MT Musing

Forget the Monkey Mind: Remember this Instead


Mind

As I was making my way through a jungle of thoughts while running on a treadmill at the gym, I mused about a metaphor that’s often applied to the human mind. In meditation circles, the constant chatter of a restless mind is frequently referred to as the “monkey mind”. If you’ve ever observed a monkey in the wild, they can very quickly divert their attention towards every coconut and potential predator on the scene. From the outside, it appears that they’re hyper-distractible. It’s quite possible that they’re very attentive and mindful to what matters, although that’s an issue for neuroscience to explore, which is beyond the scope of this blog. 

At least on the surface, the monkey mind seems like an apt metaphor for the nature of most people’s minds. Even many long-term meditators readily admit that they often experience wild thoughts and distractions in the midst of their meditations. That, of course, does not have to be a problem. 

Body

My curious thought about the monkey mind had to do with forgetting about the monkey mind and instead remembering the ‘monkey body’. When a monkey is taking a break from attending to food sources, potential mates, adversaries, and predators—like most mammals, they become extremely relaxed. Their bodies get limp, and they hang on tree branches like leaves dangling in the wind. So, instead of being overly concerned about the monkey mind in meditation, if you practice with the relaxed presence of a monkey, the monkey mind will often follow suit. 

Breath

In the mindful movement practices of Qigong and Tai Chi, it’s often said that, “Where the body goes, the mind follows”. This translates into a relaxed body creating conditions for the cultivation of a calm mind. And although you really don’t need to forget about the monkey mind, remembering the monkey body can create greater ease in unifying the mind-body through the bridge that connects them—the breath. While many traditional forms of meditation are not concerned about regulating the breath, in the practice of mindful movement, the practitioner intentionally cultivates a breathing process that is long, slow, and deep. Regulating the breath is thought to be easier than regulating the mind or body. And where the breath goes, the body-mind often follows. 

An invitation

In this moment, I invite you to soften your belly and take three to five long, slow, deep breaths. Notice what happens to your body and mind when you do so. Perhaps that monkey is now resting outstretched upon a tree branch. Or maybe they’re refreshed and ready for action!



© 2019 Larry Cammarata, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist and Mindfulness Educator

Mindfulness Travels provides continuing education retreats to inspiring places throughout the world with leaders in the field of mindfulness-based psychology and mindful movement.



Self-criticism and distress: Remember—Everthing is Impermanent


Self-criticism and self-praise are two sides of the same egoic coin that creates identity. What happens when you remove the “self” from the process? The feelings associated with criticism and praise eventually move on without a trace, like passing clouds across a clear sky. Whatever you’re thinking, feeling, or sensing is impermanent. It’s easy to forget that when you’re feeling buoyant and joyful. The trick is to remember impermanence when you’re suffering or in distress, but not as a “trick” to avoid those feelings—avoidance is impermanent too, and creates conditions for a return of storm clouds in one form or another.

Here are two basic ways of dropping the identification associated with self-criticism and distress of any kind: 

Name it for what it is: “Criticism”, without referencing the “self”; the moment you catch your mind looping into self-criticism, silently state, “Criticism is here”. With openness, curiosity, and friendliness, greet it as a visitor and have a relationship with it that doesn’t involve more criticism. Lean into it without analysis, sense its physicality, and stay in contact with whatever elements characterize the experience—cognitive (e.g., thoughts and images), emotional, or physical. This can also be applied to being critical and judgmental of others. In naming the criticism or judgment as such, without analyzing it, you create an objective relationship with it—relinquishing the identity that often gets created when the mind fuses with the story it generates. This creates space between you and your thoughts; it’s analogous to being like the spacious blue sky instead of the gathering storm clouds that obscure the sky. 

The above process can be used with any distressing experience, and is particularly useful with powerful emotions. For example, instead of telling yourself, “I’m angry”, reframe the experience as “Anger is here.” Taking the “I” out of the process softens your identification with the emotion without denying the reality of the emotional experience.

Here is another way of working with distress—this time, without involving the cognitive process of naming it:

Drop any narrative attached to the distress: Drop the stories associated with your upset, which can take the forms of blaming self and others or indulging a narrative that empowers the distress. Focus on your body and breath, moving your attention directly into the sensations within your body. If the sensations are exceeding your ability to be with them, focus your attention outwardly upon an external object (e.g., a sight or sound within your immediate environment) or connect to a place within your body that helps you to stay grounded and connected to your experience (e.g., belly, feet). When you feel sufficiently grounded, return attention to your entire body in a more open, spacious way.  Relax. This body-oriented way of moving through distress can be useful when cognitive labels are elusive or the challenging experience is familiar to you.

The essential steps for this process are:

  1. Drop the story
  2. Focus upon the sensations within your body
  3. Relax

And if you can’t relax, just let yourself be connected to your bodily experience without struggling or trying to change it. If you detach from your story while staying connected to your body, the sensations will eventually change. The paradox is that trying to change what you’re experiencing is likely to interfere with the change that is always naturally occurring. Remember—everything is impermanent. 


© 2019 Larry Cammarata, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist and Mindfulness Educator

Mindfulness Travels provides continuing education retreats to inspiring places throughout the world with leaders in the field of mindfulness-based psychology and mindful movement.


      © L. Cammarata 2019