The Monkey Mind

On my journey as a yoga teacher, I find the study of the mind and its afflictions fascinating. As those who’ve practiced meditation or joined us in the deep relaxation/ yin class know, to sit with ourselves calmly, with still mind, and in the complete present moment, is the hardest thing to do. So what makes our mind chatter so incessantly? Hatha yogis commonly make the analogy that our mind is like a Monkey- always jumping around. In yoga we try to train the monkey to sit still. Yes- an impossible task. So what are the obstacles towards a completely still mind? I am experiencing them all first hand as I try to complete this article!… You may relate to a few too.

(1) Our senses.

The yogis see our capacity to smell, see, hear, touch and taste as great barriers to clarity and purity of thought. They call the senses Indreyas.. There are:

  • Jnanendriyas- organs of knowledge (eyes, nose, mouth, taste buds and skin) – through these organs experience the world.
  • Karmendriyas- organs of action (arms, legs, mouth, excretory organs, reproductive organs)- we are able to take in experiences via these organs, and they are the main causes of our instincts and urges.

Every time we experience something through our Jnanendriyas, we form an opinion, or an emotion is evoked. The opinion or emotion may be positive, negative, subtle or strong.. but it’s a mind movement in any case.  The (delicious!) smell of coffee; the feeling of silk or thorns; a colour we like or don’t like. They seem harmless, but the minute we attach an opinion or emotion onto an object- we no longer see the object in its clear, pure light. And it’s our senses that make us experience the same things differently. You and I might go see a movie together. You love the movie because it’s unusual and thought provoking. I am disappointed in the movie because I felt like seeing a low brow comedy. We have both projected our experiences and opinion onto the same movie.

On the surface, a difference of opinion of colour may not ignite stress in our bodies and minds, but constant distractions caused by our senses eventually can. Yogis tell of the story of the snake and the rope. One night in the dark, some campers felt what they thought was a snake underfoot. They became fearful and scared.. not moving from their spots  in fear of being bitten, being poisoned and dieing. They couldn’t sleep the whole night. In the morning, they realised it was just an old piece of rope. Have you ever dwelt on something you thought a friend said, only to realise they didn’t mean the comment the way you had interpreted it?

The philosophy goes deeper into understanding that the interplay of “the gunas” in our mental landscape shades the way we see things. The gunas are “qualities of nature” and are:

  • satva- lightness/ purity
  • rajas- activity
  • tamas- intertia/ stillness.

When each guna dominates, we have an imbalance in our perception. Too much rajas leads to aggression- strong opinions that incite strong emotion; too much tamas- leads to negativity, impassion, stubbornness. Whilst aiming for a more satvic state is definitely one of the first stages of yoga, we eventually have to move even beyond that point.

The yogis say that even positive opinions that lead to a more satvic existence can get in the way of gaining mental stillness. We currently see this movement of yogis who are becoming so intuitively aware of their connection with the world around them that even the wholistic / organic bandwagon becomes an obsession. We obsess about whether the café we are meeting at has the right almond milk; or what oil is used in our baked goods; we feel the need to update our earth-loving meals onto instagram. Eventually even a positive attachment leads to obsession or pain.

(2) Habits

The point about habits goes hand in hand with the discussion on Indriyas. Without our organs of knowledge and action, we couldn’t develop the urges and desires associated with certain sensory pleasures. Whilst our organs of knowledge bring the awareness of these pleasures into our mind (seeing it/ smelling it/ touching it etc).. it’s our Karmendreyas- organs of action that perpetrate and perpetuate our addictions and habits. The karmendreyas, (that allow us to eat/ walk/ take/ have sex and procreate/ excrete and purge) lead us to impulses and urges. At the most basic level, it’s challenging to focus on your work/ studies/ yoga class- if you need to go to the toilet; or if you are hungry or thirsty.  Your mind will instantly wander. At the next level, maybe the smell of chocolate or coffee may trigger an urge. Or if you haven’t had your habitual cigarette.

Whilst my yoga journey has helped me overcome many attachments and urges, there is one habit that keeps me humble, and reminds me that higher yogic path involves sacrifices I may not be able to make in  this lifetime. I am talking about my love of a morning cup of coffee. I justify to myself that there can be worse habits. Studies show that a cup or two a day of coffee isn’t going to jeapoardise our health. I don’t love many coffees, I love my one morning coffee. So what’s the problem? The problem is the mind fluctuation. My mind is at some varying degree on that first cup of coffee pretty much from when I wake up until I have finished the last frothy, chocolatey sip of my cappuccino!! Yes that’s right.. I am teaching you or practicing with you at 6am and, whilst I am not completely obsessing about the coffee, it’s definitely at the back of my mind and rears it’s head throughout.

(3) Time

Are you a punctual or tardy person? Being punctual requires the mind to multitask, organise and maybe even race before a commitment; being consistently late often means last minute stress and regret for inconveniences caused (unless a person is late with disrespect for people waiting… I am not sure if this complete disregard is entirely yogic either). Being occasionally late because you got “lost in the moment”.. well, that should be forgivable and is possibly a side effect of following a spiritual path.

Every culture has a different attitude to time – in terms of being on time and attitudes to waiting. I had an experience when travelling in Brazil- Brazillians are notorious for having no clue of time- or do they have a very strong attitude to time.. You state a meeting time, and that can actually mean up to 3 hours later than stated meeting time. Nobody feels like they need to turn up anywhere near the meeting time, because nobody else will be there. I am notoriously and nerdily punctual. I found it strange when I stayed with Brazilian friends that, without variation, when we were supposed to meet at 8pm  they: (a) didn’t get home from work until 9pm: (b) sat and had beers until 10pm; (c) fixed their room at 10:30pm; (d) had a shower at 11pm; (e) left the house at 11:30pm. I am sorry- this is still an attachment to time, no matter what one thinks. I actually find it takes a lot more effort and energy to be this late than getting your act together and turning up on time, or the respectable 10ish minutes late.

Living in other moments!

Another important aspect about the concept of time is the difficulty to live completely in the moment. What does “being present” or “living in the moment” really mean? It means detaching from whatever has been pressuring you before this moment, and whatever you have to do from this moment onwards. If you are facing a confronting time – whether it be work; relationship; financial; family, do you bring the problem around with you everywhere you go? Does everybody get to hear about it? Are you at a party and thinking of it? are you on the yoga mat and dwelling on it? Or can you put the confrontation away and enjoy the moment in front of you? It’s no coincidence that people who live in the moment actually don’t see things that arise in life as problems.

I believe that the advent of social media is causing an inability for the mind to settle. You’re in the moment, you’re having fun, but oh- the photo must be posted on facebook with a comment.. the mind has jumped out of the moment into a state of “I must show everyone this”. And I can’t tell you how difficult it is to write an article on the Monkey Mind with emails coming in; texts coming up on the phone, little reminders popping up of people I have to contact etc…

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the famous mindfulness “guru” tells us to stop being in a state of “doing” and start being in a state of being. I remember what astounded me about doing yoga at the beginning was how I used to come in with a mind that chattered as follows: “What take away food shop will be open after class ?”; “Will I get a parking ticket”; “I need to call Mum/ friend/ partner”… Then, before I knew it, it was the end of the class and none of those issues mattered. Food shops were shut; ticket was or wasn’t on the car; I could call my friend tomorrow… Then the more yoga I did, the more this attitude spilled off the mat.

Attachment to time- especially any time that is not the present, keeps our mind jumping. What a spiritual sadana teaches us is : take time out of a very hectic day for meditation- this will settle the mind and make sure that “to do list” is put into perspective and doesn’t get on top of you; not to dwell on perceived problems- keep them in their place- don’t carry them around with you to burden everybody with; to see that feeling of urgency and rush for what it is- a very momentary need that passes.

(4) Our Expectations

Scenario: You have been planning a holiday for months. You’ve researched thoroughly on the internet and found a hotel in the destination you want to go. The photos look great, it looks close to the ocean; the rooms look great size and nicely appointed. Once you get there, you see that the hotel is not nearly as nice as what you had expected. It’s 10 minute walk from the beach; the rooms were obviously shot with a wide angle lens because they are tiny and the interiors are shabby and old. How do you see your holiday? Ruined entirely? Do you spend the rest of the week calling the booking agency and complaining and feeling totally ripped off? or do you make the best of it, use the place to drop your luggage and get some sleep… and get out and enjoy yourself.

It’s very difficult for expectations not to get in the way of our calm mindset. This is a great yoga challenge. And people’s minds start racing wildly particularly when we have a vested emotional or even financial interest in the object of our expectations.  Whether it’s expectations of people around us; or for a service / product for which we have paid our hard-earned money.

You might like to see yourself as a generous person, a giver, and you find that in the real world, many people (and that may include people who are very close to you) are not capable of giving at the same level. In fact, you may subconsciously attract takers. One of the things you would need to learn to continue being the charitable person you are, and not to become a resentful person, is to eliminate expectations of others. In yoga, we are taught to give and love without expectation of anything in return. To be able to do this, we have to be fulfilled with ourselves, and not rely on others or other things for our own happiness and fulfilment. Eventually we are working towards not expecting any fruits from our actions… this is true Karma yoga.


SO why can’t we stop the chatter?

If you can cease attachment to time; purify your senses to the point that you see everything objectively and without a taint of judgement; eliminate habits and chose a path of complete moderation; give and love without the expectation of anything in return- then the lower mind will cease to exist and the monkey will quietly sit in a chair… Is it possible? I aim for 20 minutes silent meditation a day. it’s a start!!