A Primatologist’s Commentary on the Term ‘Monkey Mind’

I recently went to a meditation class. Through all the guided practices for sitting, walking, and loving-kindness meditations, the instructor did not once mention ‘monkey mind.’ Thank goodness!

Have you heard the term? ‘Monkey mind’ is often used by Buddhists and others in the mindfulness community to refer to the tendencies of our distracted minds to wander, jumping from one thought to the next like a monkey leaping from branch to branch as it travels through the forest canopy.

This analogy has always bothered me. I argue that monkeys are far more mindful than humans. They surely live in the present moment more often than our particularly anxious and busy species with our habits of either dwelling in the past or planning for the future. Or both. At the same time. While checking our phones.

Yes, monkeys travel through the trees- with a purpose. Maybe they’re playing and learning important survival skills. Maybe they’re headed toward a certain fig tree, mouths salivating at the memory of especially ripe and juicy fruits. Maybe they’re avoiding danger.

Monkey movement even sets into motion other important processes that connect them to the ecological systems of which they are a part. They flush insects from the canopy that birds eat. They disperse seeds as they poo in different places, ensuring future generations of forest resources for their descendants and ours.

Monkey ‘chatter’ communicates crucial information such as desires, emotions, warnings and past experiences. It helps to maintain social groups, prevents aggression, and aids in reconciliation. These are no trivial issues in the life of a primate. Chatter matters.

Even if monkeys do occasionally dilly-dally, staring for a whimsical moment at a caterpillar marching along a stem or following some impulse to watch a waterfall navigate the rocks- isn’t that mindfulness too? Shouldn’t we all strive to live more like the monkeys, at one moment crashing through the branches on an intentional quest for a nourishing snack and at the next being groomed by our friend in a sleepy state of relaxed ecstasy? If we delve a little deeper into primate behavior and cognition we might even say we’d be lucky to have a monkey mind!

I wish there was a more appropriate term, and one more informed about monkeys, to refer to our own powerful minds. But in the end, we’re all primates, and we all share primate minds that are at times restless, distracted, and full of ‘chatter’, but also immensely capable of calmness, compassion, and awe.

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