“I can’t calm down my monkey mind!” my student proclaims. Another adds, “Calming my thoughts is like herding cats!”
As someone deeply drawn to interspecies spirituality, these confessions always tickle me. Further, they illuminate how often we use animals in our metaphors! Yet, what if monkeys could actually guide us in solving our meditation difficulties? What if we stopped trying to herd cats? And what if we took responsibility for the state of our own human minds?
Help from Monkeys (and Marshmallows)
In fact, there’s evidence that monkeys may have a great capacity for meditative states. While primatologist Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees involved in strong rhythmic dances at waterfalls, she also observed them in silent, seated, contemplative states. (In our terminology, zazen?)
of marmoset monkeys likewise revealed they have impressive control over their inner mental lives. In fact, they reduced their brain activity to relaxed-but-focused “meditative” states at will… with the promise of marshmallows.
An increasing number of naturalists and ethologists have commented on animals engaged in meditative or mindful-type states. For example, many species have been observed staring motionless beyond themselves, carefully viewing their surroundings in silence or watching a sunrise.
Acknowledging other animals’ capacity for still minds might be a helpful tool for quieting our own.
Try it: Observe this three-minute video of Japanese macaques. Now, close your eyes gently and draw your attention to your breathing. When thoughts appear, envision the still macaques. Picture your “monkey-mind” thoughts rippling out through the water peacefully and simply floating away.
Thoughts Soaring Like Birds
I recently had the privilege of meditating with Monk Burin, a Theravadan Buddhist Monk from Thailand who is the executive director of The Middle Way Meditation Institute. At the beginning of our group’s practice, he acknowledged the frustration many people have about not being able to clear their minds. Then he suggested birds could help. I was immediately intrigued, of course.
Specifically, Monk Burin asked us to consider how we treat birds flying overhead during our daily lives, querying, “Do you talk to the birds? Or do you let them pass by?” I chuckled because I do indeed talk to birds who pass overhead. “Hey geese, have a safe flight!” or “Yo hawk! Stay away from that squirrel!”
Yet once I let his comment settle in, I realized its cleverness. If we can visualize each appearing thought during meditation merely as a bird who will pass through eventually, it may help us release the need to grasp thoughts, push them away, or chastise ourselves for not having a perfectly clear mind.
Monk Burin asserted that gentleness
is crucial to the practice of meditation. I like to think that means gentleness both to ourselves and the flying ones we imagine.
Try it: At the start of your meditation practice, watch a few minutes of this bird-flight video. Now, close your eyes softly and draw your attention to your breathing. When thoughts appear, envision them as soaring birds high above you. Watch your “feathered thoughts” fly off on their own journeys as you stay still and present within your breathing body.
One need only live with a cat to admire—and covet—their seeming ability to drop into a deep sleep at any given moment. Furthermore, one need only work at an animal shelter and be assigned to feeding felines to understand the complexities of herding cats who are intent with one thing on their mind: food.
In this way, cats provide a valuable metaphor for how our minds can flip from silent to agitated and back again within meditation. Even while napping, cats may startle for a moment then slip easily back into slumber.
[Read: “5 Spiritual Lessons We Learn From Cats.”]