Meditation teachers often refer to the restless, self-entertaining wandering mind as the “monkey-mind.” Like a monkey left in a cage, or in a the jungle, the untrained conceptual mind picks up this thought-object one moment, drops it for another emotion-toy another moment, mouths on some some tasty yet inedible memory for another few minutes, snorts some vague future plan another, or chews an imagined idea or feeling the next, sniffing around some ancient hurt or grievance, teething-a-this, licking-a-that.
The monkey-mind is not good, not bad: it has no point to what it does. It’s just the endless play of the stream of random thought-processes, filling our view, leading mostly to nothing, a shadow engaged with insubstantial shadows believing some real life is happening, when, in fact, there are only the shifting shapes of empty-thought, hollowed out of any real meaning, providing no true direction for how to live our lives, from moment to moment. Left unexamined, the monkey-mind follows the gravitational pull of accumulated karma (or, as my Teacher defined it, “habit-mind”), and following this blind force pulls our behavior into actions and reactions which impose further sufferings on our lives. The word for this — monkey-mind following its own tail — is samsara, the wheel of suffering.
Without training in meditation, grounding ourselves in some awareness practices, we tend to float along mainly on the the dancing waves of our flitting thoughts. This burns into our consciousness an unstable, unsteady, even self-terrorizing sense of unfulfilled, unfulfillable sleepwalking through life.
The tech writer Linda Stone famously referred to this mind-state as “continuous partial attention”: “In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we’re inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.”
More than ever, it is important to stop what we are doing, and return to our originally grounded state. Finding a few minutes in our day, on a regular basis, to sit and be with the breath, is universally recognized for its ability to add clarity and true, substantial seeing and BEing in this ever-shifting meta-flow we call modern life.
Yet the monkey-mind is strong, so even just a few minutes of breathing here and there in the day — or even one of these meditation-on-the-go mindfulness apps — can often not be enough. The mind is trained too strongly by habit to prefer distraction, that it is often quite necessary to put aside time for longer retreats, for deeper and more immersive observation, reflection, and return to our undying, unmoving.
It is humbling to see the power of the monkey-mind lingering, even after more than three decades of intensive Zen practice. One example I use to illustrate this, in public talks, is what I call “completing Mahler.”
A little background is necessary: After the Buddha himself, and Zen Master Seung Sahn, my greatest, most all-inspiring intellectual/spiritual love and teacher is the indescribable cosmic soul of the Austro-Bohemian composer, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). His symphonic works so completely move my spirit that I limit listening to him to only several times per year. Somewhat shameful to admit that there is something in his expression that is just too overwhelming to my senses, too familiar to my painfully-constructed psychology, that it seems to shake my thinking and emotions for days and days after listening, and I have noticed that the pieces and fragments of his music remain in my meditation, like dust-mote fragments and shards of my own thoughts, floating down into view against the otherwise limitless space of my own original True Nature. I have learned, therefore, to rest listening to him, except quite rarely. So, the way a nicely rolled cigarette of fine tobacco might pleasure after a particularly good meal, yet linger in the clothing and throat for hours or even days thereafter, as a meditator, I choose to forego the pleasure of Mahler to a few, well-considered sessions per year, and not let his terrifying sublimity linger in my meditation practice too often. In the end, I choose the purity of meditative infinity over his sublimity, when given the choice (but please don’t tempt me!).
So, especially during retreats — and for several days to a week before the start of even a 3-day retreat — hearing Mahler is totally “verboten”. I know that if I listen to him, he will waft in and out of my sittings for several days, possessing and ravishing me, absolutely manhandling any clear samadhi back into his exquisite anguish, his yearning, struggling, self-contradicting, explosive mind — too much like my own, in so many respects that it truly frightens me. More than sex or imagined voyages or memories, the greatest temptation in my meditation — the one irresistible one — is having fragments of Mahler float like dust-motes in my near-view.
Once, some three years ago, while engaged in a 30-day silent intensive meditation retreat at our Zen Center in Regensburg, I had a surprising experience of the monkey-mind which showed the continuity of this habit, even after three decades of determined practice and untold number of intensive retreats on mountaintops in Asia.
Our Zen Center is located the second floor of a building situated on a tiny cobblestone street, right smack in the center of the Old Town of this beautiful UNESCO-listed city. The street is so narrow, it is basically wide enough for just one car to pass at a time.
Our neighbor across the narrow Gasse is none other than the famed priest, Father Georg Ratzinger, the brother of the retired former Pope Benedict (Josef Ratzinger). Fr. Ratzinger is a trained musician of sacred music, and legendary former head of the world-famous boys’ choir, the Regensburg Domspatzen. He enjoys orchestral music a great deal, and many days, the sound of orchestral music recordings can be heard wafting from his upstairs room. (Due perhaps to his advanced age of mid-90s, the music is played somewhat louder than usual, and in summer, with the windows flung open, the sound of this music is channeled up and down our narrow little cobblestone street, beginning sometimes before dawn!)
It was one day during the summer retreat in 2016. We had resumed the sitting meditation after morning work period, and were settled into the 10-12 period of sittings that would bring us to lunch. Our windows were wide open, to welcome a gentle summer breeze into the Dharma Room, which was filled with about 15 people, all sitting facing the wall, legs crossed, with attention brought to the breath and question inside. “What am I?”
The retreat had progressed well enough along, by that point, that I had already passed though some of the shakiness of the initial days, and was already experiencing such a clear, boundless, unshakeable infinite stillness of just-now vastness in all directions that even the tiniest thought was not arising, and if so, immediately, spontaneously dissolving into don’t-know’s absolute ether. The bliss of this complete become-one is indescribable! Everything and I were just pure inseparable Moment, and Moment was the universe. There were no separate things, no “I” or “it,” no here or there: vast emptiness without cease, without contour or border. It is the best place to “be.” In fact, it is literally the only place.
At some point midway through the second sitting, the notes of Mahler’s First Symphony came wafting out of Fr. Ratzinger’s bedroom windows. In particular, it was the Second Movement — and in that, the great swinging Ländler, which I have always cherished deeply, and which moves me with particular force, joy, exuberance, and the sweet contentment of something vaguely Central European lurking somewhere in my mind’s DNA.
Of course, I was drawn to the music, pouring into our Dharma Room. It is the first time I have heard beloved Mahler during full-on meditation, so it was such a strange surprise. The music was just music, at first — no different from bicycle sounds or bird sounds or pedestrian chatting-sounds passing by outside. Nothing special. That was interesting. It had a neutral feeling. “Oh, that is appearing.” That is all.
But then, as the minutes passed, and the rolling, swaying movement of Mahler’s exquisitely tortured Jewish-Bohemian soul poured in, I noticed embodied joy arising, and the familiar associations of pleasure and longing that such music naturally had always inspired in my soul. The movement of thinking was becoming apparent! I felt sucked out of pure “emptiness” into the emotional movements of a structured rhythm, melody, phrasing, and Mahler’s own characteristic personality. This suctioning out — back into the whirlwind realm of thinking — was an amazing thing to witness happen, of its own accord.
Yet what happened next truly astounded: During that summer, the Regensburg Synagogue was being expanded just two buildings away from our Dharma Room. The sound of drilling power tools and compressors sometimes momentarily announced themselves out of nowhere, without warning, in short bursts of intense rattling that blocked out all other sounds.
Just then, during the second sitting period, after witnessing several minutes of my own emotions emerging from ether-like emptiness and flowing back into the contoured weightedness of Mahler’s sharply existentialized emotions, a jackhammer suddenly sounded out, loudly. The metallic rattling was so total, it completely blotted out the rolling music of the stamping, pulsing, folky Second Movement. After just about 20 seconds of high-intensity jackhammer rattling, the sound ceased, and the music was there, again, albeit in a later part of the movement. Then the jackhammer rattled back, blocking out another 20 or so seconds, and stopped. This went on and on and on.
I noticed that, during these rude interstices of rattle, my thinking-mind was — without conscious effort — soundlessly “threading along” every note of the blotted-out sections of Mahler. Though I remained in meditation (albeit somewhat “compromised” by emotional identification with a favored piece of music), when the jackhammer covered up a section of Mahler, the monkey-mind filled it in, note for precious note. All of the instrumentation — in place! Layer after baklava layer of Mahler’s perfect scoring — in place! Rhythm and tempo — in place! When the jackhammer would pause, the music was there in exactly the place where monkey-mind had left off, not a single note out of order. Layered foreground-instrumentation and layered background-instrumentation were wedded together, seamlessly. Every jackhammered-“blotting out” was meticulously reconstructed, in situ, into Mahler’s sublime world, from years of remembered listening and absorption.
Seeing this was itself a great revelation. It showed the great ambition of the monkey-mind not to be forgotten, his determination not to find unemployment, given the right circumstances. Even in the clear, clear depths of meditation, when baited to life again, the slumbering monkey-mind becomes as industrious as before. He put on the cosmic forms of Mahler’s music, to entertain me with the hollowest
After several minutes of this experience, I was able to return, again, to that borderless realm of before-thinking mind again, and swim again in the smudgeless, no-form bliss of our original nature. The remainder of the symphony passed and could not move the mind so much as before. But it was not before I had seen, with blinding clarity, the ever-industrious workings of monkey-mind, even several days into retreat, to ascend herself so automatically to the level of even such a mind as Gustav Mahler! Anything to get attention, anything to fill empty space with its shadows and forms.
The shape-shifting monkey-mind is actually a product of evolution: many scientists believe that we are somewhat hard-wired to constantly produce alternative scenarios in our brains for use in case attacked or challenged by competitor or foe. “If attacked from this direction, how should I respond?” “If chased from that direction, what are the possible routes to safety?” “If attacked by club, what objects within reach could be weaponized to protect my brood?” This hard-wiring, relentlessly keying up alternative scenarios and realities, ensured the survival of so much DNA to the current age. But it does not serve our complicated lives in a modern world, subsumed in urban settings layered over with complex relationships and calculations, varying social settings. “The mind is a great servant, but a terrible master.” Monkey-mind does not function so well in the driver’s seat.
In his 1819 classic poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats wrote, “Heard melodies are sweet / But those unheard are sweeter still.” I would very much beg to differ, especially when it comes to the melodies of Mahler. But this is especially true for a Zen meditator, for whom these “unheard melodies” are seen to be what they really are: the whipsaw flashings of the tail of monkey-mind.
(Derived from an essay first published in Consider Journal, Winter 2019/20)