WHO HAS TRIED TO MEDITATE has experienced the phenomenon
called monkey mind. It goes like this:
begin your meditation by resolving to pay attention
to something: to your breath, to a phrase, to the sense
of being. Or
maybe you resolve to simply relax and let things happen
while you watch.
five or ten seconds, things go swimmingly.
next thing you know, it's five minutes later and you
realize with a start (it feels a little like waking
up from a dream) that your mind has been wandering for
the past four minutes and fifty seconds without your
having been aware of it.
called monkey mind because monkeys like to jump around
and grab things. Your mind likes to grab things too
memories, wishes, worries, etc. and there's
nothing you can do to stop it because you don't notice
it happening until long afterward.
mind is discouraging for beginners. Having a mind that
keeps jumping around is bad enough, but even worse,
you can't keep track of where it has jumped to because
the part of your mind that wants to keep track is jumping
readers may object here, "Wait a minute. Monkey
mind isn't a problem. You can let the mind jump around
as much as it wants. All you have to do is watch it."
sounds good, but it doesn't work, because monkey mind
makes you forget that you intended to watch.
is no easy escape from monkey mind. It affects every
form of meditation.
often picture monkey mind as the quick alternation of
mental objects in front of a constant viewer. This is
misleading. There is no constant viewer, but only a
mental construct of a viewer built in large part of
intentions and resolutions. These intentions and resolutions
keep alternating just like the thing you are trying
to think about. This is what makes monkey mind so damn
annoying: the you who wants to meditate keeps
vanishing every few seconds or minutes.
other words, monkey mind is really a name for the fact
that you can't remember to pay attention.
traditional fix for monkey mind is to keep meditating
a lot; eventually the mind quiets down. This works for
the relatively small group of people who persist heroically
for years, but what about the larger group of people
who give up in the early stages?
this article, I'll try to come up with a more practical
solution. I'll begin by pointing out certain patterns
you can notice in the way your mind jumps around. This
will give you something fixed to hold onto in the disorienting
maelstrom of your mind's activity. As you observe those
patterns, monkey mind will diminish.
in this article is based on my own experience. I think
most of it can potentially apply to you too, but I can't
be sure of that.
Two Mental Modes
begin with the most obvious thing. Your mind fluctuates
between two apparent modes or states while you are trying
to meditate. I described this process at the beginning
of this article.
first mode is the one you're in while you are remembering
to pay attention. I'll call this state "Mode A"
because in this mode, you are aware of what your
attention is directed toward.
The other mode is the one you suddenly snap out of
when you notice that your attention has wandered. At
the moment you snap out, you are re-entering Mode A,
but in between, while your mind was wandering, you were
in a different mode. This second mode is the one in
which most people spend most of their waking hours;
it's plain old normal consciousness.
We could call this second state Mode N for normal or
Mode D for daydream or Mode F for forgetful, but instead
I'll call it Mode T. The T stands for both "task"
and "train of thought." You'll see why I choose
this name in a moment.
The first step in taming monkey mind is to observe
these two states closely and try to see what causes
you to switch from Mode A to Mode T. (If you could stay
in Mode A indefinitely, you would quickly sink into
the deepest states of meditation.)
As soon as we try to observe these states, we discover
the first big difference between them. We cannot
observe Mode T. We can remember it right after we snap
out of it, but we can't examine it while it's happening.
If you are looking at your mental state, you are in
Kinds of Thoughts
The second important thing to notice about these modes
is that different kinds of thoughts occur in them.
In Mode A, the mind is generally quiet, but every now
and then a thought erupts. You see it bubble up from
the quiet as if you are outside the thought watching
it. Each thought is unconnected to anything before or
after it. There is no chain of thoughts. Often the thought
is an old memory of an event or a dream. As you sit
back and watch these thoughts emerge, you often wonder,
"Where the hell did that memory come from?"
Mode A thoughts are like a deck of cards spread face
down on a table. From time to time, one turns face up
for no apparent reason. There is no rhyme or reason
to it. You glimpse it briefly, then it turns face down
again. (If you start looking for a rhyme or reason,
you will put yourself into Mode T.)
Here are some examples of Mode A thoughts:
- the image of the face of a child who was in your
- the memory of walking in the woods on a vacation
twelve years ago;
- a scene from a dream you suddenly realize you have
had many times, but never previously remembered.
In Mode T, the mind is noisy. In fact, Mode T is the
incessant production of thoughts. But the thoughts are
different from those of Mode A. You feel like you are
inside them, like you are thinking them in an active
engaged way, not merely watching them from outside.
They come in chains, in linked series which follow naturally
one after each other. There is a sense that you are
actively searching for the next link in the chain in
pursuit of some goal. Unlike Mode A thoughts, they tend
to repeat themselve over and over with variations..
But the most striking difference between the two types
of thoughts is their subjects. Mode A thoughts are isolated
fragments of memory. They have no apparent meaning.
But Mode T thoughts are almost always oriented toward
some easily recognized task or purpose. Most often this
purpose is to alter your mood or display a scenario
for the judging faculty of your mind to evaluate.
Here are some examples of Mode T thoughts:
- imagining some situation which is gratifying or
- rehearsing what you will say in a conversation you
are planning to have;
- replaying a conversation you already had and bathing
in the emotions it evokes;
- picturing the intended results of an action you
are carrying out;
- constructing a sexually exciting fantasy while masturbating.
main goal of all meditation technique is to stay in
Mode A continuously for as long as possible. This causes
the mind to enter an altered state which is true meditation.
key to staying in Mode A is to avoid slipping back into
is all you have to do to.
Okay, this kind of theoretical discussion is fun, but
what really counts is experience. So let's get some.
The first step is to learn to recognize
Virtually every known form of meditation is a technique
for entering Mode A. Theravada's vipassana, Gurdjieff's
self-remembering, Ramana's self-enquiry they
all put you in Mode A.
copyright 2000 Freddie Yam.
Illustration of a squirrel monkey by George Louis le
Clerc Buffon from The Natural History of Monkeys
by Sir William Jardine first published in 1833.
Yam started meditating about thirty years ago. He writes
frequently for this website.