So, you want to train your monkey...
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
That the mind wanders is normal. We take it as a gibbon. Buddhists liken the mind to a monkey swinging from tree to tree. Beginners get very frustrated with their monkey minds. We order our monkeys to sit quietly in a corner while we walk to the cushion to meditate. The monkey chatters; we get upset and lock it in a cage. The monkey bangs on the bars; we threaten it with a stick. The more agitated we get, the more difficult the monkey is to restrain.
This is not the way to train a monkey. Our relationship to our monkey minds matters most. Are we OK with a busy mind or are we waging gorilla war internally? Bad puns aside, by letting thoughts be, we develop important qualities of mind that are as important as concentration... if not more so: 1. The ability to observe without getting caught up in the mind's monkey business, 2. the ability to remain equanimous even when the mind goes ape s***, 3. self-compassion, 4. patience. Training a monkey will take years of diligent practice.
The mind secretes thought moment by moment. That's the nature of the mind. It is possible for adept meditators to keep single-pointed attention on an object of concentration for hours. This demands years of intense training. In the end, though, a well trained monkey is still a monkey. The teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj said: "Mind means disturbance. Restlessness itself is mind. It may go quiescent occasionally, but it does so only for a time and reverts to its usual restlessness. A thing that is essentially restless cannot be at peace. What you call peace is absence of disturbance. Real peace cannot be disturbed. The self does not need to be put to rest. It is not at peace; it is peace itself. Only the mind is restless."
A skilled meditator is as interested in cultivating awareness as they are in developing stronger powers of concentration. This requires a degree of patience and calm.
An instructor at the Monkey Training School in Surat Thani, Thailand, had this to say about training monkeys:
"The first task of the teacher is to make the monkey feel itself comfortable in its new surroundings. This is the most important and most difficult part of training monkeys. This is established by taking good care of the monkey and never punishing or hitting it."
Similarly, in meditation, the most important and difficult part of training monkeys is making it feel comfortable with the new routine. "This is established by taking good care of the monkey." Let your monkey be a monkey. Notice, we have objectified the mind here. We've likened it to a monkey. It seems to have its own nature. That we are not our minds is a common refrain you often hear practitioners say and seems self-evident.
So, who is the you that decided to train the monkey? Who is the you to whom a wandering mind seems self-evident? Who is this self? It cannot be objectified. Whatever can be objectified is not the Self. The Self cannot be known through reason. It precedes reason. Because "I am," reasoning arises. Now comes word slippage and paradox. Mind observes mind, Self observes self. Beyond words something sublime waits. I'll meet you there.