Dealing with the Monkey King: Meditation Techniques for People With Unsettled Monkey Minds
Coping with the Monkey Mind — a meditation term indicating an “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable” mind — is one of the biggest obstacles to meditation and mindfulness practice in Buddhism.
The monkey mind disturbs peaceful reflection and creates endless obstacles to mindfulness practice, and, although it sounds contradictory, mindfulness can be said to be the “cure” for the monkey mind.
Monkey King as Monkey Mind
In the epic Journey to the West by Wu Cheng-en, the famous Monkey King is named Sun Wukong, meaning: “Monkey Awakened to Emptiness.”
In this wonderful story, the legendary monk Tang Sanzang — based on the historical monk Xuanzang — is accompanied by Sun Wukong, the powerful Monkey King. In the legendary version, Monkey King is a powerful deity converted to Buddhism — a metaphor for overcoming the monkey mind. He wears a golden crown around his head placed there by Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara) to “encourage” the Monkey King to help the monk. If he “misbehaves” Xuanzang chants Amitabha’s mantra causing the crown to shrink — instantly surpressing the Monkey’s King’s naughty behaviour — in much the same way, we might, in our daily lives, meditate, or chant mantras, to calm our minds.
The monk Xuanzang’s companions represent his own obstacles:
- Monkey King: restless monkey mind
- Pig: greed and laziness
- Various demons: “symbolize thoughts, emotions and sensations that interrupt efforts to be present.”
From Lui Yiming’s commentary on Journey to the West:
“The real message completely transcends the actual words of the text.”
In one scene of the great epic, Monkey King uses his great powers to try to escape from Amitabha Buddha’s great all-encompassing hand. He somersaults to the end of the world and back in a few seconds, then realizes he never actually left the Buddha’s hand. The symbolism is vividly clear and stunning — the monkey mind, no matter how clever and powerful, can not attain Buddha Nature until the obscurations are removed. [More on this in our forthcoming feature on the Monkey King, Journey to the West.]
What is Monkey Mind?
Monkey Mind is an important concept in Buddhist practice. Buddha specified five techniques for overcoming this obtacle to our realizations.
Coping with the monkey mind can be helped with different techniques:
- active meditation: Tai chi, Chi Gong, walking [A feature on martial arts as meditation here>>]
- static meditations: standing, sitting, lying [A feature on standing meditation here>>]
- sensory meditations: focus on just hearing or feeling [A feature on mindfulness of feelings here>>]
- analytical meditation: analyze your anger or other feelings, or examine your body to find that which is “you” [A feature on Lojong Mind training here>>]
- visualization meditations: really incorrigible monkey minds can best be settled with active visualization methods [A feature on visualization meditation here>>]
- compassion meditation: meditating on metta and loving-kindness and tonglen (giving and receiving meditation) [A video how-to on Tonglen is here>>]
- voice meditations: if you’re really unsettled, combine visualization with a mantra, a repetitive toneless sound. [A feature on the power of mantras here>>]
Proven Benefits of Meditation
Meditation has numerous proven health benefits as well as mental and spiritual benefits. (There are at least ten health benefits to meditation, as proven in clinical studies. Refer to this article>>)
To achieve any gains, regardless of the goal, the mind must be able to focus, to settle. Meditation is one of the best options to help control the accumulated stress and other related problems, normally associated with this fast-paced world. Meditation is critical to spiritual practice and reflections on the Dharma.
Psychiatry has also long recognized the benefits of stillness meditation. But, what to do if you have the monkey mind if you simply can’t still the mind or the body?
Some well-tried and lesser-known methods, which we’ve covered in detail before, also include:
- the Mindfulness of Feelings (Venerable Zasep Rinpoche’s teachings on Mindfulness of Feelings here>>)
- Analytical mindfulness: for example, “find your body.” (more below.)
Concentration Versus Clarity
One key to overcoming the monkey mind is to focus on clarity, not concentration. Don’t concentrate on the breath, simply experience it with clarity. Don’t concentrate on sounds, let yourself go and experience them, closing your eyes to remove visual distraction. Don’t try so hard to visualize the Buddha or Merit Field — let your mind go and simply trigger the visualization with a clear mind.
In Mahayana Buddhist practice, Shunyata meditation, a meditation on Emptiness, is an advanced method. Ultimately the goal is to find clear light, emptiness, the bliss of no-thinking. The clarity of any meditation, Shunyatta or Tai Chi, really comes from Clarity, not concentration.
Analytical Method Destroys the Monkey Mind
If you can’t settle on breath or sound or observation, the great teachers normally suggest Analytical Meditation. For example, in a previous feature (“Much More than Six Words of Advice”>>) Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche explained it this way:
In explaining relative versus absolute truth, Rinpoche invited us to use analytical meditation. “I look at my body, and ask myself the question, what is my body? … You do a scanning meditation and try to find your body. When you scan your skin, you ask, is that my body? No, it’s skin, not body. Then you look at your bones, and likewise every part of your body.” If you scrutinize the body this way you’ll find body parts, but not body. Even those body parts have components if you scan those body parts. “To be body, it has to be the ‘whole’ body, all the parts. If you really look, you can’t find one thing that is your body. What we call body is just a ‘label’. A name. Imputing a label.” Therefore, “yes it’s a body” in relative truth, “but when you search for the absolute body, you can’t find it. We can call this the emptiness of our body.” It only exists by virtue of it’s label.
“A good example is your car. If you take that car apart, and everything is just parts, there is no car. Just car parts. You put it back together, and then label it Hyundai, you have a Hyundai. But if you switch the labels [to Honda] is it now a Honda? It’s all labels. There is no independent existence. That’s only one way to look at emptiness.”
“Emptiness and form co-exist,” he explained. The car relatively exists, but is, in absolute terms, only a label. It is made up of parts, and defined only by a relative label.
Effort and Non-Effort
No matter how unsettled your mind, experts consistently recommend continuing your effort for at least 15 minutes regardless of results. However, the word “effort” is wrong here. You really want to continue the “non-effort” for 15 minutes or longer. Don’t try hard. That makes you tense up. The mind becomes distracted. It’s downhill from there. Focus on non-focus. Try non-effort. True, it sounds a little silly Zen 1960s to put it that way, but ultimately that’s the goal: non-effort, non focus. (So down below, where we say “focus on…” we really mean “non focus on”)
Mindfulness of Anything
Normally, the first step in meditation is to achieve mindfulness. This can be mindfulness of “anything” — not necessarily mindfulness of breath. Mindfulness of breath is certainly the most common method, but it rarely works well for monkey minds. Instead, focus on your body parts. Try “scanning” meditation, scanning your body mentally (with your eyes closed) from your toes to your crown, moving upwards inch by inch. Simply be mindful. Don’t pause on your pot belly and start thinking of diets. Scan mindfully, observe, don’t judge.
Mindfulness of Sounds
If this is too difficult, try being mindful of sounds. Even if you are inside the house, try really “listening” to the house. You might hear the wind on the window. The muffled bark of the neighbours dog. If you are outside, all the better. Listen to the movement of branches, rustling in the wind. The birds singing. In the winter, sounds are even more magnified by cold air. Hear the cars on the highway. Hear the neighbors arguing. Simply hear, don’t think. Don’t start analyzing the neighbor’s fight — just experience. Mindfulness of sound, especially with eyes closed, is one of the most profound techniques. You will be surprised, after five minutes of mindful practice, what you can hear. You can even hear your children two floors down in the basement playing video games. You can hear the dog’s breathing.
Active People Who Cannot Sit Still
Most people make all types of preparations for practicing meditation with increased determination and they sit down and close their eyes to get into a deep state of relaxation and focus. Whenever they attempt to practice seated meditation, they will become restless and a jittery feeling will start creeping in. Due to different feelings like discomfort, distress, embarrassment, and strain, you will start twisting and turning your body like a worm or snake. What happens next? Often, an abrupt end to your meditation session. How to overcome this situation?
Varying your meditation, using the four postures can be helpful; they include sitting, lying down, standing and walking. Here are some guidelines:
- If you sit for meditation but feel jittery, try standing meditation.
- If you can’t settle peacefully while standing for several minutes, try very slow walking meditation.
- If neither of these work, try prone meditation (lie down), but remain aware, and if you become sleepy, return to sitting.
- Take up Tai Chi or other “slow” meditative actions, such as some forms of Chi Gong (Qigong) — the slower the better.
If you are a person who cannot sit still at the best of times, you might find walking meditation is best until you settle your mind. However, it’s important to understand this is “mindfulness” walking, which means you must be conscious of everything: the pressure on the ball of your foot, your breathing, the sound of the birds, the wind on your skin — every little detail. If you are doing this properly, you’ll find a clarity of vision and hearing you never imagined before. But start with one foot very slightly in front of the other. Very close, not long strides. Very smooth, so that it appears your shoulders are not bobbing — level and without swaying. You should be walking slowly enough that you can feel the play of your muscles. You should be so deliberately focused that your movements become tortoise-like.
While walking, you still watch the breath. If your breath is rising and falling too quickly — slow down even more. You should be able to even feel your heartbeat. Walking meditation is actually one of the most powerful mindfulness practices, because you can experience it outside, and genuinely start to notice literally everything around you. You start to feel your body. You even start to feel your body in tune with everything around you.
If walking meditation doesn’t calm the mind, if you still have monkey mind, then try standing for awhile. You can practice this inside or outside. Outside, you can combine it with walking meditation. Ten minutes walking, ten minutes standing. Always mindful. Always clear. If you focus on your muscles, breathing, the sounds around you, you will find your mind settle.
It is important to bend your knees slightly. If you are a martial artist, you can use a static kata — like the horse-riding stance, which bends the knees and keeps your centre of gravity very centred. If you are untrained in martial arts, simply try to sink down over your ankles, with your knees slightly bent. Feel your centre of gravity sink lower and lower.
One reason Vajrayana Buddhism is considered an advanced path, aside from many other factors, is the extensive focus on advanced methods to settle the monkey mind:
- visualization of a merit field: idealized imagery that really allows your “beta” mind to beat down that active alpha mind
- mantras, either alone or with visualizations, to really release the mind: repeating sonerous, other-wordly sounds triggers an empty mind-space
- complex sadhanas: combining a series of visualizations with mantras with actions — such as offerings, prostrations and music — to totally occupy the mind.
The goal of complex Vajrayana meditations, combining visualization, mantra and action, is to take the mind where it normally can’t consciously go. Emptiness resides in the subconscious, rather than the conscious mind.
If you are a Buddhist, particularly a Vajrayana Buddhist, you likely have a favourite mantra. Usually we focus on the mantra to achieve a goal. Another way to think of mantras is to sink into the repetitions as a “non-focus” of the meditation. Just let the repeating sound wash over you. You can chant it yourself, or play mantras on a soundbox, but either way sink into the vibrations. Combine “listening” meditation with sacred mantra.
If you are not a Buddhist, you can still create a sound focus. Something like, “I am Empty, I am Empty, I am Empty….” over and over. Or just use the generic “OM” so popular in Yoga studios.
If you don’t have a mantra in your daily practice, the compassionate mantra of the Buddha of Compassion is a wonderful focus:
Om Mani Padme Hum
Pronounced “Ohm mah nee pad me hum”
Regardless of the meditation style, it is a good idea to remove distractions. Turn off the phone. Wear comfortable clothes. Seek out quiet (unless you’re pursuing listening mindfulness). The next step is to identify an object for focus — focus, not concentration — it can be anything: your breath, your heartbeat, a painting on the wall in front of you, the texture of a piece of paper, a candle flame or any other object.
If you can’t just absorb yourself mindfully in the focal point, try visualizing. Stare at the candle, painting, or apple for a few minutes, settling, observing every detail, every minute texture and shading. Then close your eyes and continue to see it. Open, refresh. Close, visualize. Don’t try too hard. Concentration and over-trying make it harder.
This is why, in Vajrayana meditation, mantras are so powerful. Aside from their sacred meaning, they allow the mind to disengage. Repeating a mantra 10,000 times definitely brings the mind to an empty space.
10 Benefits of meditation
It is definitely worthwhile. There are ten medical and mental health benefits to meditation — recognized by doctors and psychologists — and proven with peer-reviewed studies.
See this feature:
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.