Taming the Monkey Mind

waterfall at diamond lake, nederland, co

Buddhists describe the monkey mind as the restlessness of our minds, the mind that is continuously analyzing, worrying, vacillating, and otherwise jumping around. It can also refer to confusion in the mind and being double-minded, or having thoughts and beliefs that cancel one another.

I found a poignant example of the monkey mind running wild in 1994 when I traveled to South Africa to witness the first fully democratic elections there, which led to the election of Nelson Mandela as President. During the week before and the week after the elections, I journeyed around the various regions of South Africa as part of a delegation formed by a non-profit organization based in northern California.

It was an incredible trip where we encountered a country in the throes of great change, and its people doing their best to adjust to all the change. The example I cite is a person I engaged in conversation, an Afrikaner (descendant of former Dutch immigrants) who was caught up in the madness of the long history of racial segregation and discrimination that made up the former Apartheid system.

He was a friendly man, jovial and affable. With me being American, he seemed compelled to tell me how terrible the black population in South Africa was, seemingly oblivious to the color of my own skin. He would go on and on describing negative trait after negative trait, until I would ask him if it was fair or accurate to generalize about a whole group of people the way he was. At that moment, he would look incredulous and say “no, of course not,” agreeing with me that negative traits do not uniquely belong to one particular race.

In the next moment he would return to generalizing about the black population, again with negative descriptors. We did this dance back and forth a number of times with the same result each time. It was as if, even though he knew better, his old program and beliefs still ran on auto-pilot right alongside some newer beliefs. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a clear case of unconscious beliefs running right alongside contrary conscious beliefs.

While this example may seem a bit extreme, it is also indicative of the nature of the monkey mind. In different spiritual traditions the monkey mind is addressed in a variety of ways.

In the Hindu tradition, the chant “Chamundaye, Kali Ma, Kali Ma, Kali Ma, Kali Ma,” askes Mother Kali to bring transformation or clarity to all the confusion and random chatter of the mind.

In the Science of Mind and Spirit tradition of Ernest Holmes, teachers have utilized a concept called “second crop thoughts.” Second crop thoughts are those beliefs that we thought we had neutralized or dissolved that rise again to manifest some unwanted experience. A common notion is “I thought I already healed that.” It is likened to a crop that we previously planted, then uprooted, but some of it still sprouts the following year. A few seedlings were apparently still there. Old beliefs can be like that too, depending on how deeply rooted they previously were in us.

This kind of experience calls on us to be vigilant about old thought patterns so that as they arise we may consciously replace them with new ideas. My own practice is to respond to old thought patterns that arise by saying within myself, “No, I don’t believe that anymore,” and then to affirm what it is I do believe. I do this without resisting the old thought pattern and without trying to force the new one. It’s just a gentle, confident reminder to myself of where I am today.

Today is a good day to give thanks for old thought patterns, knowing that at one point they served us in some way. As we release them, we may also rejoice in our new more consciously chosen beliefs and thoughts that support us in being more fully who we are here to be.

Enjoy the journey.

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