Calming Monkey Mind

This entry was posted on Feb 23, 2021 by Charlotte Bell.
Seated Pose

The second verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describes the whole practice of yoga: Sutra 1.2 says: Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence. (Translated by Alistair Shearer) For all of us who have ever experienced monkey mind, that might seem like a very tall order. But the definition of “mind” in the sutras is not what you might think. Calming monkey mind, while it may be a daunting task, may not look like a mind completely devoid of thought.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the prevalence of monkey mind, stressing that a wandering mind is not an indication that you’re doing something wrong in your yoga or meditation practice. Rather, thinking is the natural state of all our minds. It doesn’t have to be a problem.

Even in deep meditation, our minds can be busy thinking. The difference comes in whether we simply observe the passing of thoughts or whether we get caught up in the stories they tell. The settled mind that Sutra 1.2 refers to is not the same as the thinking mind. It’s a deeper, more expansive awareness that observes the thoughts and sensations as they arise and pass.

Pema Chodron famously said: “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” In this quote she’s referring to that expansive awareness that’s like the sky. Rain, snow, high winds, sun, clouds—these events affect us Earth dwellers. But none of these things affect the essential, clear nature of the sky. The same is true for thoughts, emotions and sensations. So calming monkey mind doesn’t mean we have to get rid of these things. We simply have to see them from a bigger perspective.

Meditations for Calming Monkey Mind

Here are some of the ways I like to disengage from monkey mind so that I can instead observe it:

  • Hearing Meditation: I love to start my mindfulness practice with hearing meditation. Being aware of sounds in our environment helps us to ground ourselves in the moment. In addition, we can settle back into a more expansive space and simply allow sounds to come and go since sounds tend not to be as “sticky” as thoughts and emotions.
  • Mindfulness of the Body: Grounding awareness in our bodies can provide a place for awareness to land, especially when our minds are running out of control. Body awareness can include breath awareness practices, focusing awareness on a particular area such as hands and/or feet, or expanding awareness throughout the body.
  • Observing Thoughts: Thoughts are sticky because we get lost in the stories they tell. When we instead observe thinking as an energy or phenomenon, it’s easier to disengage and just allow them to pass. Here’s an idea for tapping into awareness of thinking: When you’re meditating and you notice you’ve become lost in a thought, bring your awareness back to your body or breath, and notice what happens to the thought. Does it stay in the foreground or recede into the background? Does it dissolve? What happens to it?
  • Observe the Moment When You Awaken From a Thought: Author and meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein recommends training awareness on the moment when you notice you’ve gotten lost and bring awareness back to the present. That moment can be a gateway into the more expansive awareness that the yoga sutras describe. It’s fleeting, and sometimes challenging to catch. So it can be helpful to practice with this over multiple meditation sessions.

Monkey mind is part of human experience. It’s as natural as breathing. But we don’t have to be thrown off balance by it. Remember: the monkey is like the weather, but your nature is like the sky. Calming monkey mind may be challenging, but it’s not impossible. The key, as with everything, is practice.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.