Monkeys, Do Your Thing

by Dan Nussbaum

In my practice I ordinarily sit with an attitude of interest towards thinking. Since the fantasy that my thinking will suddenly disappear doesn’t captivate me anymore,  I might as well let in my thoughts to find out what they have to say.

Less welcoming views of thinking tend to dominate the culture of meditation. A popular one compares thinking to rebellious monkeys cavorting in our brains or as one self-help teacher prefers “King Kong crashing through the jungle on amphetamines.” There’s a blogger who disturbingly casts most thinking as pathology, diagnosing monkey mind as “a debilitating disease.” A famous writer defines the condition as “thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” They want us to know, it’s a jungle in there.

I get this. Noisy beasts have probably run freely in the minds of almost everyone who has meditated. It’s not just the dissonance. Thoughts come entwined with impatience, irritation, shame, regret, anger, bitterness, envy, grief, humiliation, boredom. Logically, if meditation is about inner peace, then strategies to cope with unsettled thinking need to be learned and applied. Or so the party line goes. I say we might begin by looking more closely at the language that’s used. Intolerance of thinking arises with the idea that mental activity is just “random shit that irritates me.”  That, after all, is the message the term “monkey mind” carries.

Still, many people want meditation to give them the ability to get their minds to obey. But the concurrent notion that an array of meditation techniques will lead to an abiding stillness needn’t be accepted as gospel. If someone has guilty memories about the care he was able to give his mother when she was dying, he can order his mind to hush for decades without finding out anything about why accusing thoughts keep returning. Eventually he might become skilled at keeping the troubling thoughts at bay, thereby depriving himself of the chance of feeling what needs to be felt and knowing what needs to be known.

It’s not monkey mind. It’s you telling you something urgent.

A meditator might object, “I’m perfectly willing to sit with grief, shame or anything significant when it comes up in sitting. What doesn’t seem useful at all is the chattering that goes on about nothing important.”

A period of thinking about deadlines, shopping lists and commuter schedules often seems like chatter because the rules say that those concerns don’t belong in meditation. It’s rules that make some thoughts or all thoughts unacceptable, not some higher truth that a few minutes of “celery, nuts, eggs, baking soda, and Bulgarian feta” marks a mind as inferior.  Even when thinking truly seems too trivial to put up with, the phenomenon itself may be a diversion that keeps a meditator away from more difficult thinking.  Someone spending most of a retreat listening to all the songs on the Thriller album playing in her mind may be pushed in this direction because she’s mad at her kids. The content of the self-singing may be trivial and undoubtedly hard to endure but what it’s about isn’t at all trivial.

Meditation students who faithfully follow instructions to get the mind quiet can also miss out on an interesting eventuality. Thinking usually changes on its own when not interfered with. Strategies to calm the mind aren’t even needed.

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