Monkey Mind is a term that describes the mind and typically means, “Agitated, easily distracted and incessantly moving behavior of ordinary human consciousness. Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.”
I would imagine that everyone reading this can relate to the experience of having Monkey Mind. For me, it seems like letting go of thoughts has become harder and harder. As I gain more perspective on the world, I feel as though more monkeys are trying to invade the peaceful forest of my mind.
Although the metaphor of monkey mind might be an easy one to imagine, I’ve only seen real monkeys a handful of times – each time either caged or roaming free. It’s interesting to examine the way that this metaphor plays out when viewing the behavior of actual monkeys.
I’m no primate expert, but I imagine that a caged monkey can’t possibly be a happy monkey. Stuck within the confines of metal bars with no access to freedom, a caged monkey is deprived of lush forest trees, crisp sweet air, and banana trees to indulge upon. Last summer, during a trip to the zoo, I came across two remarkable caged monkeys with long black tails and expressive, human-like faces. I stood and observed them for a while. I noticed their patterned behavior, the way they nibbled on food. I thought about how amazing their hands were. I watched them go back and forth, left and right, up and down, repeating the same paths over and over, over and over. I imagine that this is what caged monkeys do all day – repeat the same paths they have already taken. After all, they really have no choice but to keep bumping into the same walls that they’ve already bumped into.
To me, these monkeys seemed anxious, apprehensive, and tense. Just watching them, I also felt anxious, apprehensive, and tense. It occurred to me after a while that I could stand in the same place all day and that the monkeys would never leave my sight because they simply couldn’t. This feeling made me uneasy, and I left with my stomach in knots and my jaw clenched.
Compare this to a monkey that is allowed to roam free in a vast, boundless forest. I had the privilege of seeing some when traveling in Costa Rica three years ago. I had been there for two weeks, and all I wanted was to see a monkey in its natural habitat. Each day I would wake up and hope to see one, and each day I was let down. After a while I stopped searching so hard.
On one of our last outings, we were driving down a dirt road when I finally spotted a lone monkey way up high in the treetops.
My heart pounding, we got out of the car and sneakily tip toed over to the tree. We were overjoyed to see not just one, but an entire troop of monkeys, sprawled across the branches like a net! There must have been about twenty of them – some adults, some babies. It was finally the moment I had been waiting for, and I was not disappointed! We stood there in awe and watched them for what seemed like forever, silent and mesmerized
What I remember finding most amazing was how beautifully and gracefully each monkey was able to swing from branch to branch and then stop, explore its surroundings for a moment, and then move onto the next tree. Going up high, swinging down low, free to explore leaves and fruit, grabbing onto thin and thick branches, and sometimes finding a branch to just lounge and relax upon.
In contrast to the caged monkeys in the zoo, they seemed relaxed and peaceful as they explored their environment. Watching them with curiosity and interest, I also felt relaxed and at peace. And before I knew it, the whole family was gone, having moved on to another patch of trees. I smiled for the rest of the day, and I still smile when I think about the experience now.
Sometimes, when my thoughts are carrying me away to another place, I catch myself and realize that I have a choice. I can keep the monkeys in my brain caged, forcing them into a state of constant rumination and repetition. Bumping into the same walls over and over, they are never able to move onto a new patch of trees, or escape their surroundings. This is a state of suffering in our minds and bodies.
Or I can catch myself. I can anchor in the present moment and imagine this monkey in my brain, dancing around in the treetops like they do in the wild. I can allow it to explore the vast forest of my mind with curiosity, tenderness, and warmth. Eventually, if I let it roam free, it will move on and disappear – leaving my mind and body in a state of tranquility. And so I’ve learned to better accept my monkey brain for what it is, and to try and watch it from afar.
I wrote the song “Monkey Brain” to help empower young children with this choice, so that they can learn how to recognize their little monkey brains. Perhaps they can learn how to gaze at them with wonder as they roam free through the forest.