The Chattering Monkey

Though I’ve been trying since I was a teenager, I have never been able to meditate, which I define as stilling what Buddhists call “the chattering monkey,” those racing, uncontrollable, annoying thoughts that never seem to stop. They don’t stop even when I’m asleep. In fact, that’s when the chattering monkey swings freest. Last night I dreamed I went back to my job at UC Berkeley, regained access to a privileged and confidential database, and learned that a plaintiff who filed suit shortly before I retired wound up settling her case for six plush hand towels.

I don’t usually remember such details from dreams. What I remember mostly is their overall mood. They’re seldom nightmarish or happy. Instead, they reek of frustration and futility. I wonder whether that’s common or whether that’s the particular rut my brain, through its unique combination of genetics, environment, and experience, has dug so deep it’s hard for me to dream otherwise.

Over the last few years my efforts to meditate have focused less on breathing and more on a high-pitched whine I can sometimes hear with my inner ear, something I take to be the sound of my brain humming. (Or it could be tinnitus.) It gives me a steady physical sensation to focus on. But I can never go more than a few seconds without thinking “here I am trying to meditate again,” and zoom! the chattering monkey bursts loose, distracting me. The common advice is to indulge the monkey until it tires itself out, but my monkey has a juvenile’s manic energy and always outlasts my patience.

I’ve seen articles that assure me what I’m doing is successful meditation, that the idea is not so much to silence the chattering monkey as to persist in bringing attention back to my breath or brain whine or whatever. That’s comforting. And perhaps I am deriving some benefits from my ludicrous stabs at meditation. Am I marginally better than most humans at following the monkey chatter dispassionately, making for a calmer me? I’d like to think so. But even if that’s true, I doubt it’s solely due to meditation. My awareness of the chattering monkey concept, gained through studying Buddhism in college, has given my rational mind decades to create a bemused distance from its feral inner counterpart.

In the scientific world, the chattering monkey is known as the default mode network of the brain — where our mind goes when we’re not focused on what’s right in front of us. Spend too much time in the default mode network and we’re in trouble: it can foster feelings of depression and loneliness. But we’re also in trouble if we spend too little time there, which can lead to mental illness. The chattering monkey may be a safety valve, the brain’s way of steering us past irreconcilable stimuli, and without it we might go insane.

So I’m left wondering whether the chattering monkey is actually my friend. Not only is it my constant companion, but it’s constantly reminding me that I need to be more patient and accepting because frustration and futility are intrinsic to consciousness. Perhaps I should cease my silly attempts to stifle it.

But a few minutes a day of a truly quiet mind would be really, really nice.