to relax into the all-pervading wisdom of ‘Dharmadhatu’. The Sanskrit word ‘Dharmadhatu’ means the realm of truth or the realm of unconditioned truth. By simply being with nothing to be, not only do we enter the realm of unconditioned truth, but we actually become it. Our awareness pervades the entirety of existence and becomes the very fabric of reality. There is no more action and nothing left to do. Compassionate activity manifests effortlessly wherever there are suffering beings. Finally, we have returned home.

 

 

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Gampopa. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Khyentse, D. (2007). The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Sogyal Rinpoche. (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.

Trungpa, C. (2002). Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala.

Tsong-Kha-pa. (2004). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Vol. 1). (J. W. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & The Lamrim Chenmo Translation committee, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Urgyen Rinpoche. (1995). Rainbow painting. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications.