A Simple Lesson from Thich Nhat Hanh.

I don’t have a monkey mind—I have a barrel of monkeys in my mind.

It’s not as bad as it used to be, but there are still days when I’ll leave my house to drive to the grocery store, get there, and not even remember the drive. Or I’ll walk in the woods and suddenly look around me—and have no idea where I am.

This is a path I walk every day.

For a while I wondered if these were age related brain cramps, but I’m certain that they’re not. The fact that I even notice them means, in fact, that I’m zoning out less than I used to. In the past, there might be days or even weeks that came and went without my consciously experiencing them at all.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. In case you haven’t heard, Thich Nhat Hanh is a renowned Zen Master who is so humble and so advanced in his spiritual practice it’s hard not to fall in love with him. I highly recommend reading anything of his that you can get your hands on.

In his book, he makes many practical suggestions  geared to help us stay in the moment. This is, of course, the cornerstone of many Eastern philosophies, including Yogic, Buddhist and Zen theory. The idea is that the present moment is not only reality—the past and the future being projections of the mind—but the only place where we can truly find happiness, or more accurately, sanity—or even more accurately, peace.

When I find myself falling back into the vortex of my monkey mind, i.e. having thoughts unrelated to the present moment, I try to remember Thich Nhat Hahn’s useful suggestion, which is to re-callibrate the mind and therefore the spirit with reality by making the statement, “I am doing this.”

“This” may be anything from washing the dishes, to listening to your best friend talk, to clipping your toe nails, having sex or brushing your hair.

Once you carefully and attentively articulate what you are doing an amazing thing happens. It’s like turning on a light in a dark room—everything becomes illuminated. All the details of your surroundings and the information your senses are processing stand out in stark relief.

The odd thing is, you realize every time, oh my! All of these things were here a breath ago, and I was totally unaware. The vibrancy of life unfolds with effortless immediacy and things like the twist of a leaf in the wind, the pressure of your feet on the ground, the texture of your lovers skin, or a dish soap bubble wrapped in tiny rainbows snap into focus.

What I love about this plan of action is that it is a plan of action. Rather than abstract theory, you can do this right now, all the time, as often as you like and always get the same great result. Also, the more you do it, the more you do it, meaning it eventually becomes second nature.

Acknowledging what you are doing right now is the best way I know to cultivate practical consciousness. We can stop our lives from slipping away in the murk of our monkey minds by throwing down the anchor of now.

Try it and see the world unfold in it’s magnificent, surprising glory.



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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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kristinalicia72 Jun 5, 2014 11:27am

So funny. I saw the title of this piece and really wanted to read it. The barrel of monkeys in my brain have been particularly busy this week – like someone dropped a box of sugar cubes in the barrel! I clicked and started to read. Then my Facebook page 'blooped' and I went to read what was said. That took about 5 minutes away from my reading. I came back to it. Another 'bloop'. Went to read some more, though I'm supposed to be working right now, so I suppose the guilt of procrastination is contributing here, and an email came in. It was JUST BEFORE the crux of your piece "I am doing this" that I told my monkeys to SHUT THE F UP SO I COULD READ.

I am doing THIS. So simple.

I think I'm going to go get my work done now so I can at least get THAT monkey off my back! 🙂

Jake Eagle Oct 23, 2013 6:57pm

Thanks Erica, a nice reminder to stay present in our lives. I'd like to offer another suggestion. When we notice ourselves behaving in a particular way, instead of saying, "I am doing this," we can say, "I am frustrating myself," or "I am delighting myself," or "I am disappointing myself," or "I am boring myself." The idea is to recognize that our states of mind are something we each create. No one else is doing these things to me. I am doing these things to myself.

So, when i speak this way, not only do I wake myself to the present moment, as you suggest in your article, but I also take responsibility for myself, which is another form of mindfulness. This approach I am suggesting relates to the ancient Pali language, the language that the Buddha spoke. This way of speaking was unique in that it allowed one to stay in process, not fixing oneself or clinging to a static or permanent state—such as anger—but rather expressing that we are always in motion, unfolding. So when we turn "anger" into a verb—"I am angering myself," we remind ourselves that we are creating our state of mind and it is temporary.

Camilla Oct 23, 2013 10:45am

Erica – can you please enable people to "follow" you on Facebook? Thanks!

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Erica Leibrandt

Erica Leibrandt is a licensed psychotherapist, registered yoga teacher, published author, and imperfect mom. Visit her at PsycheFinder, her new website; the only site that finds your mental health professional for you.