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  • Writer's pictureHans Reihling, Ph.D., LMFT

Long Live "Monkey Mind:" Towards Experience-Near Mindfulness

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

For a long time, I thought that I have a “monkey mind” that can never be still and calm. In some way, I do, but things are a bit more complicated and interesting. There is hope for anybody who cannot calm one's inner chit chat by force. In an open and experience-near form of mindfulness having a “monkey mind” or being easily distracted and driven my random thoughts and feelings is not an obstacle but an entry point into exploration, insight, and more knowledge about ourselves. Long live monkey mind.

Over the past five years, I explored innovative forms of mindfulness that help me understand my world better by allowing thoughts and emotions in meditation. I used to be convinced that I'm not a good meditator or that I will never be able to be mindful. Then I found out that this was largely the case because the instructions I used were counterproductive.

For many years I set myself up with instructions that told me to come back to the breath or the body when my mind wants to go somewhere else. But when I force myself to focus on some object, like the breath, my mind naturally wanders. Standard mindfulness instructions ask us to bring our attention back to the anchor in these moments. The metaphor used is training a puppy that runs away. Well, I found that constantly telling myself “sit, sit, sit” does not have the effect of being gentle to myself.

Focusing my attention on the breath or some other object of focus can be an important tool that I apply when I can't tolerate my inner world anymore. But mindfulness meditation is about accepting what is happening right now in the moment and not about avoiding my inner conflicts when they come up.

Few people can focus their attention for a couple of hours without being distracted, and to be able to do so they usually live removed from society in monasteries or practice on long-term retreats. For many of us, this is not an option or even something we would want to do, but still, we might think that the standard for measuring progress in meditation is a clear mind without thoughts or just positive thoughts.

I found out that my mind settles down naturally when I don't try hard to be a good meditator and when I allow myself to be with whatever experience comes up in an open and nonjudgmental way. It may be only for a couple of minutes in a longer sitting, but these moments come with ease. On the one hand, this makes meditation much easier because I don't set myself up for failure by trying to do the impossible, that is, repressing thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, it is also challenging since the stuff that comes up maybe scary, annoying, or uncomfortable. But even if they are, when I take an accepting or tolerant stance towards them they become less threatening. There is a lot to learn about how I routinely deal with myself and my world.

When I get insights about how automatic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior work, it becomes clearer to me what conditions have negative effects and what kind of conditions have positive ones. This is the first step towards making informed choices based on understandings gained during meditation.

Another result of allowing thoughts and emotions into meditation is that I can become aware of wholesome content that goes unnoticed when you force yourself to bring your attention back to the breath or some other object. Once you pay attention to your inner world, you may find that there are helpful thoughts, feelings, and desires that are commonly unconscious or pushed aside. Bringing the good stuff more into the center of awareness can be soothing and pleasurable. Don't discredit meaningful and life-affirming inner self-talk as "monkey mind." It's there for a reason.


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