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Our email address is editor @realization.org.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org.




To still the mind,
watch the task


EVERYBODY WHO HAS TRIED TO MEDITATE has experienced the phenomenon called monkey mind. It goes like this:

You begin your meditation by resolving to pay attention to something: to your breath, to a phrase, to the sense of being. Or maybe you resolve to simply relax and let things happen while you watch.

For five or ten seconds, things go swimmingly.

The next thing you know, it's five minutes later and you realize with a start (it feels a little like waking up from a dream) that your mind has been wandering for the past four minutes and fifty seconds without your having been aware of it.

It's called monkey mind because monkeys like to jump around and grab things. Your mind likes to grab things too — memories, wishes, worries, etc. — and there's nothing you can do to stop it because you don't notice it happening until long afterward.

Monkey mind is discouraging for beginners. Having a mind that keeps jumping around is bad enough, but even worse, you can't keep track of where it has jumped to because the part of your mind that wants to keep track is jumping too.

Some readers may object here, "Wait a minute. Monkey mind isn't a problem. You can let the mind jump around as much as it wants. All you have to do is watch it."

This sounds good, but it doesn't work, because monkey mind makes you forget that you intended to watch.

There is no easy escape from monkey mind. It affects every form of meditation.

People often picture monkey mind as the quick alternation of mental objects in front of a constant viewer. This is misleading. There is no constant viewer, but only a mental construct of a viewer built in large part of intentions and resolutions. These intentions and resolutions keep alternating just like the thing you are trying to think about. This is what makes monkey mind so damn annoying: the you who wants to meditate keeps vanishing every few seconds or minutes.

In other words, monkey mind is really a name for the fact that you can't remember to pay attention.

The traditional fix for monkey mind is to keep meditating a lot; eventually the mind quiets down. This works for the relatively small group of people who persist heroically for years, but what about the larger group of people who give up in the early stages?

In this article, I'll try to come up with a more practical solution. I'll begin by pointing out certain patterns you can notice in the way your mind jumps around. This will give you something fixed to hold onto in the disorienting maelstrom of your mind's activity. As you observe those patterns, monkey mind will diminish.

A Caveat

Everything in this article is based on my own experience. I think most of it can potentially apply to you too, but I can't be sure of that.

The Two Mental Modes

Let's begin with the most obvious thing. Your mind fluctuates between two apparent modes or states while you are trying to meditate. I described this process at the beginning of this article.

The first mode is the one you're in while you are remembering to pay attention. I'll call this state "Mode A" because in this mode, you are aware of what your attention is directed toward.

The other mode is the one you suddenly snap out of when you notice that your attention has wandered. At the moment you snap out, you are re-entering Mode A, but in between, while your mind was wandering, you were in a different mode. This second mode is the one in which most people spend most of their waking hours; it's plain old normal consciousness.

We could call this second state Mode N for normal or Mode D for daydream or Mode F for forgetful, but instead I'll call it Mode T. The T stands for both "task" and "train of thought." You'll see why I choose this name in a moment.

The first step in taming monkey mind is to observe these two states closely and try to see what causes you to switch from Mode A to Mode T. (If you could stay in Mode A indefinitely, you would quickly sink into the deepest states of meditation.)

As soon as we try to observe these states, we discover the first big difference between them. We cannot observe Mode T. We can remember it right after we snap out of it, but we can't examine it while it's happening. If you are looking at your mental state, you are in Mode A.

Two Kinds of Thoughts

The second important thing to notice about these modes is that different kinds of thoughts occur in them.

In Mode A, the mind is generally quiet, but every now and then a thought erupts. You see it bubble up from the quiet as if you are outside the thought watching it. Each thought is unconnected to anything before or after it. There is no chain of thoughts. Often the thought is an old memory of an event or a dream. As you sit back and watch these thoughts emerge, you often wonder, "Where the hell did that memory come from?"

Mode A thoughts are like a deck of cards spread face down on a table. From time to time, one turns face up for no apparent reason. There is no rhyme or reason to it. You glimpse it briefly, then it turns face down again. (If you start looking for a rhyme or reason, you will put yourself into Mode T.)

Here are some examples of Mode A thoughts:

  • the image of the face of a child who was in your kindergarten class;

  • the memory of walking in the woods on a vacation twelve years ago;

  • a scene from a dream you suddenly realize you have had many times, but never previously remembered.

In Mode T, the mind is noisy. In fact, Mode T is the incessant production of thoughts. But the thoughts are different from those of Mode A. You feel like you are inside them, like you are thinking them in an active engaged way, not merely watching them from outside. They come in chains, in linked series which follow naturally one after each other. There is a sense that you are actively searching for the next link in the chain in pursuit of some goal. Unlike Mode A thoughts, they tend to repeat themselve over and over with variations..

But the most striking difference between the two types of thoughts is their subjects. Mode A thoughts are isolated fragments of memory. They have no apparent meaning. But Mode T thoughts are almost always oriented toward some easily recognized task or purpose. Most often this purpose is to alter your mood or display a scenario for the judging faculty of your mind to evaluate.

Here are some examples of Mode T thoughts:

  • imagining some situation which is gratifying or anxiety-provoking;

  • rehearsing what you will say in a conversation you are planning to have;

  • replaying a conversation you already had and bathing in the emotions it evokes;

  • picturing the intended results of an action you are carrying out;

  • constructing a sexually exciting fantasy while masturbating.

The Main Idea

The main goal of all meditation technique is to stay in Mode A continuously for as long as possible. This causes the mind to enter an altered state which is true meditation.

The key to staying in Mode A is to avoid slipping back into Mode T.


This is all you have to do to.

Exercise 1

Okay, this kind of theoretical discussion is fun, but what really counts is experience. So let's get some.

The first step is to learn to recognize





Virtually every known form of meditation is a technique for entering Mode A. Theravada's vipassana, Gurdjieff's self-remembering, Ramana's self-enquiry — they all put you in Mode A.











Text copyright 2000 Freddie Yam.
Illustration of a squirrel monkey by George Louis le Clerc Buffon from The Natural History of Monkeys by Sir William Jardine first published in 1833.

Freddie Yam started meditating about thirty years ago. He writes frequently for this website.




This page was published on October 9, 2000.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org. All rights reserved.