Monkey Mind is a Buddhist term for mental noise. It’s what can happen when (if you’re lucky) you are having a massage and trying to enjoy the experience. If you are like I am, focusing on a massage is difficult because there is so much swirling around my brain: to-do lists, the sound of steps in the hall, the masseuse’s breathing, my itchy nose and–the granddaddy of them all–self-reproach for the inability to relax and enjoy the experience.
A couple of weeks ago I spent a morning meditating with my son and daughter-in-law and 20 of their fellow-Buddhists in a zendo in the Sierra foothills. The meditation period was divided into four 30-minute segments with 10-minute breaks between each of the sessions. If your idea of Buddhism is that it is an easy-going sort of practice, scotch that idea immediately. The sessions are precisely timed, the meditation cushions are set out in a pattern around the room and there is a gong for every segment of the proceedings.
Clearing one’s Monkey Mind is difficult. To make it easier, many meditators count their breaths. One breath in, one breath out: 1-1, 2-2, 3-3—up to 10. I use this system when I go to sleep at night and it works well. But at the zendo there was so much noise in my fevered brain that I would get up to 23 or more before I reined my thoughts in and went back to one. The brain noise felt literal: a marching band of worries, physical discomfort from sitting still, self-recrimination for being unable to concentrate and repressed giggles at the various digestive noises in the room. When the occasional period of clarity made an appearance, it was exciting (in a calm kind of way, of course).