A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.
On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.
When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.
I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.
“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”
It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.
Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.
You need the monkey. That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.
How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.
When I’m writing, especially poetry, I let the monkey take me other places.
When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.
Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.