It is very likely that you have been in a yoga class and the teacher referred to the “monkey mind.” The term is a brilliant metaphor for the restless and unsettled environment of the mind as its attention swings from one thought to the next like a monkey in the trees.
The mind is referenced in asana classes because ultimately the Yogic sciences deal with the mind. What most people know as “yoga” stems from the teachings of Hatha Yoga, a physical practice developed to prepare one for Raja Yoga, also known as the Yoga of the Mind, explained by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras.
Although the “monkey mind” expression is common place in modern yogic jargon, it has Buddhist roots that extend back to the later Qin Dynasty and a classical text called the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra. Originally written in Sanskrit, the Vimalakīrti was translated in 406 CE to Chinese by a monk and scholar known as Kumārajīva. It was then that the characters 心如猨猴, meaning “mind like a monkey,” appeared.
The ancient Yogis understood the nature of the mind to have similar qualities as the unsettled monkey and described the phenomenon using the words citta-vṛtti. Citta is the Sanskrit word for mind-stuff and can also be understood as the sum total of the mind. Vṛtti means whirlpool, waves and ripples. Thus a metaphor for the mind used in classic Indian Yogic teachings is not monkey, but rather lake -- the unsettled mind creates many waves on the waters of the lake that distort the capacity for the light of consciousness to shine through. A term used to explain this quality of mind is rajasic, meaning there is turbulence and activity that brings about distraction. A clear and pure mind is considered sattvic. A sattvic mind is calm, a still lake which allows the light of consciousness to shine through it.
Although Buddhist and Yogic philosophies use different words and metaphors to explain the active mind, both systems share a common observation that the mind moves. Despite their differences in description, both systems provide the invaluable lesson of becoming aware of our thoughts, thus creating the possibility to observe them and to detach from identifying with their “turbulence.” You could think of it as assuming the role of the bottom of the lake, or the trees that a monkey swings from. Both the lake and the trees hold stable space for the movement, allow for it to manifest -- the way a good friend can listen and support someone during emotional highs and lows.
Personal experience navigating the monkey mind has proven more successful when I approach the mind in this way -- as a friend -- accepting its mobile nature and choosing to identify more with the part of me that is observing. From here I’ve found the ability to begin working with my mind, observing how it’s conditioned and choosing which patterns to reinforce and which ones to quiet. It’s a very raw journey investigating the mind and seeing clearly how things are working - like getting to know a friend really well - as you see both the strengths and the weakness. The joy comes in accepting the mind for what is it and appreciating the opportunity to grow and evolve through awareness.
You don’t have control over the reality that your mind moves, it is a part of its nature. You do however have a choice of how to relate to the mind. In the spirit of supporting you in choosing to befriend your monkey mind, here are three simple steps to practice:
Be Aware: Practice breath based meditation for at least 5 minutes a day to heighten awareness of your moving mind.
Accept: Once aware of the thoughts and turbulence, practice acceptance. Often times when we fight activity, it is perpetuated. Find reassurance in the wisdom that it is the very nature of the mind to move.
Listen: Choose to identify with the aspect of you that is observing. Notice any patterns that might be present in the movement of the mind with a non-judgmental, loving and curious attitude.
Jillian is a yogini based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She leads weekly public yoga classes for adults and specializes in yoga for kids and families. Her studies have led her to complete trainings at YogaWorks, Karma Kids and Yoga Playgrounds. Jillian feels blessed to practice and teach yoga and is particularly passionate about empowering her students with tools to navigate the modern world with ease.