By Daniel Rigney
I’ve been a curious george for as long as I can remember. When I was eight, our parents bought a full set of World Book encyclopedias from the encyclopedia lady at the Presbyterian church in Nacodoches, Texas. At night, just for fun, and to relieve the tedium of growing up in a small town, I would pull volumes off the shelf and browse through them in search of interesting but seemingly useless (at the time anyway) information.
I wasn’t reading World Book articles deeply or well, or with any conscious intention other than to scratch the mental itch of the moment, but through these meandering explorations of the infosphere I somehow got into the personal habit of collecting dots of information and finding connections (or what we would now call hyperlinks) among encyclopedia topics.
Inadvertently, I was developing a condition we might call “restless mind syndrome,” similar to what some meditative traditions describe as "monkey mind.”
I would later put this habit of collecting and connecting dots to good if unprofitable use in front of the TV, playing the home couch versions of trivia games like “GE College Bowl,” “Jeopardy,” and “Cash Cab.” Over the years I’ve spent many a happy hour matching wits with fellow trivia nerds on television and in the once-popular board game Trivial Pursuit, a game whose name will someday be a trivia question of its own.
When I became a college teacher, my faculty colleagues and I would form playfully competitive two-person trivia teams (PsychPat and I were “The Fighting Gerbils”). The Gerbils played a respectable game of Trivial Pursuit every year in end-of-the-semester faculty tournaments, and we had a little dynasty going for awhile until teams from the library and the counseling center came along and cleaned our clocks.
But we’re not here to talk about trivia. We’re here to talk about “monkey mind,” a common term in Buddhist meditative disciplines to describe our natural human tendency to jump from thought to thought and from image to image, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, or from one Wikipedia article or hyperlink to another. In my own case, this habit of mind seems driven in large part by curiosity and the desire to know the connections among things.
In Buddhism (according to a Wikipedia article!), monkey mind comes from the Chinese xinyuan, meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant ....” It’s almost as though Buddhists knew my mind before I was born.
From what I’ve read of Buddhism, monkey mind is not generally a good thing to have. It’s not calm or centered or any of those adjectives we’re supposed to be. Monkey mind swings from thing to thing when it’s supposed to be just sitting.
But I’ve already been to that place where nothing much happens. It’s called deep east Texas; and I have the rest of eternity to be in a place where nothing much happens. It’s called being dead.
The shameful fact of the matter is that I like monkey mind. I like brachiating from one thought or idea to another. It makes me come alive.
I like collecting dots and connecting them to form hypothetical pictures, as I did as a kid when I played those connect-the-dot puzzles that appeared each week in the Sunday comic pages.
Connect-the-dots is similar to the game early astrologers and astronomers must have played when they named constellations. (Those dots of light look like -- I don’t know – maybe a big dipper?) It’s the same game we all play when we try to connect the dots of our direct or vicarious experience into meaningful relations and wholes, or what scientists call “theories.”
I’m pretty sure this is how human minds have evolved to work, at least some of the time. Aren’t we all trying to see patterns in the dots of our experience, or is it just me?
Still, I can’t shake the suggestion that monkey mind is an inferior spiritual station on the upward path to tranquil enlightenment, something to be transcended rather than enjoyed. I’m hoping there’s a way to hang onto my beloved monkey mind, perhaps by learning to jump around from thought to thought in a more reflective and integrative way than I used to.
To put the matter unseriously, I’m wondering if there’s any such thing as a Buddhist monkey. Can a curious monkey have a Buddha nature? I hope so, but I’d like to hear from people who know more about meditative traditions than I do.
In college I had an interest (among a ridiculous profusion of other interests) in eastern philosophy and meditation. I was briefly enrolled in an enrichment course in hatha yoga, but I couldn’t sit still through the whole term. I was too impatient and western in my body/mind.
Propelled by curiosity, I pursued an enquiring interest (enquiring minds want to know) in Taoism, Buddhism(s), and the writings of their interpreters in the west (D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Paul Reps and others). I sported a Yin Yang symbol on my bookbag – the symbol of a countercultural political party that existed fleetingly on campus as an alternative to the regressive forces of fraternal and sororal consciousness. Meanwhile, I became aware of the existence of a variety of meditative practices popular in the U.S. at that time.
One approach in particular sticks in my mind. Buddhists call it mindfulness.
Some forms of meditation are designed to center one’s concentration on a single point, such as an object or mantra or one’s own breathing. My restless monkey mind prefers to attend instead to the ongoing and ever-changing flow of everyday experience and ideas, rather than on a single point of concentration.
Mindfulness, as I’ve heard and read about it through the years, is a practice that invites us to observe our streams of consciousness as though quietly from a riverbank, observing (but not evaluating or criticizing) what we imagine or perceive there. We watch attentively. We notice. We let the stream flow.
Thoughts and feelings and perceptions come and go, and we let them be what they are. Some part of us watches them, with a measure of detachment, as they flow by like bobbers and bubbles in water.
I hope it's possible to enjoy one’s monkey mind -- curiously collecting and connecting the dots of experience, moving from thought to thought, and from encyclopedia article to encyclopedia article in search of a tentative picture of the whole – while at the same time noticing the very process of moving excitedly from thought to thought and from perception to perception.
I’m calling it monkey mindfulness, and I may have been doing it, off and on, for most of my life. Maybe you have too.
Daniel Rigney is author of The Metaphorical Society and The Matthew Effect.