When I lived in Thailand I had a monkey named Kapang, or maybe Kapang had a pet people…not exactly sure which?
Kapang had a few favorite activities. He liked to flip over anything that shouldn’t be flipped over, throw all sorts of things just because he could, and jumping on dogs to ride them. But his favorite game was to steal flop-flops off unsuspecting neighborhood kids and take them up into a tree from where he taunted them. When the kids eventually gave up and started to walk away, Kapang would put the flip-flop on the ground and climb back up into the tree. It looked like he was being nice, but the next part of his game was to jump down and grab it again just before the child could. He’d scamper back up the tree, and the tormenting would resume.
Of course, I tried yelling at Kapang, gently calling him to me, trading the flip-flop for some other item he’d recently shown an interest in…none of it ever worked. The game was just too compelling to resist carrying on as long as absolutely possible.
Eventually, I learned that if I waited until Kapang put the shoe on the ground I could distract him from his game with a banana and retrieve the child’s shoe. When I offered the fruit before he put the flip-flop down he’d just grab it and take both things back up in the tree to have a snack while tormenting the children like it was “dinner and a movie”.
Sometimes we call our reactive auto-pilot thinking habits the “monkey mind”. Meditating is like giving your monkey-mind a banana to distract it from its monkey business.
Techniques like Deep Relaxation, Mindfulness, Insight, and Transcendental meditations can all help interrupt our auto-pilot thinking habits, increase concentration, and give us a little space to relax. Ultimately, the goal is to replace those auto-pilot mental habits with a calm awareness. As we become more aware the mind calms down because it doesn’t need to spend as much time jumping around trying to figure out what’s going on…and as the mind calms down our awareness has more room to grow because there are fewer distractions.
The most direct way of addressing our auto-pilot thinking habits is to start paying attention to our thoughts, which isn’t nearly as hard as it might seem.
Thinking is just making the same two choices over and over again. We choose how to interpret a situation then decide how to react to our own interpretations using our memories of past experiences, our emotions, and our ability to speculate to fill in the blanks of missing information. We can become intimately self-aware and replace our auto-pilot mental habits by paying attention to how we make our choices.
An easy way to get started is to give yourself some extra time when grocery shopping. When you select an item and ask yourself why you’re choosing it. Are you’re choosing it because of something you remember, speculating what it will be like, because of an emotional connection, or a combination of these. Go ahead and write “memories, speculation, emotions, combination” on your grocery list if you have trouble remembering them. From there start paying attention to other choices you make throughout the day. Like when ordering off a menu, deciding what you want to do, what routes to take, what time to go to bed and get up, what you want to watch or listen to, etc. Before long a calm effortless awareness will emerge as a new mental habit replacing the auto-pilot monkey-mind.
Something special happens when our awareness starts to eclipses our auto-reactive habits. It’s like learning to read. We didn’t know how much information we were missing before we learned to read. A deeper understanding emerges of ourselves, others, and the world we live in.