I first heard the term “monkey mind” when I was speaking to the late John Daido Loori Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery. https://zmm.org/ I was there for a weekend retreat. I wasn’t brand new to Zen Buddhism but I was new to the idea of formal study at a monastery.
It was a weekend of zazen meditation, liturgy, and work practice. I only learned later that the early experiences I had with zazen (literally “seated meditation”) were of the Japanese Rinzai school, which included the study of koans. The approach at ZMM was closer to the Sōtō School without koans and where the mind has no object at all. A name for that approach is shikantaza which unlike other forms of meditation does not require focused attention on a specific object. I had been taught to focus on my breath, but now I was trying to empty my mind and just sitting in a state of conscious awareness.
But I had a lot of trouble emptying my mind. I know people who have never done meditation find it hard to understand the difficulty in emptying your mind. It’s not daydreaming or just sitting stupidly. Thinking about emptying thoughts is, of course, another thought.
In my private talk with Daido Roshi, I told him what I was feeling sitting there on my zabuton. He replied, “You have a monkey mind. Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch.”
I thought it was his term, but it is a widely used and old description for restless, confused, chaotic thoughts. It shows up in Buddhist writings and was adopted in Taoism, Neo-Confucianism, and in poetry, drama, and literature.
My monkey mind exists outside of mediation. When I can’t get to sleep at night the monkey is very active. If you have ever experienced that feeling, you know that quieting the monkey is very difficult.
My ability to focus, which is connected to the ability to clear the mind, has decreased over the years, and so I feel the need to get back to trying to control the monkey in my head.
It may not be the recommended method but the way that helped me in meditation was to give in and let the monkey and my mind play. I allowed my mind a chance to be heard and free. I recognized each thought. And then I let each go away.
I was immediately drawn to kinhin, the walking meditation that is practiced between the long periods of the sitting meditation known as a sesshin. I found the break out into nature very helpful. You would think that the sights and sounds of the world outside – bird songs, the wind through the trees, the sound of a small creek or rainfall – would all be additional distractions for me and attractions for the monkey. It doesn’t. In fact, the place where I can most easily clear my mind is a beach.
When monkey mind hit and you’re not meditation – such as when working – meditate. Mindfulness through meditation readjusts your focus. I don’t mean an hourlong session, but rather 5/ 10 or 15 minutes os zazen or kinhin.
I read about it being best to meditate early in the morning and that you need a quiet place and that certain music or scents like lavender will help you find your center. That might be, but one of the attractions of meditation is that it really requires no equipment, special clothing or memberships to practice.