One of the challenges of someone who’s new to meditation (or is getting back into it after being away for awhile) is Monkey Mind – the chatter of your brain switching to a contemplative mode. Monkey Mind is a little different for everyone, but basically consists of the flood of thoughts that come into your head when you are trying to be calm, quiet, and reflective.
One reason for Monkey Mind is simply lack of practice. If you’re not used to quieting your mind and calming your thoughts, then you have no excperience dealing with the chatter. For most people, there are three kinds of thoughts that float into your mind when you start to quiet yourself. First, your short-term to-do list will float into your mind. Second, your longer-term worries will wander in. And, third, all kinds of random stuff floating in your brain will break into your consciousness.
Some of these thoughts truly need to be acknowledged. Your unconscious wants you take in the thought and acknowledge the need it represents. You don’t have to take action right now. But once your brain knows that you are aware of the thought, it will let you move on.
Here’s a strategy for getting started on the road to meditating with Monkey Mind. I call it the 1-2-3 method.
Set Your Timer for One Minute
First, simply set your timer for one minute. Get a pad of paper and a pencil and begin to meditate. Take three deep, cleansing breaths and begin to relax. Very soon, the thoughts will begin floating in. If they’re just random images of things, or pleasant memories, acknowledge them and set them aside. If they’re “to-do” items that you need to address, go ahead and open your eyes, write a note to yourself, and go back to meditating.
Take another deep breath and relax. If things come up that require a note, make a note. When the minute is up and your timer goes off, you’ve finished step one.
Set Your Timer for Two Minutes
Next, set your timer for two minute. Begin meditating again. This time you will notice fewer distractions. The reason is very simple: You have acknowledged the to-do list. If you’ve already made a note about the dry cleaning and the shopping, you don’t need to do that again. Your brain doesn’t need to push those thoughts forward.
Two minutes is a short time. It might not seem like it when you start, but it is. And when your brain knows that you can stop and write down a note, it relaxes a little more. Feel free to do this again. Restart as needed with a deep, cleansing breath.
Overall, you’ll find a lot less Monkey Mind.
Set Your Timer for Three Minutes
Finally, set your timer for three minutes. This time you will not stop. You will not interrupt your meditation. You will learn to work through the thoughts that wander into your brain.
This time, as thoughts arise, imagine yourself gently moving them to the side to clear the path before you. Try to clear your mind. Let it wander. You will have thoughts wandering in for a very long time. It takes great practice to truly clear your mind. But now the thoughts will not be the rushing, scurrying, chattering thoughts called Monkey Mind.
With this process, you formally give your brain an “out” to interrupt your meditation. But you also discipline it to get the important stuff out first and then relax. Eventually, you may adjust the timer to 1-2-5 or simply skip the two-minute stage altogether. There is no wrong way to meditate.
Try it and see what works for you.
I went into a pet shop and saw a parrot with a red string tied to its left leg and a green string tied to its right leg. I asked what’s with the strings.
The store owner explained that it was a very smart – bilingual – parrot. “If you pull the red string, he speaks French; if you pull the green string, he speaks German.”
I asked, “What happens if I pull both strings at the same time?”
The store owner looked at me over the top of his glasses and said, “He falls off his perch.”
A mother asked her small son what he would like for his birthday. “I’d like a little brother,” the boy said.
“Oh my, that’s such a big wish,” said the mother. “Why do you want a little brother?”
“Well,” said the boy, “there’s only so much I can blame on the dog.”
I’m a huge believer in “quiet time.” That is, sitting in a chair and taking in the universe without contributing my two cents.
It can be hard to get started with meditation, so let me recommend three easy “starter” meditation ideas. I call it Shut Up, Relax, and Pay Attention.
This is the first step in any meditation. It consists of sitting quietly, closing your eyes, and simply quieting your mind. Do this for 30-60 seconds. With you eyes closed, notice the subtle sounds of your environment. The clock ticking. A bird outside. A distant car horn. Your heart.
Just listen. Take note of the sounds, but don’t focus on them. When thoughts enter your mind, gently pick them up and set them aside.
It’s quite amazing how three deep breaths can help you clear your mind (and lower your blood pressure).
A great beginning meditation is a relaxation exercise. I love audio meditations for this. You can buy CDs or download MP3s. There are hundreds of options out there. You’ll probably need to try a few before you find one that really works for you.
Relaxation exercises are great because you have a voice to focus on and a task to perform. Generally, you’re going to do a body scan from head to toe and relax your whole body. In longer exercises, you will then have a period of silence to just relax and feel your body relaxed. This might be three minutes, ten minutes, or even longer.
The best audio programs have relaxation exercises of various lengths. They are great for beginners – and you’ll come back to them from time to time even years after you start meditation.
3. Pay Attention
You’ve probably heard of “Mindfulness” meditation. It simply means to be aware – mindful – of what’s going on around you. Mindfulness can be as simple as the two exercises above or go very deeply into a complete awareness of your mind, your body, and your emotions.
We filter everything in our lives. Everything we see. Everything we hear. Everything we experience. Everything we touch.
Filtering our world is a kind of defense mechanism. You can’t focus on everything. You can’t take in all the sensory input or your brain would be overwhelmed. We don’t even pay attention to 1/1000th of what is in front of us. We can’t.
Mindfulness exercises are intended to help your brain to look at things just a little differently. For many people, the exercises consist in stepping out of yourself and trying to understand a different perspective about what’s going on.
Mindfulness exercises ask the question, “What’s actually going on here?” When you open your senses just a tiny bit, there’s a whole new world of experience. You’ll probably never achieve the ability to pay attention to 2/1000ths of what goes on in your world. But the journey from 1/1000 to 2/1000 is amazing.
Many people who meditate do mindfulness exercises every day for decades.
Adding even a little perspective to your world can be a very calming influence on your life.
Remember: You can’t meditate wrong. Relax. Enjoy. Keep at it.
The busy businessman was driving down the street nervously because he had an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking space. Looking up to heaven, he said, “Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking space, I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of me life and give up drinking!”
Miraculously, a parking space appeared.
The man looked up again and said, “Never mind; I found one.”
I hope you looked at the last two posts and started meditating – at least one minute per day. If you try this consistently, it will be easy to get up to five or ten minutes per day. For many people, that’s all you need until you get to a deeper level of meditation.
This post takes a step back and talks about some of the practical elements of meditation. Taken as a whole, you can consider this your meditating environment.
Ideally, you will have a regular place to meditate. This is nice because it helps you get into a meditating routine. As you begin settling in, your brain and body with start relaxing even before you sit down. You “muscle memory” for quiet time will kick in.
In the summer months, I have a wonderful spot on my back porch to meditate. It’s got a comfortable chair and a little table for my coffee. It’s not great in the winter, but during the summer it’s awesome.
The rest of the year, I have a specific chair I sit in to meditate. Again, it’s comfortable and everyone knows that that’s my quiet spot.
Your meditation spot should be a place where you can have privacy. You should be able to sit upright with your feet on the ground. Ideally, you want to ignore your body while meditating, so avoid uncomfortable positions that cause you to fidget.
When Should You Meditate?
This is obviously a personal choice. Many people prefer early morning meditation simply because quiet plus relaxing often equals sleep. If you are tired and try to meditate at night, you are very likely to fall asleep.
(As a side note, learning some relaxation exercises you can do while lying in bed is a GREAT way to fall asleep.)
I go to an evening meditation meetup sometimes. Because it’s early evening (6-ish) and doesn’t last too long, I don’t have trouble there. But if I try to do a relaxation meditation at 9:00 PM, there’s no way I can stay awake.
As with everything else regarding meditation, you need to figure out what’s best for you. Many people prefer morning because the day has not rushed upon them with a long string of demands. In fact, many people make a point of meditating before they turn on their phones, check their mail, and get sucked into the work of the day.
What Do You Need to Meditate?
Well, nothing. Some people meditate while sitting on a pillow. I have rheumatoid arthritis and that would not be very relaxing for me. Some meditate while sitting a chair. Some prefer a rocking chair or rocker glider.
Some meditations – like Yoga Nidra – are done while lying on the floor. If you try that, you will probably want to cover yourself with a light blanket. As you meditate, your metabolism will slow down and you might feel cold.
Other than that, you can do whatever makes you happy. You can light candles or incense. You can put up statues or pictures that you find relaxing or comforting. Whatever helps you to consciously slow down and “be in the moment” is good.
The teacher asked Johnny’s father why he wasn’t concerned about Johnny’s bad grades.
“Well,” he said, “I respect him for never cheating on an exam.”
Last time I started with the most basic step: close your eyes and meditation for a minute or two.
That’s pretty easy, no matter how much “monkey mind” you have. Monkey mind is that crazy blur of thoughts that jump all over inside your head when you try to meditate. Today we’re going to talk about monkey mind – and how to deal with it.
You might be tempted to say that you want to learn how to ignore monkey mind. But that’s counter-productive. Working to ignore something really means that you are giving it a lot of your attention. You need to learn to calm your mind. You need to slow down the flood of thoughts. Then you can acknowledge the thoughts but choose not to address them at this time.
Try the basic exercise from Part 1: Sit quietly, close your eyes, and try to clear your mind – for about a minute or two.
Notice that something rushes into your mind as soon as you close your eyes? It might be a worry, a bill, a memory. Whatever it is, you can choose to focus on it or to acknowledge it and set it aside. Imagine that you are taking your hand and picking it up. You might even imagine that you’re removing it from your forehead and moving it to the side. Put it down.
Now another thought enters your mind. Take note, then pick it up and put it to the side.
This is a wonderful strategy when thoughts come to you one at a time. But with monkey mind, you have dozens or hundreds of thoughts rushing in on you. It can be hard to dismiss them all. You can’t even acknowledge them all. Your focus is taken to the overwhelming list of things that need your attention.
Trust me. Everyone who meditates has to go through this. It comes and goes, but it never goes away forever. Here are some tips for addressing monkey mind. Practice them to see what works for you.
1) Acknowledge your busy mind. That is, your first step is to watch all those thoughts go by. Again, don’t try to fix anything or spend time on these thoughts, but do take stock. What does your mind want to bring to your consciousness?
Think of it like this: You’ve wanted to meet a famous person all your life. Now you’ve suddenly been given five minutes with that person. You start blabbering like an idiot, talking a mile a minute, and telling them everything you’ve ever thought about them. Your mind is doing the same thing. You finally sit down to listen to it and it’s going crazy with all the things it wants you to hear.
Acknowledge the thoughts. Take stock. See what you’re mind’s up to. Once it relaxes and understands that you’re going to do this again, the flood of thoughts will slow down.
2) Find something else to focus on. This is a key piece of mindfulness meditation. Pick a thing to focus on instead of the monkey chatter. The easiest thing to focus on is your breath. After all, you’re going to be breathing during your entire meditation! You can focus on the air moving in and out of your nose. Or focus on the movement of you chest and stomach.
When you fill your mind with something to focus on, it is easier to see the wandering thoughts as something other than the object you’re focusing on. That, in turn, makes it easier for you to pick up the thoughts and place them to the side.
3) Be mindful of the speed of thoughts wandering into your mind. When you start, the flood of thoughts is overwhelming. But after a few minutes, the flood will naturally slow down. It’s like when a water dam opens. At first, there’s a rush of water. But it slows down after the initial rush.
Your thoughts will flood your mind at first. But as you pay attention, you’ll notice that there are individual thoughts. Eventually, you’ll notice that there are spaces between the thoughts. Eventually, you’ll notice that there are more spaces than there are thoughts. Focus on the space.
Someday, if you keep practicing meditation, you will see thoughts before they are formed. In other words, you’ll learn what it feels like to begin forming a thought. As a result, you’ll be able to simply hold it off so that it never forms. As you train your mind to recognize the thinking process, it will become easier and easier to keep the monkey from chattering.
For the next week, increase your meditation by one or two minutes per day. If you want to start at one minute, that’s fine. You’ll end the week meditating for eight minutes every day. If you start at five minutes, you might finish the week meditating fifteen minutes every day.
As strange as it sounds, don’t over-do it. Don’t set yourself a goal of meditating 30-60 minutes per day as a beginner. That will be discouraging.
One minute per day is all you need.
Do what feels right for you.
You can’t meditate wrong.
Did you hear about the guy who accidentally ate soap flakes instead of corn flakes for breakfast?
He was very mad.
In fact, he was foaming at the mouth!
I have recently talked to several people who are trying to figure out how to get started with “quiet time” or meditation. So I thought I’d give you my recommendations. There are no hard, fast rules here, so relax and enjoy.
I plan to have several posts on this. So go slow and check back often. Your comments and questions are certainly welcome.
The first thing to keep in mind, if you are new to meditation, is that it’s a skill like anything else. If you haven’t done it before, you need to start somewhere. You need to learn how it feel to sit and do nothing. You need to learn how to listen and stop talking.
If you’re one of those people who always has the TV on, or the iPod, iPad, MP3 player, or some other device that requires you to have ear buds in your ears all the time, you will be particularly challenged.
Lesson one is: Be patient with yourself.
You may have heard people say “you can’t do it wrong.” That’s true if you are sincerely trying.
If you are really, truly trying meditation for the first time, I recommend you have get yourself a timer. It can be a kitchen timer or an app on your phone. Set it for one minute. I know that’s not much. But it will seem like forever if you haven’t experienced it before.
Simply sit quietly in a chair, relax, close your eyes, and wait for the minute to pass.
When the timer rings, be aware of your reaction to it. Do you say to yourself, “It’s about time!”? If you do, keep repeating the exercise every day for one minute.
When your reaction becomes “What? Already? I wonder if I set the timer wrong.” – then you are ready to set the timer for two minutes or even three.
Next time we’ll look inside your head and talk about some of those thoughts that come up in meditation.