Our Inexhaustible Chatty Friend
Imagine sitting next to a person on an airplane who talks non-stop for a 12-hour flight. Even if the stuff your companion is saying is kind of interesting, you are sure to begin to feel exhausted as you keep on listening hour after hour.
Now try imagining being stuck for the rest of your waking life listening to this person who never runs out of things to say. Horrible isn’t it? Yet, this is the situation we can find ourselves in with the little voice in our heads. An almost constant steam of observations, judgements, reminiscences, predictions, and criticisms.
As Mad as a Head Full of Monkeys
If you were able to record your thoughts onto some type of audio track, you would almost certainly feel a bit reluctant about sharing this content with friends and family. Not only is some of the content sure to be unwholesome (e.g. ‘I hate her because she is such a killjoy by being judgmental of me for getting drunk every night’), but it is also going to be repetitive, often nonsensical, and much of it obviously (although, maybe not so obvious to you) false.
Buddhists refer to what is happening inside of our heads as ‘monkey mind’ – it can feel like we have a troop of screeching monkeys in there who are jumping around, causing mischief, and making way too much noise.
The Problem with Trying to Control the Monkey Mind
There is an episode in the TV show, ‘Father Ted’ called ‘Think Fast, Father Ted’ where Father Ted tries to fix a tiny dent in a car he is about to raffle by tapping it with a hammer (you will find a clip of this scene on YouTube by searching for ‘Father Ted There's a Dent in The Car’). Every time he taps the car, it creates a new dent until the car becomes completely unusable (the actual scene is hilarious).
Attempting to control monkey mind can be a bit like randomly hitting a car with a hammer in an attempt to fix a dent. The problem is that we usually end up creating more thoughts in our attempt to silence the existing thoughts (e.g. we now add thoughts into the mix such as ‘you shouldn’t be thinking so much’).
We could develop the ability through intense meditation practice to force the mind to quieten down, but while this process is certainly useful, it becomes worryingly similar to substance abuse when used as a form of escapism. The monkey mind will still be waiting for us when we are not meditating, and the periods of escape can make monkey mind even more unbearable. The other potential problem with the developing our ability to quieten the mind, if this becomes our main objective in meditation, is it could reinforce the idea that we are our thoughts.
Learn to Live with Monkey Mind
The problem isn’t so much that our mind is producing so many thoughts (as many as 80,000 of them every day). Remember, you also hear at least as many sounds, feel hundreds of thousands of physical sensations as well as observe countless images. The brain can easily handle all of this content. The cause of our suffering isn’t the number of thoughts but how we react to these thoughts.
If you were able to hear the audio track of someone else’s thoughts, you would probably have no trouble dismissing most of the content as useless. However, when similar thoughts arise in your own brain, you may find it much harder to be so dismissive. This is because most of us identify strongly with our thoughts – this happens because we believe we are our thoughts.
The key to learning to live with monkey mind is to see the thinking for what it actually is. We gain this understanding through the insights we gain in meditation (‘insights’ can be described as a type of ‘seeing that frees’).
One of the first things we tend to discover when we start to meditate is how little control we have over our thoughts. We sit down with the expectation of 20 minutes of bliss, yet the thoughts keep interrupting our decent into tranquility. If we can’t even control our thoughts for a few minutes, how can we claim that we are these thoughts?
As we continue to investigate our mind through meditation, we also begin to notice how unfruitful much of our thinking can be. It often involves ‘shoulds’ - ‘this should be happening’, ‘this shouldn’t be happening’, and ‘that shouldn’t have happened’. Reality couldn’t care less about our ‘shoulds’, and this realization allow us to see how much of our thinking is just useless spinning of our wheels. We begin to become disillusioned with our thoughts, and this means we become far less attached to them – therein lies spaciousness and freedom.
Once you begin to see thinking as just stuff the brain is doing – you are far less likely to be troubled by monkey mind. Ironically, the less interested you become, the tamer the monkey mind becomes. It’s as if when you are not deliberately trying to quieten things down, the mind loses interest in trying to keep you entertained with thoughts.