Can Meditation Quiet My Monkey Mind?

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Science is slowly validating what ancient sages knew all along: meditation is one key to understanding the universe and our place in it—not to mention a fantastic tool for living with more calmness, clarity, and presence.

With our modern brains on multitasking overdrive, and many of us juggling jobs, relationships and families (not to mention email, texts, and social media), it can seem harder than ever to quiet our minds.

When we meditate, are our brains really supposed to be as still as our bodies? I’ll share with you what I’ve learned, as well as insights from Shambala meditation teachers Susan Piver and Pema Chodron, to help unravel this riddle.

What’s really true: The goal of meditation isn’t to stop thinking, but instead learning how to stop reacting to the thoughts we do have. With practice, our minds will naturally quiet and there may be more space between thoughts, but this is not the goal itself.

I always had an inkling meditation could be helpful to me, but didn’t have the faintest clue what it actually was. There had to be more to it than sitting very still and looking beatific, right?

My first real encounter came during a yoga retreat in Mexico, where we started every morning with an hour of silent meditation. We were instructed in the “Anapana” technique, sitting with eyes closed and focusing our attention on the area below our nose and above our upper lip. For me, this was an unbearably long hour spent trying to stop my ceaseless and wild thoughts. I kept surreptitiously peeking at the group – they looked like a bunch of blissed-out Buddhas while I was in a torture chamber of my own head.

I had encountered “monkey mind,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a mind grasping from thought to thought as a monkey swings from branch to branch. Left unchecked, the monkey mind keeps swinging towards the next random banana, with us following helplessly behind. If we experience this, does it mean we’re bad meditators?

Author and Shambala meditation teacher Susan Piver answers, “The most prevalent misconception about meditation practice is that meditation means that you are supposed to stop thinking; that you must clear your mind of thought, and if you are unable to, this means that you are a bad meditator. It is not about ceasing thought; it is about taking a different relationship to our thoughts. So, there’s no effort to clear the mind of thought. This is more about relaxing with our thoughts as they are, and that’s all that you need to do in your meditation practice regarding your thinking.”

Through meditation, we can train our minds to be more mindful, our brains to slow down and focus. Our minds may keep throwing bananas at us, but using meditation we learn to just notice the bananas and then calmly come back to our technique. Again and again, we observe without reacting… because those monkeys have an awful lot of bananas.

In How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, nun, author, and teacher in the Shambala Buddhist tradition Pema Chodron writes, “The nature of mind is to think. It’s as natural for the mind to think as it is for the body to breathe, or for the heart to pump blood through the veins. The motivation behind meditation is not to get rid of thoughts, but to train the mind to reclaim its natural capacity to stay present. Mind can be placed on an object, or on an experience, and it can stay there.”

There may be many thoughts passing through our minds when we sit, but through practice we learn to not react as strongly to them. This practice can make a profound impact on our lives as it helps us remain more balanced in challenging situations.

Though the metaphor may be well-worn, it is also apt: meditation can help even out the keel of our boat, helping us sail more gracefully through both the storms and calm seas of our lives.

So if you’re obsessively thinking about not thinking, that’s ok. Just keep sitting. And if your monkeys misbehave maybe you can even manage to feel some gratitude towards them. As the wise sages of yore might have advised: when life gives you bananas, make smoothies!