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               Dont Feed The Monkeys
   Coping with thought during meditation         

The Monkey Mind, what an apt expression! Anyone who has tried meditation has some idea of what it means. Thoughts pull attention here and there and may seem to take us out of meditation altogether; they become obsessive. Feeding the monkeys is buying into the show of proliferating thought, reifying it, being led off by it. It is taking thought too seriously. A related metaphor is the allegory of a monkey stretching as far as he can to grab the reflection of the moon in water. He cannot understand that he is looking in the wrong place.     

     Virtually all the passages in the Pali Canon describing mindfulness meditation include statements such as ". . . any memories and resolves related to the household life are abandoned," or, ". . . put away those worldly cares in which depression and delight take root." [1]  Easier said than done.

     I have found no single technique to quell the monkey and there are things to be learned by watching his antics. The best response to obsessive thought or concept formation - papañca in Buddhist terminology - depends on the state of mind of the meditator at the time and the strength of the emotions which are driving the thoughts. Recommended approaches from the Pali Canon and from contemporary teachings can be grouped under obvious alternatives: turn away, or examine. The former is the more commonly-met instruction; understanding through observation and investigation is the main approach described in the Satipatthâna Sutta. [2]

     Turn away or suppress: Should we try to ignore the monkey jumping about and concentrate on something right at hand, such as the body or the breath? Should we substitute a "productive" meditation object, hoping that the monkey will not jump on our shoulder? Should we get tough, throw rocks at the monkey, if gentler methods are not keeping him from distracting us?

     Suppression can be simple substitution, a choice to turn attention elsewhere, to "put away those worldly cares", or it can be a firm determination to stop a flow of thought. I do not believe that angry suppression is ever advisable.  Hostility toward any aspect of our experience causes pain which will have to be worked through later on. We can scare the monkey away - temporarily - but we are left with feelings of frustration, and the depressing sense that this approach is not really leading us in the direction we want to go. Anger about the wandering mind or "unskillful thoughts" is a very common experience and sometimes goes unacknowledged. Try to be clear about anger, self-criticism, or impatience as it occurs, then see if you can find some acceptance and compassion for yourself. Patience and acceptance can coexist with eagerness to improve meditation skills, and with making choices.

Insight meditation is a long adventure and attempts to find shortcuts may turn out to be grasping at a reflection of the moon.

. If the feelings provoking thoughts are not very strong, ignoring both may be a path to deeper concentration.  Sometimes, however, feelings remain after the thinking is dropped, leaving a constricted silence. Being sensitive to the current mental atmosphere is important and can easily be missed because it is in the background. Then there is repressed material, things you once had to push away and forget you ever knew. Some of this may impinge on concentration and reveal itself over a series of difficult sittings. It can be like magma starting to appear in rocks that seemed solid. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the return of the repressed from some qualified person.

During times when the mind is racing or thoughts are fragmented, the best that can be done may be to hold onto an anchor such as the breath, or the pressure of the meditation cushion, then watch what happens next. Repeating "thinking, thinking" over and over is a mindless way to drive out ordinary thought with an incessant din of very simple thinking.[3] On the other hand, just focusing on the body sensation you are feeling (vedanâ), or naming the emotion may help if attention keeps going off into ideation. It can prevent a spiral of feelings driving thoughts which lead to more feelings generating more thoughts, and so on. Naming helps with differentiation and can sometimes clear up denial. I believe you will find that it is not possible to concentrate on thoughts and feelings in the same moment. A rapid alternation between the two may give the impression that they are simultaneous, however.

     The novelist Iris Murdoch said, "We defend ourselves by descriptions and tame the world by generalizing." [4] Thinking is often a defense, either intellectualizing or rationalization, or a way of getting away from an uncomfortable place during meditation. It is frequently pleasure-seeking. While meditating I sometimes find my mind thirsting for some intellectual project. I must confess that parts of this article were sketched out during such happy excursions. If I investigate the feeling of pleasure as feeling, other things open up.


 Occasionally thoughts will pop up that are the answers to some practical problem one had been working on earlier. One way to handle this is to welcome the useful idea, but remind oneself that there will be time outside of meditation to work on it further. Civilization and art would be nowhere without thought, of course; both the kind that keeps close to what is going on (vitakka-vicâra) and the flying kind (papañca). It is a matter of the right focus for the job at hand.

     I am one of those people who sometimes hears the voice of a commentator softly describing what is happening in meditation. This is a "self;" it has my tone of voice. It goes away, or becomes very intermittent when concentration deepens. I wonder whether this is merely a way to remember sequences and differentiate happenings, or is it a subtle attempt to judge and control the meditation. Lately I don't pay much attention to it. [5]

Observation and investigation: Would choiceless awareness, moment after moment, be the method of choice as the monkey leads us down a path of fantasy or planning? Often it may help to let thoughts run for a while, stopping just briefly to remember some themes, incidents and moods if you can. At the start of a sitting it may take a while for thoughts to settle down.  After all, in our daily activities the mind is normally very active. The monkey mind is reinforced by cultural values which emphasize competition and action.

What keeps the monkey active? What sends her away? Look for the things that set off a cloud of thoughts, or turn back to closely examine something that led to a sudden collapse of concept construction. Learning to know clearly such sequences leads to understanding the interaction between emotions and thinking, how they build upon each other, as mentioned above. Close observation of what at first may seem like a meaningless wandering of the mind can reveal interesting things to pursue more deeply. Some image or phrase in the flow can become a portal to a much deeper experience. Let yourself be drawn into one of these.  It is easy to make too much of an issue of thinking, being perfectionistic about trying to eliminate all of it. People report that thinking "with the volume turned down" may be present in the background while entering states of absorption and bliss.

     The study of sequences cannot go on at the same time as they are occurring. One of the central problems of insight meditation is finding a way to achieve clear, continuous and remembered observation without interfering with what is observed. The only way I know for approximating this is anupassana, or reflecting back. Dr. David Kalupahana puts this very well. ". . .  in the description of mindfulness available in the very popular discourse on The Setting up of Mindfulness (Satipatthâna) one is urged to reflect on or perceive retrospectively (anupassana) the functioning of the physical personality (kaya), feelings or sensations (vedana), thought (citta), and ideas (dhamma) . . . . Reflective awareness is an extremely important means of knowing when knowledge of things "as they really are" is not a possibility. It is radical empiricism - the recognition that experience is not atomic but a flux whose content is invariably associated with the past." [6]

     How does reflective awareness of thought and ideas differ from tossing bannanas to the monkeys? The difference lies in keeping close to the heart/mind activities that are taking place whithout getting led off into theories and speculation. The Buddha said his teaching ". . . is for one who likes and delights in nippañca.", thinking free of complications. [7]  For example, the fourth section of the Satipatthâna Sutta proposes an investigation of "the seven factors of enlightenment" (bojjhanga).  If I think about "equanimity" - one of the seven - as a concept I am stuck. On the other hand if I am at a place where I can recognize and go with it as an activity, good things happen.

     Questioning the logic or appropriateness of a belief - whether it fits the facts - can be part of meditation as I understand it, although some schools of meditation would say it is not. Much useless baggage may be found. A friend who is a veteran meditator in the Zen tradition wrote me recently,  "When I damn [sic] the stream of what I'll call thought for a moment, and try to follow it to some source, the result is often absurd, and I start to laugh!"

     The practice of letting thoughts do their thing while returning frequently to a point of observation, an anchor, eventually leads to periods when you are less identified with thoughts. There they go, and here you are quietly watching them. Learning to contemplate your thoughts and feelings from a quiet vantage point is a real achievement. It requires practice, but once experienced you will find that a burden has been lifted. It comes as a great relief not to have to own thoughts and defend them for a while. The belief that thoughts are things, possessions, is usually unacknowledged; we are not "'supposed" to believe that. It can be readily observed, however, when we find ourselves getting angry and defensive if "our" views are challenged. You probably will need to defend views in the outer world, but you are away from the need for that during meditation.

    There are still other ways to cope with the monkey mind. Included here are those I have found helpful in my practice and that I have heard other meditators describe over a period of years. Respect your own intuition about what to do next, and expect it to vary according to circumstances. Be pragmatic; find out what you can get away with. Do turn away from distracting thoughts if that is easy to do. This time the monkey may be just a baby gibbon. But it could be a gorilla. Underlying feelings - anger,  desire, fear, pain, feeling lost, a yearning to escape from feelings - may be stronger than they at first appeared. Some thoughts would have really harmful consequences if they were acted upon. Meditation is a way to contain them and work with them rather than acting them out impulsively. The other side of what you are doing outwardly during the day may need expression within the safe confines of meditation. Here clues to positive action may be found, or at least ways to avoid more trouble. As the things which drive the monkey mind are acknowledged and explored, deeper levels of concentration open up naturally.


[1] The first quote is from Mindfulness Immersed in the Body (Kâyagatâ-sati Sutta), Tanissaro Bhikkhu translation. The second from the beginning of the Satipatthâna Sutta, the Jason Siff translation.

     The usual Pâli verb used in these passages is vineti, meaning to remove, put away, give up. In this context it means making a temporary quiet place for meditation.

[2] The most extensive early Buddhist source on coping with potentially harmful thoughts is The Relaxation of Thoughts (Vitakkasanthâna Sutta). Here the Buddha describes five ways to abandon "evil (pâpaka), unskillful (akusala) thoughts connected with desire, aversion, or delusion." The gentlest method should be tried first. If that fails, the others, which are successively more resolute, are recommended. (1) Turn to thoughts connected with something skillful. (2) Scrutinize the drawbacks and humiliation of the evil thoughts, like someone fond of adornment who finds a carcass around his neck.. (3) Just don't pay any attention to them. (4) Trace back the process of thought construction." 'Why am I walking quickly? Why don't I walk slowly?' So he walks slowly. The thought occurs to him, 'Why am I walking slowly? Why don't I stand?' So he stands. The thought occurs to him, 'Why am I standing? Why don't I sit down?' So he sits down. The thought occurs to him, 'Why am I sitting? Why don't I lie down?' So he lies down. In this way, giving up the grosser posture, he takes up the more refined one." (5) If evil thoughts connected with desire, aversion or delusion still persist, the meditator ". . . with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth -- . . . should beat down, constrain, and crush his mind with his awareness." This last is a very forceful use of awareness, but aggression, not hostility is implied. Keep in mind that it is thoughts that would cause real harm if acted upon - truly evil thoughts - that are considered here. Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation.

     The Satipatthâna Sutta, our main guide to mindfulness meditation, lists five hindrances to progress: sensual desire, hate, drowsiness or apathy, restlessness and remorse, and doubt. Some of these appear very similar to the thoughts and feelings which the Relaxation of Thoughts Sutta states should be handled forcefully if necessary, but here they are not called evil. A difference in degree can become almost a difference in kind. In the Satipatthâna Sutta the meditator comes to know how the unarisen feeling, and related thinking, comes to arise and how its abandonment takes place.

[3] It is very doubtful whether continuous noting - mentally pronouncing names for all that is taking place in meditation - is ever recommended in early Buddhist writings on meditation. A commentary written many centuries after the older texts seems to be the source for this belief. See Notes on Noting.
[4] Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince, Penguin paperback edition, 1975, p. 82

[5] A very helpful and original discussion of attachments in meditation is to be found in Jason Siff's Unlearning Meditation, pp. 20 - 24. The commentator is included under Attachment to Instructions.

[6] David J. Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy. Continuities and Discontinuities p.108f . On page 208 he states that the theory of moments was very popular in later Buddhist schools, but is not to be found in the Discourses or even in the early commentaries.

Dr. Kalupahana is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii and had been researching and studying Buddhist thought for more than 30 years at the time this book was written. He has also written The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Nargârjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way, Ethics in Early Buddhism. I recommend his books to anyone interested in a serious exploration of early Buddhist philosophy and psychology.

[7] Ñânananda Bhikkhu, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought, p. 2, Quoted from the Gradual . Sayings IV 155. Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation.


Kalupahana, Divid J., A History of Buddhist Philosophy. Continuities and Discontinuities, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, © 1992.

Kâyagatâ-sati Sutta, Mindfulness Immersed in the Body, Majjhima Nikaya 119 Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Available at Access to Insight.

Ñânananda Bhikkhu, Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought, Buddhist Publication Society, P. O. Box 61, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

          Due to space limitations I have not been able to discuss many of the assertions made in Don't Feed the Monkeys. Ñânananda's book examines the early Buddhist teachings about thinking and concepts and gives ample quotes from the original sources; a valuable study for anyone who wants to pursue this subject.

Satipatthâna Sutta, Jason Siff translation. A printed edition is in preparation. Advance orders can be made at movementinmind@meditationproject.com. This is an interpretive translation, more accessible than the traditional ones that follow the original more literally.

Siff, Jason, Unlearning Meditation, Movement in Mind Multimedia © 2001. Available through movementinmind@meditationproject.com

Vitakkasanthâna Sutta, The Relaxation of Thoughts, Mâjjhima Nikaya 20

Two translations are available at Access to Insight, www.accesstoinsight.org, one by Soma Thera which includes the commentary compiled by Buddhaghosa, and another by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.   




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