section/mind/02-the-monkey-mind section/mind/02-the-monkey-mind

3 The monkey mind

Do you also sometimes, randomly through the day, suddenly realize that you had been lost in thought for, like, the last fifteen minutes? For example, you’re driving your car down the highway and at some point you realize that you kind of “zoned out”? That apparently you had been going through all the right motions, like speeding up, slowing down, switching lanes, … but all of that happened on “auto pilot”? Obviously, it must have been you who did these things. But at the time, you had no conscious awareness that you were doing them?

Or, reading a book, you reach the bottom of a page and then it dawns on you to you that you haven’t really “read” the page at all? That your eyes must have been seeing the letters, words, and sentences. But that their content hasn’t penetrated into your conscious awareness, because you’ve been thinking of something totally different?

Well, if that type of thing happens to you: Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal. In fact, becoming aware that you have been lost in thought is already a great accomplishment! During meditation, particularly in this exercise of “just watching the breath” which we practiced last time, this happens over and over again. Actually, the whole point is to become aware of what has been going on, then gently let the distracting thoughts disappear, and to refocus your attention on the breath.

In this chapter, we’re going to deepen our conceptual understanding of why the mind behaves in this way at all. And also, we’re also going to investigate it first handedly using a different variation of that basic mindful breathing meditation we introduced last time.

Let’s start again with a round of practice.


For this one, I’ve brought along a small bell. Whenever it rings, I’d like you to make yourself consciously aware of whatever your mind is doing at that very moment.

Just like last time, we begin with simply sitting comfortably. Relaxed, but composed. With the back straight. The mind calm, but attentive.

Let’s take a few deep breaths together.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Now, slowly locate the sensation of the breath. It can be at the tip of the nostrils, or inside the nose, or in the chest, or maybe in the stomach/diaphragm area.

Wherever you feel it the most strongly, just concentrate on that particular sensation.

Don’t visualize it. Don’t verbalize. Don’t picture anything. Just concentrate on the raw sensory input.

I’m going to shut up now for a bit. But remember: Whenever you hear the bell, investigate whatever it is that’s currently on your mind. Are you still concentrating on the breath? Or have you become lost in thought? If so, don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with that. Gently let whatever has ben on your mind fade into the background. And focus your attention back on the breath.

Okay… What you’ve probably seen just now, I hope, is that within a few seconds, the mind immediately gets distracted. This is due to the activity of what neuroscientists call the Default Mode Network of the brain.1 This is that part of the brain that gets busy whenever there’s “nothing better to do.” So, basically every time you’re not working on a specific task or when you’re not particularly engaged in an activity, but also when you’re getting bored with what’s going on in front of you. Then, this so-called “default” mode kicks in and does all kinds of quirky stuff: It makes your mind wander, either into the past, reliving old memories, or into the future, planning what to do next. Or just spinning out other, more or less random, thoughts, images, memories. Thus, it’s producing a 24/7 back-and-forth conversation between you and… yourself?

From an evolutionary point-of-view, this behavior actually makes perfect sense though: We now know, that the brain consumes about 20% of the entire metabolic energy of the whole body (despite it only accounting for 2% of bodyweight). But the twist is this: It consumes that energy, regardless if it’s running full steam, solving differential equations, … or just “resting”.2 Therefore, from an energy efficiency point of view, it’s actually a good thing that the brain is always “thinking up new stuff”. Because that requires just as much energy as “not doing anything,” and, occasionally, something valuable is generated that way. If you’ve ever had a great idea in the shower or on a walk, you surely know what I mean.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh3 calls this behavior “Radio NST: Non-sop Thinking,” and I find this description quite fitting. Others use the term “monkey mind,” which is also very true: Picture a little, restless monkey in the jungle, jumping from branch to branch, from one tree to next, always doing something, never tiring, never quieting down…

Now, the goal of meditation is not to strangle the monkey, or to tie it down. As I said before, whenever you notice that your thoughts have wandered off, or that you lost concentration, just accept that this happened. The monkey jumped from one tree to the next, becaus that’s in its nature. But maybe you can observe the next time it takes off a little bit earlier? Over time, I hope, you’ll see that you don’t have to bind the monkey. Instead, it’ll learn all on its own that it’s nice from time to time to just sit quietly on a branch.

There’s this saying that “the mind likes to rest on the breath.” But if you’re new to meditation, you’ll find that this is absolutely not true at all! The mind much rather prefers to nervously run around all the time, even when you want it to “rest” for a few seconds.

For this last round of practice, I’d like you to pay a bit more attention to how you respond if and when you notice that you lost concentration. Try not to “bind the monkey” by harshly dragging it back in place. Try not to scold it—or you—for being “bad” at meditating or for having no concentration. Or for having this or that particular thought. That way, you’ll only increase to the already existing confusion and disquiet. Rather, try meet whatever is on your mind with kindness. Notice that it had been there. Gently let it fade away. And focus on the breath. This way, over time and with practice, the mind itself gets acquainted to the fact that it actually does “like” to rest on the breath from time to time. Just like the monkey learns that its nice to sit down on a branch and be quiet every now and again.


  1. Source: A default mode of brain function ↩︎

  2. Source: Energy demands limit our brains’ information processing capacity ↩︎

  3. Thich Nhat Hanh’s website ↩︎