(This essay is an excerpt from my new book, Miraculous Ideas: Thoughts on A Course in Miracles, which contains expanded versions of some of these blog essays, as well as several new essays, in a convenient book format.)
The ‘monkey mind’ is a popular term that refers to the seemingly endless monologues going on inside our heads. It’s called the monkey mind, because like the activity of a monkey jumping from one thing to another, our thoughts seem to randomly jump around no matter how much we try to concentrate and control them.
For example, you might be simply walking along a quiet path and your mind will be thinking about almost everything except your immediate surroundings. Conversations you had earlier in the day, plans you have for later in the day – anything but what is going on in your present. It is this lack of focus on the present that is central to the working of the monkey mind.
Even things you see along your walk will trigger thoughts about something else. You might pass another person who reminds you of someone else, and your mind will be off thinking about past interactions with that person. The smell of a flower or plant might trigger a memory of another time, or remind you of something you’re going to do soon. In either case you are taken out of your present.
Many spiritual traditions include some kind of contemplative activity. In Western religions these are more focused around prayer, and in some of the more mystical sects, this includes deep meditation. The Eastern religions use meditation as a core element of the practice, and these practices include ways to calm the mind.
Buddhism and Yogic Practices
The concept of the monkey mind or mind monkey comes from the Buddhist traditions of Eastern Asia. In Buddhism, one is urged to learn to retrain the mind through contemplation, to see the world as the illusion it is, and to achieve a state of peace. The ultimate goal is to awaken to enlightenment, an awareness of Nirvana, the state of pure being.
The practice of Yoga preceded the time of the Buddha by many centuries and meditation was a fundamental part of yogic practice. Today meditation is practiced in both of these traditions though there are subtle differences in approach, and some significant differences in the understanding of where the meditation is leading.
What is common is the practice of quieting the mind. In some forms of meditation, there is a mantra which is said over and over in order to focus the mind. In others there is only concentration on breathing, and in some, there is a focus on being completely in the present moment at all times. All of these states help to turn off the monkey mind, to bring the individual more completely into the present, and ultimately to achieve a state of peace.
The Ego and the Monkey Mind
The Course doesn’t discuss the monkey mind, but it does refer to the chaos that is the ego’s way of thinking.
The world you perceive is a world of separation... The world you made is therefore totally chaotic, governed by arbitrary and senseless "laws," and without meaning of any kind. For it is made out of what you do not want, projected from your mind… (T‑12.III.9)
What’s important to understand in the Course is that the monkey mind is purposeful. It is a tool of the ego. It’s not some random firing of synapses or some failure in our concentration abilities. It’s the way the ego uses our chaotic thoughts to create the chaotic world we believe we see in front of us. This monkey mind is the ego at work, projecting thoughts and feelings out into the world for us to perceive.
It is the chaos of these thoughts that makes the world seem so dangerous and unpredictable. If we truly are projecting the world we see, then if we can change our thoughts away from the chaos, the world we will experience will be less chaotic. In the Course, achieving peace is the goal, and that peace is in the mind. If we can stop listening to the ego and can realize attack and pain and guilt and fear are illusions, then we will discover the peace that was always there waiting.
Yet this world is only in the mind of its maker… Do not believe it is outside of yourself, for only by recognizing where it is will you gain control over it. For you do have control over your mind, since the mind is the mechanism of decision. (T‑12.III.9)
Learning to Be Quiet
Though A Course in Miracles is not primarily a contemplative practice, meditative elements are included. In the technique from ‘The Practice of Forgiveness’, it is important to experience the Holy Spirit within, and in order to do this, we must quiet our thoughts. Once we are in touch with the Holy Spirit, the full process of forgiveness can proceed.
The Course Workbook and Manual also provide a number of simple exercises for quieting the mind.
After you have read the idea and the related comments, the exercises should be done with your eyes closed and when you are alone in a quiet place, if possible. (W‑Review.I.3)
Three times today, set aside about ten minutes for a quiet time in which you try to leave your weakness behind. This is accomplished very simply, as you instruct yourself that you are not a body… Your will remains your teacher, and your will has all the strength to do what it desires. (W‑91.5)
…as soon as possible after waking take your quiet time, continuing a minute or two after you begin to find it difficult… The same procedures should be followed at night. Perhaps your quiet time should be fairly early in the evening, if it is not feasible for you to take it just before going to sleep… If possible, however, just before going to sleep is a desirable time to devote to God. It sets your mind into a pattern of rest, and orients you away from fear… (M‑16.4-5)
The plan is fairly simple. By setting aside some time every day, you have the chance to step away from the monkey mind and focus on what really matters. To you, this may be God or the Holy Spirit or an image of Jesus. It doesn’t matter how you do it, only that you do it consistently. You are showing the Holy Spirit your intent, and in changing your mind, intent is everything.
In the essay, ‘Finding the Holy Spirit’, there is a simple meditative technique you might use to focus away from your chaotic thoughts to the peaceful thought of the Holy Spirit. As you do, you are fundamentally changing the way you will interact with the world. Quieting the monkey mind frustrates the ego, since it is dependent on these chaotic thoughts for its existence.
As you practice forgiveness, and take some quiet time each day, you will be on the path to a different life. In time, the peacefulness that is naturally yours will take over your mind, and will be reflected in the world around you.
There is a way of living in the world that is not here, although it seems to be. You do not change appearance, though you smile more frequently. Your forehead is serene; your eyes are quiet. And the ones who walk the world as you do recognize their own. Yet those who have not yet perceived the way will recognize you also, and believe that you are like them, as you were before. (W‑155.1)
At Peace in the Chaos
It is important to note that the goal is to be able to forgive and touch the Holy Spirit in all kinds of situations. It is clearly easier to do this when everything around you is quiet, but if that is the only time you are able to forgive, peace will never fully arrive for you. So we use the quiet time to learn the techniques, with the ultimate goal of being able to apply forgiveness in the most chaotic situations possible. Then we will be on the road to continual forgiveness.
This [quiet time] is emphasized for practice periods at your stage of learning. It will be necessary, however, that you learn to require no special settings in which to apply what you have learned. You will need your learning most in situations that appear to be upsetting, rather than in those that already seem to be calm and quiet. The purpose of your learning is to enable you to bring the quiet with you, and to heal distress and turmoil… (W‑Review.I.4)
We can begin to heal the distress and turmoil in our lives by realizing the ego and the monkey mind are one and the same. By quieting one, you are weakening the other. Make it your goal to live in the peace inside your mind. Make it your goal to turn off the monkey mind once and for all, and hear only the soft clear loving voice of the Holy Spirit.
Today we let no ego thoughts direct our words or actions. When such thoughts occur, we quietly step back and look at them, and then we let them go. We do not want what they would bring with them. And so we do not choose to keep them. They are silent now. And in the stillness,… God speaks to us and tells us of our will, as we have chosen to remember Him. (W‑254.2)