William Irwin Ph.D.

It’s Your Choice

Meditation, the Monkey Mind, and Butterflies

Have thoughts, but don't let thoughts have you.

Posted Nov 16, 2018

I sit on my meditation cushion, close my eyes, and clear my mind. With focus on my breath, I feel it come in through my nose, fill my lungs, and expand my diaphragm. Then I observe the slow exhale as the breath makes its way back out of my body through my nose.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work anyway. But the reality is that my mind wanders, and I constantly have to catch it and bring it back to the breath. There is nothing magical about focusing on the breath. I could choose to focus on a mantra instead. The point is to clear the mind. At least that’s what I used to think. But I’ve come to realize that point of meditation is not so much to clear the mind as to tame the mind. Meditation is not an end in itself, not for me. Rather, it is intense practice at taming the mind.

Buddhists commonly refer to the “monkey mind,” an apt description. Anyone who has ever observed a monkey knows that monkeys can’t seem to stay still. They jump from one place to another in unpredictable ways. Likewise, my mind resists my efforts to keep it still and in one place, focused on my breath.

I don’t have thoughts. Rather, thoughts have me. They take me down dark roads. I don’t want to ruminate on a past grudge, a present annoyance, or a future worry, but I do nonetheless. That’s where meditation comes in.

Meditation is deliberate practice at focusing the mind on a single object, like my breath. Despite this attempt, the mind inevitably wanders. The proper response is to notice that my focus has drifted from the breath and to bring it back home. That’s it.

With practice skill develops. Not only do I become better at meditating, but more importantly I become better at monitoring and regulating my thoughts through the course of the day. And the advantages of doing this are tremendous. I am in better command of my moods, I react to situations and people more appropriately, and I work more productively.  

Still, the wandering monkey mind is natural, so we need to consider its value. I’ve come to think that the monkey mind has survival value but not happiness value. Evolution does not aim at happiness but rather at survival and reproduction. The wandering, daydreaming mind can be productive of important insights and can inspire caution against possible dangers. So we probably should not eliminate it altogether, and thankfully that seems impossible anyway.

The Pearl Jam song “Even Flow” includes the poetic lyric “thoughts arrive like butterflies.” It’s a fitting description, as butterflies sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere and flutter away in unpredictable flight. But butterflies are invariably pleasant, whereas many thoughts are not. In my experience, unwanted thoughts are more like roaches, ugly and rarely eliminated with finality.

In days gone by it was often said that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Without meaning to take Satan seriously, I’ve come to think that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. At least I cause most of my own misery when my mind is not occupied.

Some of my most negative thoughts come when I am in the shower. I relax and let my guard down. Predictably my mind wanders, and frequently it goes to ugly places. To combat this, I’ve developed the habit of singing in the shower. This lifts my mood and keeps my thoughts focused on the words of the songs. I wonder, though, what I may be losing by focusing in this way. After all, in the past, I have had some insightful thoughts and ideas while letting my mind wander in the shower.

It seems clear that I need some places in my life where I let my thoughts flow freely. It’s good to minimize the roaches, but I need to make a place for butterflies to appear.