I am, I hate to admit it, a meditation flunky. It is not due to a lack of appreciation for the benefits of meditation, nor from want of trying. No, my lack of success with the more widespread forms of meditation can all be traced back to one thing, my monkey mind.
As a child I would sit in class desperately trying to focus on what my teachers taught me. I actually enjoyed school, but in junior high I began to notice how hard it was for me to concentrate. Since I assumed everyone else also had a mind that jumps from one topic to next every 7.9 seconds I just moved on with life and compensated by studying way more than most of my classmates to obtain similar results. I don’t really mind having struggled, it forced me to be very diligent and organized in my studying; two skills that surely helped me excel in college and get through graduate school. As an adult my monkey mind has many advantages: I can brainstorm efficiently, I am quick witted, and multi-tasking at times comes very naturally.
The major downsides as I see them are a tendency to ramble when I talk (although my French education is as much to blame for that as my neurology) and an ongoing struggle to meditate for any length of time.
Although what I am alluding to in my case is probably a mild form of ADD, the term “monkey mind” in meditation usually refers to the part of the mind that jumps from one thought to another, the chatter box in our heads. In December 2012 I made a personal commitment to develop a meditation practice. I asked Santa Claus for a meditation cushion, some candles and a quiet space to practice daily. I asked my friend, a yoga and meditation instructor, to personally coach me and I ordered at least six books on mindfulness and meditation.Well supported, well informed, and motivated I embarked on what would end up being five months of frustrated, half-assed attempts at building my practice.
Here were the results of my little experiment. No matter what kind of meditation practice I used my mind would not shut up, and when it would I would immediately start trying to analyze what had worked and why. In my failed attempts I would compose blog posts, make to-do lists and go over conversations with people in my mind. I enjoyed the down time, I benefited from taking up to an hour to do nothing but focus on myself, and for that reason I persisted. Kind friends reminded me that the deep breathing I already practice and taught was a form of meditation, but my goals were loftier; I wanted the quiet, still, introspective and mindful state I read about. For reasons of time and efficiency, I eventually gave up on my semi-serious foray into meditation, thus establishing myself as a meditation flunky.
What I did not give up was the practice of taking some time for myself.
Time that was spent focusing on not’s – not doing work, not calling back patients, not cleaning the house, not prepping the next meal and not planning out work. I would use an afternoon cup of coffee as an excuse to sit outside two to five times a week. Initially, I consciously focused my mind on the things around me: birds, plants, pets, sounds, smells. I would not fight my monkey brain, but rather would allow it to roam from one thought to the next.
My only rule to myself was that I was not to allow my mind to think about or focus on to-dos of any kind. When I first started I could do this for about five minutes and then, antsy, had to go back to my consummate planning. Little by little the need to consciously focus on my environment to exclude to-do thoughts was replaced by an ability to drift into day dreaming with little to no interruptions from the planner within. I was able to extend these periods of daydreaming and have been known to daydream for up to an hour. I once sat and did nothing other than stare out the window for an hour an a half, but that is a luxury I can rarely afford.
My monkey brain is present during these moments, it leaps from one thought to another, swaying back and forth and resting sometimes on one train of thought for longer periods of time. I still have no idea what it would feel like to completely quiet my mind, but this meditation flunky is pretty sure that in my own way I reached my goal. By accepting my limitations, needs and abilities and working them into the knowledge I had about what meditation was and why it worked I was able to bridge that gap between what I ideally wished for and what I now can do on a semi-regular basis.