On the Monkey Mind and Twitter Archaeology. Part I

monkey mind

Thou hast told me of a Yoga of constant oneness, O Krishna, of a communion which is ever one. But, Krishna, the mind is inconstant: in its restlessness I cannot find rest.

The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.

(Bhagavad Gita 6:33-34)


How does it happen that even against our will many ideas and wicked thoughts trouble us, entering by stealth and undetected to steal our attention? Not only are we unable to prevent them from entering, but it is extremely difficult even to recognize them. Is it possible for the mind to be completely free of them and not be troubled by them at all?

(St John Cassian: On the Holy Fathers of Sketis)


It was while he was in 5th Century France that John Cassian wrote about his experiences in the Middle East and, so, unconsciously echoed the ideas which had found their way into the Gita some half a millennium earlier and some thousands of miles to the East. Both books expressed a universal reality, the restless mind, and an aspiration to which it gave rise amongst many: stilling or taming that restlessness. Against this insight, and therefore contrary also to this aspiration, there arose in 18th Century Europe the idea that Man (male and female) was above all else a rational creature or, as it later became more fashionable to assert, a rational animal. (The reason why ‘animal’ came to be preferred to ‘creature’ is important but not something I have the space to deal with in this essay.)


As the 19th century turned into the 20th some voices arose to challenge this Rationalistic model. Notable, in their different ways, as challengers were Freud and Nietzche who recognised that impulses which resulted in decisive human action often, if not invariably, rose from a sub-rational level. Shortly after these ideas began to be voiced the world in general, and European countries in particular, were plunged, for irrational reasons, into the two bloodiest and deadliest wars in the entire known history of humanity. One might suppose that this combination of theory and practice would lead the thinking and reflecting part of the population to abandon forever this notion of Man as an exclusively or at least predominantly rational animal. But nothing of the kind happened. The dominant economic model, capitalism, and the dominant political model, liberal democracy, both crucially depended on this vision of Man as a reason-governed actor in individual and collective decisions. Kick away that supposition and you would have no good cause to support either of these systems in anything like their current forms.


Denying the reality of a real thing does not, however, stop it from existing or prevent it from exerting its influence. It does set up a more or less severe conflict between an artificially created and wrong model for being in the world and the way the world actually is. This is something to which I propose to return later when I look at Twitter archeology. In the meantime I shall turn my attention towards what Buddhists call the monkey mind which remains a potent source of human activity and human unhappiness regardless of Western Enlightenment illusions to the contrary.


The questions that arise, granting that this description of the mind’s restlessness is accepted as accurate, are, I think, why does this happen? what effect does it have? and, how can we prevent it? Counter-intuitively the best place to start may be the third question because that can be tested experimentally through a process of trial and error. Once we have learnt what works to stop the phenomenon happening we will have some data which we previously lacked that will enable us to work more knowledgeably on the questions of effect and cause. While psychotherapists have been looking at monkey mind issues for some dozens of years the great spiritual traditions of the world have been doing so for literally thousands of years so it will make some sense to see what answers they have come up with on the subject.


In the Gita Krishna responded to Arjuna’s questions thusly-

The mind is indeed restless, Arjuna: it is indeed hard to train. But by constant practice and by freedom from passions the mind in truth can be trained.

When the mind is not in harmony, this divine communion is hard to attain; but the man whose mind is in harmony attains it, if he knows and if he strives.

And, at Sketis, Abba Moses answered in this way-

‘It is impossible for the mind not to be troubled by these thoughts. But if we exert ourselves it is within our power either to accept them and give them our attention, or to expel them. Their coming is not within our power to control, but their expulsion is. The amending of our mind is also within the power of our choice and effort. When we meditate wisely and: continually on the law of God, study psalms and canticles, engage in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come – the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works — our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place.’


Both traditions refer to a positive effort that is required. For Krishna a form of training the mind and a freedom from passions can create a state of harmony into which unprompted thoughts are less likely to intrude. For the Abba a giving of the mind to spiritual reflections and to thoughts of death and eternity will achieve the same result. What is not proposed is a direct combat, thought against thought, with each uninvited intrusion. Instead, by way of counterweight, a particular focus for attention is settled upon and by attending to this in a conscious deliberate manner everything else will, hopefully, slip away and no longer intrude upon the minds, and thus affect the intentions and happiness, of those so focussed.


It is worth noticing also that, as part of the proposed counterweight, activities associated more with the body than the mind are called for. In Yoga breathing and posture are involved, at Sketis fasting, chanting and night-vigils were part of the regime. Assuming that these strategies proved experimentally successful, and their persistence over more than a thousand years of human history in both cases suggests that they did, then what can we learn from them that will help us answer the questions about cause and effect which I mentioned earlier?


So far as cause is concerned, if non-mind activities play a role in preventing the intrusion of thoughts not generated deliberately by the consciousness then they probably play a role in causing such thoughts in the first place. In ancient and medieval Christendom it was assumed that non-material demons suggested thoughts to the mind from outside of it. Freud effectively renamed such beings as the unconscious and took pretty much the same theory on board. Christians also adapted a theory of Aristotle which supposed that each human was an amalgam of three characteristics, the rational, the incensive and the desiring powers, these powers aided and abetted by angels, demons and the Holy Spirit were constantly struggling for dominance and Reason could be subdued by the other powers and used to rationally defend actions for which, in truth, there could be no defence in pure reason. In a similar way Indian thought, as recounted in the Bhagavad Gita, held that humans were composed of three qualities, sattva,- light and goodness- rajas,- passion and activity- and tamas,- darkness and chaos. These, like the Aristotelian powers are constantly striving with each other for dominance with the intellect playing to some degree the role of spectator.


Such metaphysical hypotheses cannot, of course, be proved by the methods of a materialist science, only by the pragmatic exercise of seeing if they satisfactorily describe all the phenomena they purport to explain. What is more provable is the effect of material realities on human behaviour. One’s proneness to irritability, for example, can vary according to whether one is dehydrated or not, hungry or not, tired or not, whether it is early in the day or late, hot or cold, light, twilight or dark and so on. Hormones too can play a role, with all due apologies to my younger readers, adolescent humans behave in ways which their Reason would not have approved before puberty and will not approve in sedate middle-age. Which is to say that expressions of irritability, human speech and human actions, that on the face of it proceed entirely from, and are entirely governed by, the conscious human mind are in fact partially the products of factors which exist independently of that mind. An irritated person may, and often does, rationalise their irritation by seeking for explanations for it which satisfy good reason although, in truth, the ultimate reason may be indigestion or a poor night’s sleep.


In summary then, the effectiveness of the religious strategies against monkey mind syndrome point to two significant reasons for this syndrome’s existence. Firstly, physical or physiological factors operating below the level of consciousness affect mental processes to such a degree that they intrude into the mind which is compelled then to clothe them with words or images which reflect the, as it were, direction of travel of the original impulse without necessarily being an accurate explanation for the cause of that impulse. Secondly, the success of the mind’s unitive focus on one single thing as a means of preventing the intrusion of unconsciously created thoughts suggests that it is because the senses are scattered amongst multiplicity that multiple sensations arise which lead to multiple thoughts. Acting on the belief that there is a Oneness which underlies and causes the real or apparent manyness of the world is the most potent counterweight to the monkey mind since it can be applied equally against mental (or demonic) impulses and physical factors.


So much for cause and cure. What of effect? 

To be continued…

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic

The picture is Monkeys in a plum tree by Mori Sosen


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