Taming the Drunken Monkeys

Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents…It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

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In September, I was hiking with my friend Justin in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. Both Justin and I are outgoing, friendly, talkative types, but when you started hiking before sunrise, carrying a 60-pound pack, and it’s now late afternoon and you’ve still got a long way to go – so long that you’ll eventually end up hiking in the dark the last 2 hours to get to your campsite for the night – you just run out of things to talk about.

I don’t know about you, but when I stop talking and my phone is turned off and packed away, when I don’t have music playing in the background and there’s nothing else to do besides keep putting one foot in front of another, I tend to get a little crazy. My mind erupts into a cacophony of noise and chatter, some of which is good, but most of which, left unchecked, is destructive.

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The Buddha called this the “monkey mind.” He envisioned the mind as filled with drunken monkeys screeching, howling, chattering and generally misbehaving. One of the tasks of enlightenment, the Buddha taught, was to learn to tame the monkey mind.

It’s funny to me that whenever I talk to someone about silence/solitude/meditation/prayer, one of the first things that that person almost always says is “my mind gets so active when I try to be silent.” And I reply, “Yep, that’s what everyone says.” One of the very first tasks of the spiritual journey (and I think ALL of the spiritual traditions agree on this) is to learn tools for taming the monkey mind, knowing the monkeys are always ready to throw off their fetters and scream if given the slightest opportunity.

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So, on the forest trail, as silence settled in and the monkey mind erupted, I re-found the breath prayer that I had written a couple years back while circling the beautiful lake at Mundelein Seminary in the Chicago suburbs. A breath prayer is a simple prayer, easily remembered, fitting within the flow of one’s breath. It occupies the mind, staving off the drunken monkeys.

Probably the most famous breath prayer comes from the Orthodox tradition. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ (exhaling), Son of God (inhaling), have mercy on me (exhaling), a sinner (inhaling).” But there are lots of others, or you can even write your own (ask me about it and I’ll point you in the right direction). In fact, the words aren’t so important as the goal of the breath prayer: to move to a state of “praying without ceasing,” which focuses the mind on God.

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Something I learned about myself on Sabbatical is that my mind is healthiest when I’m creating things. Again, Liz Gilbert:

By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, [creating something] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir – something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration. (Big Magic)

When I’m writing, speaking, cooking, planning an event, my mind is fully engaged and so the monkey mind gets quiet. Now, I need to make a distinction here. Learning to tame the monkey mind isn’t the same as running away from it. This idea of creating as a diversion from “the dreadful burden of being who we are” can turn into running away if I’m not careful.  I also need to engage in strategies like a breath prayer as a way to quiet the monkeys. And, frankly, when I tame the monkeys, I find myself more freed up to create. It seems to be a virtuous cycle in me.

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Finally, a nod to Brene Brown here. Some of the drunken monkeys need to be rumbled with and removed from the tree. Sometimes, doing the hard work of going on an inner journey, naming what happened inside you, and rumbling with your story brings healing and wholeness in a way that will eliminate some of the chatter in your head. At least this is true for me. As I’ve rumbled with certain parts of my story over the last couple of months, some of the drunken monkeys have died because I’ve taken away food. I don’t believe this to be true of all my monkeys – there are some who will be with me the rest of my life – but in my experience, it is true of some.

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So, what’s in your monkey mind? Can you start today by at least naming the monkeys? (Hint: “fear,” “shame,” and “unworthiness,” are common species.)

[photo credit: Yep, that’s me. Justin took this one.]

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  • Michael T.

    I see a backpack and bedroll with legs and arms.
    My critical monkey, (the one I am most familiar with), made me post that.