At work the other day, I sat down to begin a task that I was not excited to do. I opened up a Word document to start, but then I remembered that there was another task that I had to do as well.
I thought it would only take a few minutes, so I begin that task, but in the middle of it, I decide I need to check my blog stats.
Satisfied with the numbers, I remember there was something I wanted to Google, so I spend 10 minutes doing “research.”
In the middle of my research, I think “oh shit, I should be working!” and then start my original task again.
I repeated this cycle a few more times before I actually finished my work.
This is a classic example of “monkey mind.”
Monkey Mind is a Buddhist metaphor that describes the natural, chaotic state of the untrained mind.
Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.
My mind monkeys are particularly intoxicated, as my thoughts seem to constantly wander all over the place. It’s rare that I experience more than 15 minutes of focus or calmness at any given time.
Why is this a problem?
Though monkey mind is a symptom common to all humans (and monkeys…) modernity exacerbates the problem.
During Shabbat, when I would try to go the day without using my cell phone, I would feel phantom vibrations in my pocket and intuitively reach for my phone. Instead of focusing on my nice walk or whatever it is I was doing, I attempted to respond to imaginary texts and e-mails.
After a long day at work spent trying to accomplish multiple tasks (all while going through the cycle of distraction I described earlier), my mind is shot. Though I didn’t accomplish anything particularly great or do anything particularly taxing, the multiple cycles of distraction leave my mind in an anxious state. My thoughts run wild.
Sometimes I cure this with a healthy activity, exercise for instance. But other times I just turn on Netflix and try to zone out with a few hours of TV. Or I’ll have some sort of alcoholic beverage to relax the mind. Not very healthy.
Stoicism taught me to not be disturbed by external circumstances; it taught that rationality can overcome distress caused by things outside of our control.
Stoicism was not as good at teaching me to combat the internal distractions, the incessant chattering that prevent me from achieving tranquility.
I think Buddhism can help me fix that.
[Note: In between that last sentence and this one, I responded to a text message. The mind monkeys are clearly winning.]
I won’t go into the details of Buddhist religious teachings, but Buddha emphasized the benefits of cultivating mindful awareness, or mindfulness. Mindfulness means that you’re paying attention to whatever you are experiencing now, thoughts, feeling, sensations, etc. without judgment.
For example, if I go through a cycle of workplace distraction and wanted to be more mindful, I would stop for a second and observe my mind. I would notice an itch or desire for information stimuli (internet articles), I would notice an aversion to boring work (and note that I am judging my work as boring), and I would notice how terrible feel I feel for not being more productive.
The excellent book, Buddhism for Dummies, describes a popular Buddhist metaphor of the forest pool which is an example of the importance of mindfulness.
“If wind and rain constantly batter the pool, the water will tend to be agitated and cloudy with sediment and organic debris, and you won’t be able to see all the way down tot eh bottom. But you can’t calm the pool by manipulating the water. Any attempts to do so will merely cause more agitation and add to the problem. The only way to clear the water is to sit patiently, watching the pool, and wait for the sediment to settle by itself.”
Sitting patiently and waiting for the sediment to settle is mindfulness. Instead of trying to “do something,” which is our natural inclination, we wait and observe.
Modernity is constantly telling us to “do something” to become more productive. There are countless articles about productivity systems and fancy software applications that will block out internet sites and other techniques that promise to help you get things done in a timely manner.
Though some of those productivity systems probably work, I don’t think they address the deeper issue of monkey mind. They address environmental causes of distraction, but they don’t address the root cause.
To continue with the monkey mind metaphor, it would be like removing shiny objects and bananas from the room where the monkey lives so that the monkey has no other choice but to sit and focus.
Buddhism, on the other hand, seems intent on observing the monkey and making note of its behavior, trying to understand why it moves from shiny objects to bananas and back to shiny objects again.
With Buddhism, I hope to cultivate this mindfulness so I can learn to be an impartial observer of my own mind.
Along with increased mindfulness, I should also cultivate the ability to concentrate.
Concentration is different than mindfulness, though they go hand in hand.
Concentration and mindfulness are distinctly different functions. They each have their role to play in meditation, and the relationship between them is definite and delicate. Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind. It consists of forcing the mind to remain on one static point… Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item.
Concentration would be like teaching the monkey to focus only on the banana or only on the shiny object.
I’m not sure if there ever was a time where people generally had the ability to concentrate on whatever they needed to concentrate on, but I do know that we have exponentially more distractions today than we did even 20 years ago.
However, we haven’t developed good systems to combat this distraction, or at least, we haven’t adopted them.
I hypothesize that Buddhism will be far more effective in helping me combat distraction than any LifeHacker type system.
How I’ll do this
I plan on meditating for at least 15 minutes every day. The most basic meditation exercise is “mindfulness of the breath,” a practice in which you focus on the sensations of breathing. If you get distracted (which I most certainly will), you try to return to focusing on your breath.
Your goal is not to stop thinking, but rather, to become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that occur during the meditation.
I hope that by meditating consistently, it will help sharpen my mindfulness and concentration in my everyday life.
If I develop my mindfulness and concentration abilities, I hope that I can enjoy my work more (something I struggle with) and achieve a calm state of mind.
Note on blog structure
I’m going to change the way I’ve been documenting my experience on this blog. Instead of going with the Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc. format, I’m going to simply write 2-4 substantial blog posts per week.
By decreasing the number of blog posts, I hope that the quality of posts increase as well. Instead of forcing myself to write when I have nothing to say, I can take a day or two to think about a topic, develop it, and share it with you.
If it turns out this new structure is not as sustainable, I’ll switch back to the old format.