Dealing with the Monkey King: Meditation Techniques for People With Unsettled Monkey Minds

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    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.


    Buddha Weekly MOnkey king with BUddha and monk Buddhism
    Buddha, Monkey King, and the legendary monk Tang Sanzang in Journey to the West.


    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.]


    Buddha Weekly Buddha hand holds the Monkey King Buddhism
    Monkey King tries to escape from Amitabha Buddha’s limitless hand, in the metaphorical story of Buddha’s Palm.


    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:


    Buddha Weekly Meditation sunset nature Buddhism
    Numerous peer-reviewed studies of mindfulness meditation have proven the real benefits to health and the mind. Here is a classical seated meditation posture while focusing on the breath.


    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:


    Buddha Weekly Benefits of Meditation Buddhism
    The known benefits of meditation.


    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:

    Buddha Weekly Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche Teaching at Gaden Choling Toronto Spring 2016 Buddhism
    Venerable Zasep Rinpoche teaches many methods to settle monkey minds, among them Analytical Meditation, Scanning and Mindfulness of Feelings.

    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.


    Buddha Weekly Meditation for destressing and pain relief Buddhism
    Being able to meditate in a busy place can help train the monkey mind.


    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

    Buddha Weekly Mindfulness Benefits calms body reduces anxiety decreases stress Buddhism
    The more typical benefits of Mindfulness meditation include stress reduction and relaxation. Lesser known benefits include immunity boost, cognitive enhancement, and reduction in pain.

    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.


    Buddha Weekly Chod nuns Buddhism
    Buddhist Vajrayana meditation often includes sounds, actions, repetitive mantras — all very powerful ways to “empty” the mind and “non focus” the monkey mind. Here Chod meditators play the Chod double-headed drum and chant.


    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?


    Active Quigong (Chi Gong) and also Tai Chi are excellent meditations for monkey minds.


    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.
    Buddha Weekly Lotus position meditation mountain top misty Buddhism
    Getting outside and meditating on the sounds of nature can still the mind. Or, in the city, concentrate on the sounds of traffic and dogs barking.

    Walking Meditation

    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.


    Woman standing in meditation with hands held in prayer
    Standing meditation is a helpful technique for those who can’t “sit still”—people with the “monkey mind.”


    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.

    Standing Meditation

    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.


    Any intense activity can be meditative and spiritual
    A previous Buddha Weekly contributor, Sonic Mike, described skateboarding as his form of Buddhist meditation. He achieves mindful concentration and peace, even moments of enlightenment, from repeated skilled activities, in the same way Shaolin monks use martial arts. Feature “Skateboarding to Enlightenment” here>>


    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. 


    Buddha Weekly Cognitive abilities enhanced by Vajrayana meditation Buddhism
    Research proves that Vajrayana meditation techniques improve cognitive performance. Feature here>>

    Vajrayana Meditations

    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.

    Mantra Mindfulness

    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”

    Being Comfortable

    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:

    Peer-Reviewed Science of Meditation: There are At Least 10 Reasons to Meditate: From Boosting Your Immune System to Increasing Cognitive Function


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    Josephine Nolan

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.

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