How do you calm your monkey mind?

Have you ever been told to be in the moment, to be present, to notice? Yes, well, what does that mean?

As a younger man I was often either looking back to the past, wistfully, or mostly, planning for the future. Life will be good — once I grow my business, get a bigger house, a better car, “ …this time next year Rodney…”.

I could have a conversation with someone and simultaneously be thinking about numerous different matters, not paying any real attention to the conversation, but equally not really paying attention to the ideas and thoughts flowing around my mind. Ever read a couple of chapters of a book and been unable to recall what you have just read? Me too; welcome to what Buddhists refer to as Monkey Mind, our minds jump about all over the place just like an out of control monkey.

OK then, where does Monkey Mind come from, is it normal, is it just the way we are — is there anything we can do about it? In the West we have become associated with our minds. Rene Descartes the 17th Century philosopher posited “I am thinking, therefore I am”. Many of us think of our minds as us. In contrast, many Eastern philosophical traditions have sought to calm the mind, even to empty the mind to get to the source of our being.

Being from the West, I have been thinking about this concept for some time! Some years back my wife, Andrea, came across an ad in the local paper for Philosophy evening classes. I had always been interested in Philosophy, so along we went. The classes, which are non-academic, draw on teachings from many philosophical traditions, Western and Eastern, Ancient and Modern, Religious and Secular. I completed four terms and found the classes enlightening and frustrating in equal measure, but always worthwhile. Whilst I would recommend the classes to anyone interested in exploring what life means to them, I mention the classes particularly as this is where I was introduced to what the class leaders, David and Barbara, referred to as “The Exercise”.

So for two or three minutes at the start and end of each class we performed the exercise — sit up straight, close your eyes, notice your breathing, concentrate on the in and out breaths, then bring your attention to your body. Notice how your body feels on the chair, feel the various parts of your body making contact with the chair and the floor. Then concentrate on your hearing, notice the sounds in the room, a ticking clock perhaps, next expand your hearing beyond the room. Finally come back to your breathing, noticing the breaths, noticing the movement of your chest, up and down. After two or three minutes we were calm, free of the day’s stresses and ready for the class.

What is this exercise — well in simple terms it is the ancient practice of meditation — now it’s your turn to sit up — “what, stop, meditation -quick everybody sit crossed legged and break out the incense!”. I think this sort of expected reaction is why the practice was referred to as the exercise (by the way I love a bit of cross legged mediation with incense, but that’s a topic for another day!). Many of us will have considered the concept of meditation as slightly wacky, perhaps a bit hippyish and certainly on the periphery of mainstream life. Interestingly though, it is coming more and more into the mainstream, but slightly re-branded as Mindfulness. Meditation can help us to become more present, more aware, more mindful. This mindfulness isn’t using our minds, as in thinking, it is slowing our minds so that we can be more aware, so we can notice more about ourselves and what is around us. A couple of years ago I came across a fantastic book on mindfulness by Dr Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell called “The Mindful Manifesto”. The book explores the latest scientific research on mindfulness and how mindfulness is making a difference throughout the world. Check it out.

I was introduced via a free CD from The Guardian to some talks by Andy Puddicombe. Andy runs the company Head Space. Andy, for sure, is an interesting fellah, he took off at age 22 to become a Buddhist Monk, training in meditation practice, all over the world. His wish in life is to demystify meditation, making it relevant and accessible to as many people as possible. He and his colleagues have developed a fantastically creative business and website, making full use of technology to help us understand and practice meditation techniques.

Going back to that first question, what does it mean to be in the moment, to be present, to notice? Sometimes, at moments of great stress, perhaps if we are under physical threat or at the zenith of an extreme emotional threat, we may find that our mind clears and we have great stillness, clarity and awareness. This is being in the moment, being present, noticing — being mindful. We might then find that we can act as we need to, without any mental effort or thinking process. Another example of this is when sports people talk about being in “The Zone”, that is without thought or mental effort they perform to their highest ability, their bodies act and react appropriately to the situation and circumstances they face.

The exercise, mindfulness, meditation (with or without incense), can help us to live more of our lives in the Zone.

Many roads lead to the pathless garden of truth……



This article was first published in the blog of Sean O’Leary. Sean O’Leary writes 0n Midlife Mastery; secrets of Health, Wealth and Wisdom. You can the find the blog at

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