The term “monkey mind” is an appropriate name for the ego.
For most of my life, I lived in this intense, black fog of depression. A big part of the depression was dealing with my monkey mind.
Incessant, irrational thoughts screamed at me, making me feel like I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t competent. I wasn’t a good mother and wife. I didn’t sing or play the piano well enough.
These thoughts were such a part of my everyday experience, I felt adhered to them like bonding cement. All of these thoughts, at the time, seemed quite rational. I thought I was being analytical and growing by agreeing with them. What I didn’t realize was that these messages were rooted in insecurities, not rational, coherent truths.
Gradually, my depression got worse, because the thoughts were so strong, I felt like I was going insane. It was like living in hell. Finally, I went to a psychiatrist, and it was the most amazing experience.
He taught me how to meditate. I had already tried meditation, but was doing it inconsistently, so hadn’t had any results. He insisted I meditate every day. I still wasn’t convinced and did it inconsistently, which frustrated him. But because he seemed to think it was of vital importance, I vowed to meditate every day.
Once I consistently practiced, the monkey mind grew weaker. For the first time in my life—after two to three months of meditating every day—I found some peace. I was amazed and beyond ecstatic.
After those three months, I saw my doctor and told him I didn’t need medicine any longer. He encouraged me to stay on it for a few more months because I was in a transition. After another three months of consistent meditation, I knew that I was surely healed from the depression. I called him, and he agreed to take me off the medicine.
I have been off the medicine for several years now, and I have never felt better. However, I know that meditation was the key to my healing, and I have vowed to myself to keep up my practice. It is so easy for my mind to get stuck in old patterns, so I’m taking steps to make sure that doesn’t happen.
How do we pull away from this intoxicating monkey mind? Here are a few ways to get out of the monkey chatter prison:
1. Just do it, every day. If this is your first experience with meditation, I bet you’re feeling anxious, right? It is okay to feel that way. Some of the nervousness is coming from the monkey mind. The ego hates silence. If we were in the room with a monkey, within minutes, most monkeys would start chattering. To engage with the primate by talking or interacting may stop it for a while. However, if it’s a talkative monkey, it needs something strong to calm it down.
Let’s imagine sitting with the monkey in silence and just being still. The monkey may become upset, even screaming. However, if we sit still and play a simple game with the monkey, the monkey will probably be quiet for a time. Realize that quieting the monkey is a major success, and congratulate yourself.
Imagine what would happen if we stopped that interaction and started talking back to the monkey? It would probably start chattering again. Our monkey mind will chatter to us throughout the day, even with years of meditation practice. Irrational thoughts are part of human nature, but meditation teaches us “mindfulness” to notice the thoughts and disengage.
Through the skill of non-attachment, the thoughts will start dissolving within 30-90 seconds if we don’t feed them. Make a vow to meditate every day.
2. Expect kickback from the monkey. Let’s be clear about one thing: the monkey mind is ruthless. It can be so cunning and convincing that it doesn’t seem irrational. Don’t be fooled. The monkey mind, while clever, is not rational. It does not have discernment.
When you start your practice, it will start feeding you stories like: “You don’t have time to do this, because you have to prepare for your meeting,” and endless other stories to get you off your game. Stay strong and rise above those excuses—identify them as nonsense. No matter what excuse the monkey mind gives you, stay on the cushion!
3. Establish a routine. We are all creatures of habit. Knowing this upfront is important. When we establish a time for an important effort, like exercising or meditation, we are more apt to follow through. When I meditate, I do it at a certain time, usually after I eat breakfast. Sometimes, if I wake up early, I’ll meditate then too. Morning is a great time to meditate, because it will help you start your day with more clarity. Practicing before bed is also a great time, and will help you sleep and, possibly, have more vivid dreams.
Start with five minutes each day, and increase it as you see fit. It is recommended to do two 20-minute sessions per day to get the best results—but do what you can, and throw away any guilt. Any time you are on the cushion, celebrate the effort it took to get you there. After each meditation, I give myself loving-kindness thoughts. I deserve them, and I need them.
4. Plan ahead with a specific meditation. A great mediation for training our monkey is Vipassana meditation. This exercise focuses on the breath. The mind (or our monkey) needs something to occupy it. Count each inhale and exhale as one, and continue that process up to 10 breaths. This will appease the monkey—although, if your monkey is an incessant chatterer like mine was, thoughts and feelings will still come through. That is normal and to be expected.
Calming the mind is a practice. It requires work, every day, to re-train the mind.
Another way to count is by saying “ho” on the inhale and “hum” on the exhale. When our practice becomes consistent, we can learn to be compassionate observers and focus on the chatter. But for now, giving the monkey a task is the most important step in getting the training going.
5. Get educated about sitting positions. There is a reason why meditators choose to sit with legs crossed and hands in certain positions. When the legs are drawn together in a cross-legged, half-lotus or full-lotus position, it encourages the body to draw inward for introspection—but it is also perfectly fine to sit in a chair.
It is a good practice to have your hands placed in a purposeful manner. These hand positions deepen your practice and can help unblock stored energy. There are different positions such as “prayer mudra” (prayer hands) and “gian mudra” (thumb and index finger touching).
6. Get involved in a meditation group. The purpose of getting involved in a group is to further our commitment to meditation. I go to two meditation groups a week, and each is different. The effect this experience has had on me has been subtle, but I’ve noticed that I am more committed to my practice. I’ve made some really wonderful friends from these groups and will continue to meet more wonderful people as I go.
7. Get a spiritual teacher or spiritual coach. Meditation can be scary, because there are often a lot of repressed memories, feelings and thoughts that can be uncomfortable to deal with. However, like Joseph Campbell says, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
Go to the uncomfortable places; it will help you grow. Eventually, the difficult memories and feelings will dissolve.
A good way to deal with these uncomfortable feelings is to have someone help you with your practice. It can be easy to give up when things get hard, but when we experience these tumultuous waves, we are learning about ourselves.
One of the great truths I’ve learned from meditation is that I am not my thoughts, memories or feelings. None of that stuff broke me. In fact, I feel stronger knowing that I came through it, and I can deal with anything.