Updated: Oct 24, 2018
In the West, we spend our lives rushing around and looking outside, not within. Everything favors what the Buddhist call the "monkey mind." How do we best break the cycle of stimulation and attraction to the outside world and turn our attention inward?
This is a problem not only with people in the West but with people all over the world who have been exposed to Westernization, which actually means most people living in our modern world.
It is important to note that this does not mean Westernization is harmful. Indeed, Westernization has brought incredible and unprecedented benefits to us. Without
Westernization we would be unable to access information from the internet, view events of the world live over television, talk to friends across the globe over telephone, or even enjoy daily facilities we take for granted like tap water and electricity.
Westernization has made our world a golden age, against which the golden age of the Han Dynasty in China or of the Maurya Empire of India pales in comparison. We have to thank the West for all these benefits.
One prominent feature of Westernization is the worship of the intellect. Intellectuals are respected. It becomes desirable, even fashionable, to intellectualize. It becomes habitual for many people to intellectualize without their conscious knowing, and often without control and purpose.
Let us take an example of a person walking down a path in a park. When he sees some trees he starts his chain of thoughts as follows.
Ah, the trees are beautiful. The leaves are full and green, and flowers are in blossom. The last time I was here there were no flowers. No, not even leaves. It was winter. Pretty cold. But I had my warm clothing. Where did I buy that heavy overcoat? Was it in Paris where I brought the family for a holiday? No, not in Paris. It was a lovely holiday. Must start to plan another one. This time we should go somewhere else. Perhaps to the East. Or may be to Australia. Is Australia in the East? Hei, wait a minute, what am I doing here in the park? Ah yes, I am supposed to go through the park to the subway.
You may not have the same thoughts when walking through a park or going about your daily activities, but if you are like most people, you would have a chain of thoughts, often without your control and without purpose.
This involuntary habit of having uncontrollable, purposeless thoughts going in your head, regardless of whether you are rushing about looking outside or sitting quietly looking within, is not a result of Westernization, though its feature of worshipping the intellect may have aggravated it. Long before Westernization, the Buddha taught his followers to tame the “monkey mind”, and Chinese masters talked about the “mind like monkeys and intentions like horses”.
Before examining methods to break this cycle of stimulation and attraction, let us ask why we do it. It is wise to ask before embarking to pursue the methods. Literally millions of practitioners all over the world have wasted a lot of time, in matter of years, because they never asked this important question before they pursued meditation, qigong, internal kungfu or any course of spiritual cultivation and mind-body awareness.
We can even do better by going back further by asking why the Buddha taught his followers to tame their “monkey mind”, and why Chinese masters talked about the mind being monkeys and intentions being horses.
The Buddha taught his followers to tame the “monkey mind” so as to achieve the highest and most supreme attainment any being can ever attain, called Nirvanna or Enlightenment in Buddhist terms, or returning to God the Holy Spirit, attaining the Tao, union with the Supreme by people of different linguistic, cultural and religions background. It is the same most supreme achievement.
Why is taming a mind full of wandering thoughts necessary for this supreme achievement? It is because in Enlightenment, there are no thoughts. Once there is a thought, it would start the chain of processes to transform the transcendental Cosmic Reality to the phenomenal world.
In Christian terms, the transcendental Cosmic Reality is referred to as God the Holy Spirit, where there is nothing else but God. If there is something else, such as thought, the transcendental will be transformed into the phenomenal.
Interestingly, the latest science is saying the same Truth. Transcendental Cosmic Reality is an undifferentiated spread of energy or consciousness. It is mind, which creates thoughts, that transforms the transcendental into the phenomenal.
The word “phenomenal” means “of appearances”. Our phenomenal world appears to us the way we conceptualize it. For example, an electron, which makes up everything in the phenomenal world, will turn out to be a particle no matter how it is tested if the scientist testing it conceptualizes it as a particle; it will turn out to be a wave if he conceptualizes it as a wave.
The Chinese masters were saying the same thing, i.e. the mind is full of wandering thoughts, when they said that the mind was like monkeys and intentions like horses. Different masters might have different goals in taming these monkeys and horses, but all of them can be divided into two main categories, namely the supra-mundane and the mundane.
At the supra-mundane level, the supreme aim, like what the Buddha taught, was to attain transcendental Cosmic Reality, called by the Chinese as attaining the Tao or attaining Buddhahood.
At the mundane level, the primary aim was to attain a very high level of mindfulness so as to have better results in whatever they did. For these masters, the more immediate purposes lied in the scholarly arts and the martial arts, ie. to be better scholars or better warriors.
Understanding this legacy passed on to us by the Buddha and past masters, we are better set to find out the benefits and the methods of breaking the cycle of stimulation and attraction to the outside world.
If you are prone to uncontrollable, countless thoughts wandering in your mind, you become very stressful.
It will also sap off a lot of your energy, making you mentally tired.
The countless thoughts will distract you from focusing on any topic. You are mentally confused. Hence, your ability to think clearly will be much affected.
If you can control or eliminate these unwanted thoughts, not only you will overcome the above weaknesses, but also you will have their corresponding benefits.
Thus, you will be mentally relaxed, instead of being stressful. You will be mentally strong and fresh, instead of being worn-out and mentally tired.
You will have mental clarity and focus, instead of being mentally confused and distracted.
All these will enable you to do better no matter what you do. Take a minute to reflect on this. If you can clear the monkeys and horses from your mind, you will do better no matter what you do. When you eat your breakfast, you will enjoy better. When you read a book, you can comprehend better. When you present a proposal to your board of directors, you can achieve your objectives better.
There are many methods to tame the “monkey mind”, from which you can choose the best for your needs. But all these methods employ just one of two approaches, namely to reduce the mind to one, or expand the mind to zero.
An effective method is to use a qigong exercise called “Lifting the Sky”. If you do not know “Lifting the Sky”, you may use any dynamic (not static) qigong exercise, or any gentle physical exercise.
As you perform the exercise with its appropriate breathing, gently be aware of your breathing. When you breathe in, just be gently aware of your breathing in. When you breathe out, just be gently aware of your breathing out.
If you are not familiar with its breathing procedure, or if regulating the breath is not necessary in the exercise, then just be gently away of your movement. When you lift your hand, for example, be gently aware that you are lifting your hand. When you lower it, be gently aware that you are lowering it.
You may use the same approach, i.e. reducing the mind to one, sitting in a lotus or semi-lotus position, or simply sitting comfortably on a chair. Gently focus your mind on an object, which may be real or imaginary, inside or outside you.
For example, you may gently focus on your abdominal energy field inside your abdomen, or on an imaginary flower. Or you may place a real flower in front of you and gently focus on it.
Instead of focusing on an object, you may repeatedly recite, without thinking of its meaning, a mantra, a phrase from your scripture or any series of sounds. Or you may mentally count from 1 to 10 and keep repeating the process.
For example, you may repeatedly recite “a mi tor for” (which is the Chinese pronunciation for Amitabha Buddha) or “the quick, brown fox jumps over a lazy dog” (which some of you used when you learned how to type).
The underlying principle of this reducing-to-one approach is to gently focus your mind on one thought to keep out all other thoughts.
The other approach, expanding the mind to zero, is more simple and direct, but is usually more difficult for most people.
You can adopt any comfortable position. Standing upright and be relaxed, or sitting in a lotus or semi-lotus position is excellent for formal practice. Then just keep your mind free from any thoughts. As soon as a thought comes into your mind, gently throw it out without fuss and without question.
Many people are in the habit of saying they can’t do it. What they actually mean is that they are too lazy to give it a try.
It is simpler not to think of anything than to think of anything. You just don’t do it. If you are in the unconscious habit of having countless wandering thoughts in your mind, this may not be easy, though it is simple, but it certainly can be done.
Suppose you are at one side of a busy street. Which is simpler, to cross the street or not to cross the street? You are at the bottom of a tall tree. Which is simpler, to climb the tree or not to climb? Of course, not to cross or climb is simpler, and in these two cases it is also easier, than to cross or climb. Not to do anything is simpler than to do anything.
It is the same with thinking. Not to think is simpler than to think.
It is also important to explain further this skill of not thinking. Some people have the mis-conception that if they don’t think, they may become a moron! This is certainly not true, and may be due to the influence of the worship of the intellect in Western culture.
Not to think is categorically different from the inability to think. Here, one chooses not to think, not that he is unable to think. In fact, when he has this skill of not thinking by choice, when he wants to think, he can think more efficiently.
When a person is troubled by many thoughts, he is mentally confused. When he clears his mind of all thought, he attains mental clarity. Definitely a person with mental clarity thinks more efficiently than one with mental confusion.
Similarly, when we have the skill of clearing our mind of all thoughts, i.e breaking the cycle of stimulation and attraction to the outside world and turning our attention inward, it does not mean that we would ignore the outside world, or regard the inside world as more important than the outside. In Zen terms, we should not be dualistic, thinking that if one side is black the other side must be white.
If your wife or girlfriend has dressed up beautifully for you, for example, it is for your interest and hers, that you should pay attention to the outside world. You should not turn inside, and say, “No, no beautiful woman. I must clear her from my mind!”
The wonderful skills of attaining a one-pointed mind or of expanding into the Great Void, like all other skills, must always be used for good ⏤ for your own good as well as the good of other people.
⏤ Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
The above extract is reproduced from "Your True Nature: Wisdom of Living Masters" by Natalie Deane and Damian Lafont.