Mind as drunken monkey? Let’s explain. In a talk delivered at the Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Depression (2003) in Rome, the Perspective of Buddhism and depression was delivered by Raymond R.M. Tai, with the help from Ven.Prof. Heng-ching Shih, a Buddhist nun, whose paper Tai delivered at this important conference.
The following are some thoughts on Buddhism and depression as presented by Dr. Heng-ching Shih in her paper.
“In concentration meditation, we focus on a single object such as the breath, a mantra, or a zen koan, with wholehearted attentiveness. It is the cultivation of self-control of attention through control of the mind. In Buddhism, the mind is often described as a drunken monkey running wildly within six windows. Five of the windows correspond to sensory impressions from our five senses and the sixth window correspond to our mental sense of internally generated impressions including thought and memories. For most people the monkey runs from window to window out of control. Through concentration practices, the meditator learns to control the monkey and keep consciousness focused on some meditation object.
One of the most well known, popular and practical examples of concentration meditation is called “the mindfulness of in and out breathing.” We breathe in and out all day and night, yet we are hardly mindful of it. In order to meditate, we sit physically still in an upright position to receive the immediate flow of moment to moment experience, attending to the breathing process, silently noting the inhalation and exhalation at the nostrils and abdomen. The effort is not to control breathing but to be attentive to it.
At the beginning it is difficult to pay attention to our breathing for even a few consecutive seconds. The more we attempt to pay attention to it, the more we become distracted. Memories, daydreams and anxieties arise. There is an apparently endless flood of thoughts, feelings and fantasies. One of these usually catches our attention and we become oblivious to the present moment.
As soon as we notice that our attention has wandered, we should resume our attention to breath. Like a child who reaches for one toy, becomes bored, and reaches for another, and then another, our mind keeps jumping from one thought, feeling or fantasy to another. Interestingly, by noticing that we have been inattentive we slowly cultivate increased attentiveness and focus.
After a certain period of practice, we may experience for just a split second that our mind is fully concentrated on our breathing, when we will not hear even sounds nearby, when no external world exists. This slight moment is a tremendous experience, full of joy, happiness and tranquility.
The experience of mindfulness of breathing, which is one of the simplest and easiest practices, can be applied to every action of daily life. People do not generally like their present actions. They live in the past or in the future. This is especially true with depressed patients. Though they seem to be doing something now, they live somewhere else in their thought, in their imaginary problems and worries, usually in the memories of the past or in desires and speculations about the future.
The Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh gives the following instruction of practicing mindfulness: while washing the dishes, you might be thinking about the tea afterwards, and so try get them out of the way quickly as possible in order to drink the tea. But that means that you are incapable of living during the time you are washing dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you are drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life.”
(Page 116, Tai).
More about the Drunken Monkey tomorrow. Also, insights into Morita Therapy.