I recently chanced upon a YouTube video featuring a 27-minute talk by Matthieu Ricard on the art of meditation. Ricard is a French biochemist who left science to move to the Himalayas and become a Buddhist monk. His 27-minute talk is the clearest and most compelling argument for meditation that I have ever heard. I highly recommend it. the first few minutes are a little disjointed, so hang in there.
In the video, Ricard references the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind. Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering and carrying on endlessly. Ricard takes this idea and crafts a monkey mind metaphor to describe why meditation is a fundamental aspect of mental training.
One of the vulnerabilities of the monkey brain is that it becomes enslaved by negative and destructive impulses, such as anger, fear, jealousy, greed and envy. So, imagine a drunken monkey who is restrained by strong ropes. Each rope represents one of the destructive impulses that make our lives miserable. The monkey, understandably, is frantic to escape, but the more he struggles the tighter he pulls the knots that bind him.
This frantic reaction, Ricard suggest, is how our undisciplined mind usually works. It flails aimlessly against misery but just makes matters worse. To escape from pain and suffering the monkey mind needs to calm down. It needs to become still and serene so that it can look around and figure out what is really going on. The monkey mind needs to quiet its worst impulses and find a quiet space where its rational, civilized abilities have a chance to do their work.
The monkey mind needs to calm down and focus its attention on the root cause of its suffering. It needs to recognize that it is imprisoned by greed and envy. To free itself it needs to get to work undoing the knots that bind it to negative behaviors and must start cultivating positive behaviors that nurture happiness.
So, how do we find the mental discipline to behave in this calm and rational manner? It takes training and practice. That is what meditation is for. Meditation trains the mind to make use of its more evolved and civilized capabilities. It trains the mind to be aware and respectful of primitive impulses, but to keep them in check. Meditation trains our mind to slow down and give our recently evolved executive brain a chance to moderate primitive impulsive behaviors. Meditation trains our mind to modulate our emotional response. Rather than respond to impulses, we learn to engage our working memory, to think creatively and to make sensible choices.