‘Monkey mind’ is originally a Buddhist term for thoughts that are inconsistent, uncontrollable, and restless. The term is based on the idea of a rambunctious monkey leaping from tree to tree, playful and impulsive. The analogy between our racing thoughts and a wild animal is spot on, especially during your meditation practice.
It is the nature of the monkey to leap from branch to branch and it is the nature of our minds to leap from thought to thought. When your ‘monkey mind’ takes control during your meditation practice, it causes great frustration. It is important to recognize that the monkey is being a monkey and your thoughts too are behaving according to their nature.
The purpose of your meditation practice is to acknowledge the actions and patterns of your mind. You are not trying to stop the monkey from being a monkey, you are seeing the monkey for what it is and accepting it as such.
How to Stay Focused During Meditation
1. Be in the right place at the right time.
Some people believe you need a dedicated space for meditation. For many people living in tight urban quarters or sharing a home with others, this is not practical advice. Rather, consider meditating in the right place at the right time. This place could be a quiet corner in your home or office. The key is to be in this space at the right time. Consider waking before other members of your household stir or meditating in your office at the end of the day, when others have left for the day. Choose a space at a time when you are least likely to be interrupted.
2. Declutter your space, declutter your mind.
Wherever you choose to meditate, ensure that you will stay focused by keeping that area tidy. Facing a sink filled with dishes, a pile of unwashed laundry, a desk cluttered with stacks of unopened mail — will encourage you to focus on all the unfinished tasks that need doing. This is rocket fuel for your monkey mind. An organized space will reduce the number of instances that your mind wanders during your practice.
3. Practice for the right length of time.
In our overview of how to start a meditation practice, we discuss viewing practice as a marathon, not a sprint. When you are starting your practice, be patient with yourself. You need to build stamina to sit for long periods of time. Thirty minutes may not seem like a long time in theory, but when you are sitting down to meditate those thirty minutes can feel like an eternity. We recommend sitting for five minutes each day. Increase your practice by small increments over an extended period of time. With dedicated practice you will have the mental stamina equivalent of a marathon runner.
4. Focus on your physical breath.
When counting your breaths (i.e. one inhale, one exhale, two inhale, two exhale) focus on the physical sensation of your breath. When you breathe in, where do you ‘feel your breath’ most? Do you feel it in your nostrils or your lungs once they’re full? When you exhale do you feel it in your belly or in the back of your throat? When your mind begins to wander refocus your mind on the sensation of breathing. Fully focusing on your breath leaves less room for your mind to ‘monkey around.’
5. Sit or don’t sit.
Beginning a meditation practice is a challenge. You should ease into your practice with the length of time you choose to ‘sit’ and how you choose to sit. We are fed pictures of people meditating on cushions, meditation benches, with legs folded and hands in specific positions. Do not concern yourself with how you look. Sit in a straight-back chair if you are uncomfortable on the floor. Try meditating while lying down and see if you can stay awake — the key is to engage your arms, firmly planted on the floor, and be aware of your body as you lie and meditate.
6. Be kind to yourself.
Many people who begin meditation feel that they are “not good at it.” You may believe that you have a “problem” with focusing during your practice, but in reality we all struggle with the same challenge. You are doing your best. When you notice that your mind has wandered, congratulate yourself for noticing the habits of your mind and be happy for the opportunity to change. Avoid falling into your negative thought patterns: approach these challenges with your glass half full.
For more meditation advice and to learn about AVS Mindfulness and the release of our instructional mindfulness meditation app, visit us at avsmindfulness.com.