From Monkey Mind to No Mind
Mind, as a noun, is quite misleading. It sounds like a part of your body, an organ even, while it’s actually a function of the brain. It’s a process that your consciousness perceives as the inner chatter, a relentless succession of thoughts. Only by making that distinction do you have a chance to take control over the mind.
The monkey mind
Picture this. You are on the subway on the way to work. You see an ad promoting a cookbook. You remember your plans for dinner and make a mental note to remember to buy fresh basil on your way home. You work out which shop you’ll stop by to get the freshest possible basil and what time you’ll need to leave work. You really hope that your boss does not come up with a last minute task right before you are about to finish for the day as he always does. There must be at least a hundred unread emails waiting for you in your inbox like every Monday. But you decide not to even open them until you have finished the report you were supposed to submit on Friday…
Sounds familiar? How do you get from a cookbook to worrying about the shitty tasks waiting for you at work?
That’s the speciality of the monkey mind. It jumps from one thought to the next based on some sort of real or perceived relation. The point is that it’s random. The mind leads, you follow. And if you pay closer attention you’ll see that it often revolves around stuff you fear or worry about. So it doesn’t matter what you see on the subway, your mind quickly finds its way back to rumination over what makes you anxious without you ever noticing.
This is the default state of your mind. Much of the time you are lost in thought, going with whatever the mind throws at you. When you are lost in thought, you are not present in the moment by definition. The mind can only be thinking about the past or the future. The present, you can only be in, not think about. And for that to happen, the monkey mind needs to shut down.
Contemplation is directed thought. When you set out to solve an intellectual problem or explore different aspects of an idea and apply a specific thought process to it, you are in contemplation. There is an element of randomness to this process as well, but you define the parameters within which your mind is free to roam.
For instance, you get a proposal in the mail from your phone provider to upgrade your subscription to get cheaper rates. You need to make a choice. You begin by looking at your current phone usage and extrapolate that into the future. You calculate how much you’d pay in either package and so on. Even though you may not be aware of the many biases that influence your thought process, by doing this, the monkey mind is already confined within limits you draw.
You may apply directed thinking to much less practical subjects, like death for instance. By contemplating how and when you might die, you can become more aware of the time you have to live and to spend it on things that matter to you.
In contemplation you don’t go around in circles. Even if your mind tries to lead you off track towards some anxiety, you consciously pull it back to the subject of your contemplation. A major difference compared to the monkey mind.
What contemplation does have in common with getting lost in thought though is it’s past or future focused. You can’t be contemplating the present even if you try.
So even if you are conscious of the difference between getting lost in thought and contemplation, your mind will try to trick you into believing that you are contemplating, while you are just day dreaming. If you start contemplating whatever the mind throws at you, you are still lost in thought. If you contemplate the same thing over and over again without coming to any conclusion, then you are also lost in thought.
One level up is concentration, where the random element disappears completely. There is just a single thing that your whole awareness is focused on and your mind stops moving. Concentration is beyond thought.
Take driving as an example. When you drive back and forth to work, a route you’ve done hundreds of times, your full attention will not be occupied with driving. Your built in autopilot will take care of handling the steering wheel shifting gears and all the rest, while your mind can wander off to random territories.
Contrast that with a new route you’ve never driven and suppose it’s an emergency. You are speeding well over the limit and what’s safe. In that situation, your mind can’t move. Your awareness is fully focused on keeping the car on the road, because it’s a matter of life and death. There is no way you thoughts about buying fresh basil or having to finish a report will pop up in that situation.
In that deep concentration, your thinking mind is useless. It’s way too slow. So you move beyond it and get into a flow state. You become one with the moment, forget about yourself and the whole world. There is only the activity, and the observer disappears. This can occur in many different ways and activities, especially when the stakes are high or when the activity is highly creative, challenging and intense.
Meditation – No mind
Meditation is also a state of flow, but without any activity. In concentration the mind cannot move, while in meditation the mind disappears completely. It’s a state of no mind and non doing, just pure being.
Probably everybody has spontaneous glimpses of meditation despite being stuck with the monkey mind most of the time. The trick is developing an awareness of these different stages of the mind and once that awareness is there, you can take control of the mind instead of it controlling you.
There are many different ways of practising no mind. It’ll be a challenge initially whatever method you choose as the mind has this strong tendency to keep moving. On the up side, as soon as you catch the monkey mind in the act, you’ve already stopped it. It will resurface again and again, but with practice, the awareness becomes stronger. And then you can consciously choose when you want to let your mind roam free, when you want to contemplate something or go beyond thinking and experience becoming one with existence.