23 March 2012

Monkey Mind

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:59 am

You know that constant chatter going on inside your head, flitting from thought to thought like a monkey swinging from vine to vine, distracting you with its urgency, clamoring for your attention, keeping you anxious all day and waking you up at night?

Me neither.



  1. The monkey mind. My stream of consciousness is a babbling brook that will only be calmed by getting up and having tea. I resort to a novel as well, something light. I’ve just read The Dog of the South by Charles Portis. That sort of poundage.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 23 March 2012 @ 6:30 pm

  2. Only during fairly short intervals of my life have I experienced persistent monkey mind. I’ve undertaken no disciplines to keep it under control; apparently when I’m not focused I’m vacant. Consequently I rarely feel anxious or too busy to be interrupted. My wife was amazed when I explained myself to her this morning: evidently all this time she has regarded me as possessing odd mental virtues.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  3. The monkey mind doesn’t have an opposable thumb so it can’t grip well but it has prehensile toes so it can brachiate freely across different topics. Could it be an intermediate state between the waking, rational, structured, organised thought process and the dream. We are powerless before it like in a dream but yet more conscious than in the average dream. It’s not always anxiety led either. Perhaps it might be a knot that needs to be untied.

    Monkey mind in Eastern Meditation circles refers to a lack of concentration or one pointedness. At the higher levels when this is attained some teachers impugn it as a trap.

    A stage of life or no stage of life, meditation, control of mental functions – finding that these cause distraction to me, thus verily do I firmly abide.

    (from Ashtavakra Gita 12.3)


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 24 March 2012 @ 5:04 am

  4. Most people find babbling brooks quite soothing. Evidently Hemingway did, spending all that time wading in trout streams. I have tinnitus in my right ear, which produces a constant high-pitched squealing that’s amplified by silence in the outside world: then its clamor for concentrated attention is hard to resist. A babbling brook would be a good distraction. I wonder if there are practitioners who train people in developing monkey mind. In a sense that’s what certain aspects of pscyhoanalytic practice, especially free association, are about: loosening up the more concentrated obsessive channels carved deeply in the mind so that the thoughts and feelings begin to skitter nearer the surface, to swing more freely across the dendrites. I often experience this loose mental activity while walking and running; maybe then I turn my body into a babbling brook, my feet into monkey hands.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 March 2012 @ 7:52 am

  5. “Consequently I rarely feel anxious or too busy to be interrupted. My wife was amazed when I explained myself to her this morning: evidently all this time she has regarded me as possessing odd mental virtues.”

    So did Anne start singing ‘Getting to Know You’ at table? You really are too much sometimes, as here beginning to write like Ronald Firbank.

    “The monkey mind doesn’t have an opposable thumb so it can’t grip well but it has prehensile toes so it can brachiate freely across different topics. Could it be an intermediate state between the waking, rational, structured, organised thought process and the dream. We are powerless before it like in a dream but yet more conscious than in the average dream. It’s not always anxiety led either. Perhaps it might be a knot that needs to be untied.”

    That’s excellent (pray forgive the overstated fulsomeness, after all I just panned an artist’s hideous work and just now found he is of a recently-generated dynasty who are now hogging several galleries at one time, as well as other public spaces and many journals.) That’s very pictorial and useful, therapeutic for attacks of ‘monkey mind’, esp. the last part–and that is the hardest one to deal with, as when a day of ‘monkey mind’ exploded first into depression and yesterday into a long handwritten poem. Although that may not be exactly what you mean, it’s still related. The problem with ‘monkey mind’ is it’s never pleasant in the sense of calm, e.g., if I knew beforehand that I would get a long poem in exchange for going through some really hard ‘monkey mind country’, I would choose not to. So it’s not only anxiety but creativity which hasn’t reached the full surface yet. I see how it’s between the waking and the dream very clearly, but it’s not also always within the control of a meditation practice, most likely, since it can also be the tension that forces one out of laziness (and monkey mind is sometimes a form of laziness as well) and energizes one enough to climb up to that more one-pointed plateau where you can stay as long as you can sustain it. Wonder if it also works, conventional wisdom of the East notwithstanding, as ‘discovering meditation as a result’, rather than always the other way around, with meditation as practice leading out of monkey mind.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 24 March 2012 @ 10:13 am

  6. “exploded first into depression and yesterday into a long handwritten poem. ”

    I should add that in between the two I did a fairly long session of Pranayama yoga, which I was taught back in 1986, and it used to always lead out of monkey mind and related symptoms. I stopped using it about 1999, and then recommenced in November of 2011, with at first achieving the results I had been able to years ago; but monkey mind has proved stronger most recently, and was clearly so two days ago. On the other hand, it was NOT stronger than certain other beneficial practices. Full benefits of all formalized meditation are probably consciously realizable by those who are able to focus on it almost all the time, as swamis and yogis. The actress and model Cynthia O’Neal, whom John and I have discussed a number of times, and who started Friends in Deed, which is sort of New Age ‘group healing’ of people with life-threatening diseases, went along the ‘spiritual path’ in the trendy forms that sprang up in the 70s here and elsewhere, and after Werner Erhart of EST (whom she still calls ‘her teacher’, and who lives in the Cayman Islands by now…I saw his early70s ‘guest seminar’, where he got all Vegas on everybody’s ass, I was thoroughly repelled), she, like many other ‘est graduates’, started going to these retreats run by Swami Muktananda, Sai Baba, and others. I forget which one it was, on a Caribbean retreat after her husband, Patrick Oneal’s, death, to whom she said “You know, I’m not a very good sitter”. This is about the only thing that really rings totally useful about her memoir ‘Talk Softly’, which I read about a year and a half ago. The guru said he understood, and that her particular ‘yoga’ was accomplished in her work. That made sense to me, even though it’s reminiscent of the hierarchies yogis and ‘the illumined ones’ set up: Some of them will talk about a ‘god-man’ at the top, who never has sex and who is more purely spiritual than the next lower rung, which could even be a philanthropic and energetic man of affairs, successful business and family, although he did not say it in a condescending way like that. Her having said so to a guru in an informal private meeting was the reason it meant something. She’s also not much of an intellectual, but she’s always been smart in some ways, although for the most part I don’t like her book–like most extreme New Agers of the time, she buys such trips as ‘you choose your parents’ and ‘you create your own reality’, which translates as making sure never to bring up things like mass murders, since ‘self-choice’, in order to be true, needs to apply in all cases. The man who initiated this ‘rebirthing breathing method’ based on Pranayama, Leonard Orr, has long claimed to by physically immortal, and yet has terrible ‘monkey mind episodes’ of ‘internet poor-mouth’ in which he begs for money to take his groups to India, and tried to explain the death of Babaji, which freaked him out, as a means of ‘blessing what most understand as death’. After 9/11, he wrote an appalling screed about how New York was the ‘most deathist of all cities’, and that that was why it happened. It was so grotesque, I emailed him and told him so. If I hadn’t written him, it would have only been because I thought he might not have been wholly spurious.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 24 March 2012 @ 10:34 am

    • Cynthia’s spiritual teacher was/is Ram Dass- wonderful man–Jew, gay, Harvard doctorate–great guy with a sense of humor and NOT celibate– he had a stroke years ago and lives in Hawaii– He has been one of my greatest influences along with Pee Wee Herman, Thomas Merton, and my dog Princess–


      Comment by Mike — 4 March 2015 @ 9:09 am

      • Cynthia has done great work over the years–GREAT work–she IS kind, generous but like all of us is not perfect– she is quintessential WASP– a bit snooty and has grown up with a big dose of self-entitlement–though she’s NOT afraid to look at and to work on these “character defects.”


        Comment by Mike — 4 March 2015 @ 9:17 am

  7. Monkey mind must be a more intrusive and insistent disruptive force than I’ve been granting it. Of course there’s always been chatter about “divergent thinking” as the source of creativity. The new neural jargon invokes “transient hypofrontality”: instead of following the direct, quick, and efficient channels for thinking from point A to point B, your brain activation meanders through the neural network, forming new associations. Empirical evidence has found correlations between physical exercise and transient hypofrontality. Exercise places rigorous demands not just on the body but on the brain as well: locomotion, coordination, balance, metabolic stability, perceptual monitoring of a rapidly-changing environment, etc. These brain functions put a heavy load on the midbrain and brain stem, shifting energy resources away from the frontal and prefrontal areas, loosening them up.

    Uncanny your mentioning Firbank since last night we watched “WIlde,” a biography about Oscar.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 March 2012 @ 11:19 am

  8. illegal:
    Thanks. Monkey mind is exhausting and can knock the fizz out of you. You are right about pranayama as a way of centering again and calming down. Domasio also speaks of 3 centres of the self which indicates that chakra meditation has a scientific basis. If one were looking at the phenomenon of monkey mind from the Bergsonian perspective one could view it as the oscillation between the outer realms of the cone of memory and the point where it impinges on the plane of time. Immediate response is a motor memory reaction. In more complex decisions about action we have to bring into focus other parts of the memory cone. There is then a toing and froing of the attention. Particularly when there is a problem about what to do my speculation is that this to and fro becomes a self-stoking cycle.

    I know, neuroscience on the back of an envelope. Did you know that Ronald Firbank was brought into the Catholic Church by Fr. Robert Hugh Benson when he was at Oxford. I blogged about the amazing Famille Benson:


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 24 March 2012 @ 3:24 pm

  9. I’m happy for both of you that you’ve found an effective treatment. I’ve neither read about nor experienced these yogic techniques. Pranayama involves the exercise some sort of intentional breathing technique, yes? In through the nose, out through the mouth? From a subjective point of view, do you find that it’s the act of sustained concentration that tames the mental clamor? Or does the metabolic slowing down caused by just sitting and breathing tend to lower the mental agitation level? Or does shifting your focus to a regular bodily function serve to quiet the mind?


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 March 2012 @ 4:13 pm

  10. John:
    It’s ye olde bio-feedback. When the mind is calm the breathing will be also so the idea is that if you bring the breathing to a calm diaphragmatic type then the mind will automatically follow or reflect it. It’s a practical thing, the exact metaphysics of it doesn’t matter. There are many different forms of pranayama but the basis sort is inhalation 1 unit, retention 4 units, exhalation 2 units. 5 second units suit me. Breathing is done using one nostril at a time.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 24 March 2012 @ 5:10 pm

  11. The one I’ve done is all though the nose, and it’s done lying down. I no longer find it to be the ‘effective treatment’ so much, as you call it and as it once seemed to be. They never wanted me to count the breaths, but I like to, and that’s how I find that my concentration has been off in some ways. Recently, I tried it without counting, with little difference in results. It may have better results than nothing at all, as the other night when I tried it again.

    I’m sure there are many yogic breathing techniques sitting up and with the mouth and nose, etc., and this one was often done in hot water and cold water for the real inner circle, which I never can do with these people. They were usually trying to sell something, like my instructor tried to sell me Terri Cole Whittaker seminars, and I wouldn’t do it. One time I did a group session with my guy, and this was pretty annoying too, once was enough. I can’t stand the New Age feel-good stuff very long: Once you get in groups of it, you find another of its facets; most of them none too smart, and often proud of it, and ‘ignorance’ not supposed to be important. They’ll take up or real-life criminals, and attack somebody on the net viciously if they think something typed is snobbish, and blah and blah and blah. The breathing was worth it, a few ideas here and there.

    Anyway, you connect the inhale with the exhale so that it’s a continuous breathing. You’re not really supposed to start doing it by yourself until your teacher tells you to, but I did anyway, with good results. When you get warmed up and really going, you can let the breathing go very fast and then finally you have ‘tetany’, which I’ve never heard elsewhere, in which the joints tend to stiffen and quicken a bit. It really will make your hands be sort of paralyzed momentarily, but not something you can’t stretch out of. I haven’t recently been able to concentrate well enough to reach the tetany point, at which point you actually do get a kind of release. The tetany can be experienced in the internal organs as well, it’s kind of like a numbness, but stimulating too. I also did Hatha Yoga with a teacher, but she had definite agendas which quickly repelled me.

    Looked at the blogpost, Michael. Thought it might have to do with the Lucia person. Didn’t know Firbank had been involved with them, but the person who got me onto Firbank then wanted me to read the Lucia books, which were supposed to follow, usually. They didn’t really for me, of that sort of thing I thought Firbank much funnier, as with lines like ‘The Queen was looking singularly French in a gold helmet…’ My friend painter Jack Noordhoorn showed me his fairly extensive series of drawings from scenes from the Lucia books just last week, suggested only by the text. I liked most of them quite a lot, despite the preponderance of bony spinsters. He loved the books, though. Was interesting post.

    I think the pranayama as I’ve done it is one thing you can do that does work until it also may seem a form of time-wasting. If it does work now, it’s more a matter of chance, just as deep sleep is harder to get as you get older. In the old book I used to have ‘Light on Yoga’ by B.K.S. Iyengar, the text said the breathing yogas could be dangerous and were delicate, something like that. Somehow, once I’d been taken through the process by one of these semi-official practitioners, it didn’t seem to be so. I did it after the Hatha Yoga teacher and her essential redneckery had been dispensed with–she was primarily interested in getting people to do manual labour as a discipline at her ashram upstate. As a result, she ended up leaving NYC, and none too soon after I found out what she was about. She hated all Western culture as ‘unspiritual’, and I came to despise her. Her husband was as under her control as Ahab was under Jezebel’s, and they eventually moved permanently into their octagonal 2-story house with octagonal windows, and tried to run people’s lives from there. It was headed by an oldish Lesbian for years, who was most bizarre and witchy, and then they took it over, but I looked at their site a few months ago after all these years, and it has a scary look to it, even with all that natural beauty in the Berkshires. Her husband stayed in the building till 1997, then left to my great happiness. He always smirked with disapproval at everything I did after their unsuccessful attempt to ‘encult’ me. They actually thought I was going to be a regular ‘karma-yoga’ slave for them. Lord. And you should have HEARD him in the meditation groups at the ashram, when we’d have to intone ‘Om’. He was so fucking hilarious, even out there in the country it came out with this huge material plop, as ‘OAMMMME’. Sounded more like ‘Oklahoma’ abbreviated than the rounded immateriality it ought to have. Friends I told this about called him the ‘OAM-RAM MAN’. He was a native Coloradoan. His children wrote him letters addressed ‘DAD’ in giant script.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 24 March 2012 @ 5:36 pm

  12. Michael’s is probably the more authentic traditional yogic one. I might try what I do with one nostril, that could be a way of automatically allowing concentration, partially for being a new sensation. And especially since I have some sinus allergies, it could be health-inducing in a physically local way (one nostril has more problems than the other, so that could be done.) His sounds the more formal way, with different measures of units, it’s something I could imagine integrating gradually but not too rigorously. Since this rather basic connected-breathing has worked even a few months ago when I first re-started after some 13 years, and the first time I even achieved that ‘tetany’ sensation, which is very relaxing once reached, I do know that that way worked even if it’s not the purist’s approach. In the old days, I didn’t have a problem with finding it less interesting than certain aspects of the monkey mind. The monkey mind is definitely interesting as long as it’s there, because it’s there to tell you something. But it can go too far too. But literally anything can stop the monkey mind from taking you over, including money.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 24 March 2012 @ 6:17 pm

  13. Illegal:
    A few rounds of that pranayama will do no harm, sitting in asana and without strain. The trouble that can arise comes from people that do too much of it and become too conscious of their breathing. When they fall asleep they can stop breathing and wake themselves up.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 24 March 2012 @ 6:44 pm

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