My mind has a mind of its own.
It’s good to know I’m not alone in this. Apparently it’s been a common struggle throughout the ages, so we can’t even blame cell phones and video games for our gnat-sized attention spans. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient text on the art and science of yoga, we learn yoga’s true purpose, and no, it’s not to fit in Lulumon pants. In Book 1, Sutra 2, the sage Patanjali tells us that the purpose of yoga is to still the waves of the mind: Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.
This tendency of the mind to run from one thing to the next is often described as the monkey mind. If you suddenly conjured up a mental image of a frolicking chimpanzee jumping on your bed, screaming happily while throwing your good china against the wall, you get the idea.
My mind can be like that. Through years of practicing and teaching yoga and meditation, I’ve made a little progress on the path, but I’ll confess that some days are much better than others.
I had a talk with my monkey mind last weekend when it interrupted me with a stream of nonsense the minute I sat down to meditate. Here’s how it went:
Me (establishing a comfortable, cross-legged position on my cushion): OMMM…
I felt good. The candles on my altar were flickering softly.
Monkey Mind: Hey, it’s cold in here!
Me (sitting a little taller and drawing my shawl more snugly around me): Focus on the breath, sweetheart. Inhale deeply. Exhale completely.
It is always best to treat the mind gently and lovingly, rather than trying to force it to bend to your will. I managed a few slow, deep breaths to settle myself and began to feel more in control. Then I let my breath return to normal and tried to focus my mind on it.
Monkey Mind: My nose itches.
Me: Shhh. Back to the breath. (Inhale, exhale, repeat.)
Monkey Mind: I said, my nose itches!
Without my permission, my nose started to twitch like a rabbit’s. I will not scratch my nose, I told myself, and then, thankfully, the itch disappeared. I returned my attention to my breath for about 30 seconds.
Sri Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga® (my yoga), outlines three steps in dealing with distracting thoughts during meditation:
- Treat the thought like an uninvited guest and just ignore it. Maybe it’ll go away.
- Watch the thought in a detached manner and let it pass. Sometimes, like a naughty child when a parent enters the room, a wild thought will settle down when it realizes it’s been caught.
- Negotiate with the thought. Offer it an appointment with you later, after you finish your practice.
I tried diligently to employ these steps.
Monkey Mind: What’s that noise?
Me (to myself): Ignore the monkey. Maybe it’ll go away. (Step One)
Monkey Mind: What’s that noise? Is it outside? Can we look out the window?
Me: I’m ignoring you.
Monkey Mind: I think someone’s at the door.
I caught myself just before I opened my eyes toward the window and managed to return to witnessing the breath for about 15 seconds this time.
Monkey Mind: My foot is falling asleep. We need to get up.
Me: Not yet.
Step Two involves witnessing the thought without becoming attached to it. So I spent a moment listening to my mind whine about my foot in a detached way, much like you would watch raindrops slide down your windowpane. Eventually the whining stopped and things were quiet for few minutes.
Monkey Mind: Hey, you left those shirts in the washing machine.
At this point, I wondered if I was wasting my time. Maybe I should just get up, I thought. I have a lot to do…
Me (to myself): No, we are not getting up. We are staying right here and we are going to finish our practice.
Monkey Mind: I am SO uncomfortable! Please, please, uncross my legs! Do you think we can order a pizza? What do you want to do today? I really like butterflies. Did you call your sister? I want to go to the movies! Can we? Huh? Huh?
Me: All right! I give up! Why can’t you let me be still for five minutes?
For a moment, Monkey Mind seemed surprised by the outburst. Then:
Monkey Mind: It’s my job to generate thoughts. If I stopped, you might fire me!
Me: It’s your job to do as I ask you, not to turn my head into a three-ring circus. How do you expect us to accomplish anything if we can’t cooperate with each other?
Monkey Mind: I’m only trying to help. I have lots of good ideas.
Me: You do have good ideas sometimes. But I haven’t heard a single one from you today. You know that this is important to me. It takes focus and concentration to meditate. I can’t focus if you won’t. Don’t you want to get stronger and more peaceful?
Monkey Mind: So you don’t want to go to the movies?
Me: I’ll make a deal with you. Let me finish my practice in peace, and then we’ll go to the movies. We might even order a pizza! (Step Three: negotiate)
Monkey Mind: I want spinach and mushroom!
Me: Okay, spinach and mushroom. Now let’s get back to work.