What is Monkey Mind?

“When we enter a space such as the zendo that is plain, silent and open, this wild monkey mind may seem louder and fiercer. That is not the case, however. It’s just that now, with the distractions gone, we can hear and realize what has been going on all along. The doors of awareness are opening a little. We may be amazed at what we find.”
- Brenda Shoshanna PH.D., Zen and the Art of Falling in Love (pg.23).

Many of you believe that I am so creatively inclined as to have invented the magnificent doctrine of the “monkey mind.” Sadly, I am not. The term “monkey mind” comes from Buddhist meditation.

Monkeying around at the Bronx Zoo's Ape House.
Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, the closest my sister, Nikki, and I came to religion* was attending friends’ bar or bat mitzvahs. We’re children of psychologically minded parents (a psychologist and a social worker), who, according to Mom, believe in “the good of people.” For this reason, Nikki and I often turned to horoscopes for guidance. Or, if not the stars, then the spirit world. By the time I turned fifteen, our family’s lack of religion brought me to Buddhism.

Time warp to ten years ago. My first formal introduction to Buddhism took place in a high school classroom. Perhaps I grew to love reading and writing precisely because English classes and their teachers/professors introduced me to so many profound and powerful ideas about people and life. After all, without classes focused on psychology and human relationships, how else can we learn to understand and treat one another?

But back to monkeys. Steve Bender taught some truly interesting classes at The Dalton School. From post-modernism to Buddhism, he got his classrooms interested in English lit. Before each class we would sit around our communal seminar table with our eyes half-closed and breathe and listen to the outward rushes of air and meditate. It calmed our monkey minds right down. As I learned, “monkey mind” was the constant stream of thoughts, songs, perceptions, reflections, and criticisms that ran internally throughout the day. As Brenda Shoshanna PH.D. explains in Zen and the Art of Falling in Love, “Our monkey mind loves to dwell upon and intensify difficulties of all kinds. It reacts to everything impulsively and thrives on endless chatter and mental machinations. Our monkey mind is not willing to let pain and difficulties subside easily and give up its fuel. The monkey mind actually enjoys and seeks these poisons as if they were honey itself” (pg. 142).

Sound like ADD or ADHD to you? This is precisely what I experience when I’m in my most hyper and inattentive state. This is what I mean when I reference “monkey mind.” While I don’t necessarily view these monkey thoughts as poisonous, they are hurdles to the intense quiet necessary for focused attention. Fortunately, my early introduction to Buddhism and this principle coincided with my diagnosis with ADHD, thus promoting my understanding of my hyperactive mind and subsequent coping mechanisms.

Having explained the Monkey Mind, I admit that I often neglect to calm it. While I admire Buddhism’s practices, as with every philosophy or religion, you have to discriminate which principles you act upon (and when) and which you don’t. I love letting my monkey mind take its course. Be hyperactive. Dance with friends. Let creative streams-of-thought take you to magical lands where you can invent or read or write or paint or wonder. But occasionally, when the situation calls for it, toys must be put away and your inner monkey must be tempered.

*A word on religion. Although I don’t consider myself a religious person, I frequently wonder at the world we live in. If the earth was not created by a divine hand, then it was reared by natural magic that has been strained by our collective negligence. The earth does not care if we destroy its life forms or our ozone layer, human nostalgia and our species’ possible futures make these losses painful. The way I hope to live is by recognizing and cultivating the world’s offerings be they in an apple or a grain of sand. So there’s my hippie wisdom for the day.

All tuckered out.

I’ll leave you with four of my favorite lines from William Blake, on innocence and wonder:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
-William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence” (ll.1-4).