The first conclusion most people come to through meditation is that “you can’t control the mind”. You can’t control the monkey.
You can’t simply say “stop” to the voice in your head.
Why is that?
Some people may not realize just how noisy their mind is, and that’s the first scary realization. When you sit and try to be quiet, your mind seems to get noticeably louder. It isn’t actually getting louder, but you’re just more aware of it as the rest of your senses calm down.
So if we can’t control the mind, what do we do to get it to calm down or even stop?
We give it a job to do.
We distract it by giving it a simple task. So instead of letting it just chatter away incessantly, we actively use it.
This is really, really important and seems to be where a lot of people go wrong with meditation.
Meditation is not a passive thing. You don’t just sit and expect stillness to happen.
Whatever task you give the monkey to do, you hover over the monkey, reminding it to get back to work as soon as you notice it goofing off.
In the case of our puppy, you don’t even let it see the alligator, you just gently pull on it’s leash every time it looks in that direction. If it does wander, don’t yell at it, but gently coax it back again.
Sometimes you’ll end up getting dragged into the story and wrestling with the alligator, but as you get more experienced, you’ll catch the puppy earlier and earlier and bring it back to whatever task you gave it.
So ironically, we use the mind to distract the mind.
Give the mind a chew toy
Give the mind something to focus on. This can be absolutely anything. It doesn’t need to be complicated but it does need to be repetitive.
Listen to your breath. Feel your heart beat. Listen to a cricket outside the window. Feel rosary beads or mala beads. Listen to a metronome.
Each of those things is very simple, but you have to be ferocious in your focus.
What do I mean by that?
So you know how sometimes you hear a noise in the middle of the night that wakes you up suddenly. How intensely you listen to the silence to see if you can hear it again. You almost hold your breath, you don’t dare move the bed sheets in case you miss it. You listen like your life depends on it.
Listening for a noise that you don’t know when or if it will happen again. That’s how ferociously you should focus.
Like trying to see something in a pitch black cave.
The point of meditation
So in essence, what we try to do during meditation is give your mind a simple but repetitive task to do and keep bringing it back to that task whenever we notice it has wandered off.
As your mind focuses more and more on the task, you (the real spiritual you) can sneak off and glimpse the stillness. As you get better, you may find that your mind gets so focused on the task that it slowly falls asleep, giving you longer and longer stretches to explore the silence.
What you find in that stillness is so tantalizing, so incredible that it will change your life.
You will no longer be spellbound by what your mind tells you. And over time, you will start to feel more in control and react differently to situations.
Your Mars rover will no longer grab your attention and waste your time with pictures of old yellow rocks. It won’t make up pictures of purple rocks to send you. It won’t avoid things because they’re difficult and it might get stuck. It won’t tell you you’re too fat. It won’t tell you you’re not good enough. It won’t always choose the same thing from the menu. It won’t persuade you not to try something new.
And if it does still tell you those things. You’ll just laugh at it and say, “nice try”.
So what sort of things can we do to entertain the monkey?