Whether we’ve heard the term or not, we are all familiar with the idea of a “monkey mind.” The term traces back to Chinese Buddhist thinkers who used it to refer to an unsettled or restless mind. Like a monkey, it is jumping from place to place. Maybe it gets interested in one topic or item for a minute, but then discards it and jumps around again.

brown coated monkey on branch

When I lived and taught in India years ago, I was wisely warned about the monkeys that roamed the streets of some cities. Not only were they unsettled, but they could be fast and dangerous—though the greatest danger they usually posed was if you tried to fight back against their attempts to steal things.

Similarly, our monkey minds can be a bit dangerous as well. Much of our life requires focus, such as when we are driving or cooking. Other times we need focus present less immediate danger. For example, we need to focus on friends and family when they are telling us important things. We need to be able to focus on our work (since starting this article, I’ve already checked my email once and tried to look up some energy information for a new window I just had installed. But now I’m back and really, truly focused. I think.). We need to focus on studies when we’re in school, and so much more.

Cultivating a Calm Mind

woman covering her face with white book

In Buddhist thought and practice, the monkey mind can be tamed. It just takes practice. Mindful meditation is perhaps the best way to begin the journey to a calmed and tamed mind. Just like taming a wild horse, just imagine how useful our mind can be for us when it is fully under our control.

On the other hand, we probably know all too well how frustrating and even depressing our minds can be when they are not under control. Bouncing from topic to topic, unable to focus, some people grow discouraged with school or work. Others turn to alcohol or other drugs to help control the mind, either forcing some calm on it—as alcohol does for many—or giving it all of the stimulus it wants with other substances.

For some people, drugs like Ritalin might be needed. But for many, the path to calm can be much easier. We can all begin by briefly entering into our bodies for a couple deep breaths. Try closing your eyes and just breathing in and out. If your mind wanders, bring it back into your body. What is your body telling you now? If you’re standing, how are your feet and knees? If you’re sitting or laying down, where are the points of contact with the surface beneath you?

Next, as you breathe in, can you feel the air entering your body? Perhaps at your nostrils or in the top of your nose. Can you feel it going down the back of your throat? Are you breathing into your belly? You can place a hand over your navel. Is the belly expanding and contracting with each breath? If not, try pushing out with the inhale and gently collapsing in with the exhale.

For many people, this simple focus on the breath, and making sure it is going deep into and out of the belly, can be enough to bring calm. Out of the calm, often joy arises, or relief, as the monkey mind can be pretty exhausting.

Breathe. Focus. Repeat

brown wooden blocks on white surface

There is a story that also arises from China. In the story a man encounters a wise hermit in the forest and asks him what is the heart of his teaching. The hermit replies that he is a Buddhist and that the core of the teaching is:

Not to do any evil,
To cultivate goodness,
And to purify one’s mind.

The man said that this sounds too simple and too easy. The hermit replied, “yes, it is easy enough for a child of 7 years to understand, but it is difficult even for a man of eighty years to maintain.”

This is true in my experience. This “Buddhism in a nutshell,” like mindfulness itself, is very easy at first to understand and get started on. But it’s very difficult to maintain. For some of us, the monkey mind reasserts itself and we’re bouncing all over the place again. For others, it just becomes boring. The early gains are forgotten and other challenges start to seem more important.

Thus, we need to return again and again to the simple starting point: breathing. Bring our mind back to the breath or to our bodies. Repeat again and again.

Empathy for Ourselves

Because this process is difficult and the gains come slowly, it is easy to feel discouraged or give up. As Diana Raab, Ph.D., reminds us, an important part of mindfulness is being nonjudgmental, patient, accepting, and trusting with the process. It also requires a certain amount of letting go of any desired outcomes.

This is hard. Judgment, both of ourselves and those around us, is a sneaky yet powerful way that the monkey mind can take over again. So, whenever judgment arises, we can meet it with a smile. We can tell it, “I see you. I see you, judging me and your long train of thought.” And we can let it go. Don’t worry, it’ll be back.

But this process of recognizing that that part of our minds with a smile helps us disarm any inner conflicts that are bound to arise as we seek to calm the monkey mind.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.