I probably first heard music before I was even born. My parents were singers who met while studying with the same voice teacher. My sisters and I all played instruments and sang, and we still do. I’ve played in the Salt Lake Symphony since 1996, and have had the privilege of performing most of the great classic repertoire. Think symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler; and tone poems and epics by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, to name just a few. I’ve attended hundreds of concerts—rock, jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk—including 40 Grateful Dead shows. There’s a whole lot of incredible music in the vast jukebox of my brain. So what would you think was swirling around in my head for several days on a recent self meditation retreat? My persistent earworm was none other than “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Which just goes to show that even after 33 years of mindfulness practice, there’s no controlling my monkey mind.
Songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore even wrote a song about this, titled “My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own.” Here’s the first verse:
My mind’s got a mind of its own
It takes me out a walkin’ when I’d rather stay at home
Takes me out to parties when I’d rather be alone
My mind’s got a mind of its own
I first became familiar with the monkey mind the first time a sat a 5-day silent meditation retreat in 1988. Prior to that, I’d always thought of myself as a calm person. But that was before I took a good look at my own mind. I was stunned at the out-of-control chatter. But, humbling as the experience was, I came to understand that knowing how chaotic my mind really was, was the beginning of learning how to train it—at least a little bit.
The Monkey Mind in All of Us
I can’t begin to count the number of times mindfulness students have lamented to me that every time they sit down on their cushions to meditate, their minds seem to go completely crazy. Pretty much everyone experiences this. But the truth is, meditation isn’t what causes monkey mind; we just happen to see the natural condition of our minds clearly—maybe for the first time—when we start to meditate. The monkey has always been there. We just didn’t realize it.
There’s a common misunderstanding about meditation, that it’s about emptying the mind of all thoughts. We go into meditation thinking that it’s going to be all peace and calm. Then when that’s not the case, we think we’re doing something wrong.
Our minds think. That is what they do, and in fact, thinking can be a very helpful tool for navigating our lives. But some thoughts are helpful, and others, clearly, are not.
According to the National Science Foundation, humans have 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts each day. Ninety-five percent of those thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday. In other words, if your mind is producing lots of thoughts, you’re not doing something wrong. Thinking is part of the nature of mind.
What’s important is not how many thoughts arise, but how we relate to them. Are we getting lost in the stories they tell? Are we trying to banish them? Or can we simply observe the process of thinking? What is a thought, after all?
Taming the Wild Monkey
The thoughts, emotions and physical sensations we experience are largely out of our control. The same is true for much of what happens in daily life. Our lives will encompass many wonderful, pleasant experiences, as well as many difficult experiences. Sometimes we can set an intention and what we desire will indeed happen. Other times, the outcome is out of our control.
For example, I didn’t ask for my hair to start turning grey when I was 22, and yet, that’s what happened. I did not ask to be born with shallow hip sockets that made it possible for me to perform “fancy” yoga poses. Those same shallow sockets wore out at when I was relatively young, and had to be replaced. I didn’t ask for that either.
Think about your life. How many times have you experienced love, peace and happiness? How many times have you experienced grief and loss? These conditions are all part of human life. Meditation can’t make our lives appear “perfect.” What it can do is help us to respond to the inevitable ups and downs with wisdom and compassion.
Meditation teacher and author Joseph Goldstein says that it really doesn’t matter what’s happening in our experience when we meditate. What’s arising in our experience is not within our control—monkey mind included.
What matters is how we relate to it, and we can learn to cultivate skillful responses to whatever’s arising. Cultivating wise responses in meditation trains us to do the same in our daily lives. And that’s what it’s all about.
What is Wise Response?
While the hippo song may not have been my earworm of choice, it was the reality of my mind at the time. Watching my responses to it was part of my practice. Sometimes I felt irritated. Having that song be the first thing I was aware of when I woke up in the morning got old. Other times I just had to laugh at the situation. The latter was definitely a much more peace-inducing response.
Responding skillfully to the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise in meditation is really the whole ballgame. Reacting to what is arising with clinging or aversion can bring about more struggle. Responding with nonjudgmental interest can lead us to profound peace and ease.
In my next post, I’ll share some ideas for techniques that might be helpful in calming the monkey mind. Stay tuned!