The Monkey Mind and Watching the Breath

By Erric Solomon

Practicing Creating Space is the first step towards creating Basic Happiness in our lives. While we are Creating Space, we will experience a break from all the tension and thoughts that were crowding in on us. They may still be lurking in our mind, but they no longer define how we feel. Creating Space gives us a taste of the mental peace and calmness that is uncovered once our thoughts and emotions lose their power to carry us away from the present moment.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to experience this peace in any situation? Creating Space is something that needs to be done in special sessions as it can be quite challenging to maintain a visualization of space and be active in the world. We can however, learn to watch our breath in almost any situation.  


Giving Our Restless Mind Something to Do

In Tibetan, the word for meditation is gom. Gom literally means 'getting familiar with' or ‘getting used to’. By practicing meditation in the way that Phakchok Rinpoche and I recommend, we get used to remaining present, undisturbed by whatever thoughts or emotions rise in our mind.

Meditation is a process of getting to know how our mind works and training our attention to rest where we place it. But why is it that we need to train our mind? Because our mind normally behaves like an excited monkey, jumping from place to place. Our mind thinks about this and then it thinks about that. We sit down to meditate and at first we are present, watching our breath. But, after a few moments we are lost in a daydream, thinking about thoughts. We may have started out by watching the breath, but soon we are on an island enjoying a Pina Colada at the beach and next we are thinking about all the money we have to save to get there. Before long, several minutes have passed and we realize we forgot all about the breath. The monkey mind jumps here and there almost without stop.

Nearly everything we do is a result of what our mind is thinking. Our monkey mind is constantly talking to us and telling us what to do and we don't know how to guide it. Our mind is under our control to some degree, but a few minutes on the meditation cushion should convince us how little control we actually have over it.

When the monkey mind tells us something we either react in one of two ways: We follow it or we fight with it and try to push it away.  If our mind tells us something is good and we want it, we follow our mind. Or perhaps our mind is telling us how funny our partner looks in that outfit, but we struggle with ourselves not to mention it and try push the thought away.

Some people think that meditation is about siting there, clearing the mind by blocking thoughts and emotions. They struggle with the mind thinking “I must meditate, I must keep a quiet mind, no emotions, and CONCENTRATE!” Other people try to meditate by blissing out, thinking meditation is all about peace, openness and reaching a different level of consciousness. They try to cultivate a particular state of mind.

But meditation is neither about cultivating nor rejecting, but learning how to be present in the face of whatever rises in our mind. Yet, in the beginning, we may need to calm our mind in order to not become overwhelmed and distracted by our thoughts. That is why we recommend Creating Space to calm the mind. Eventually, as we gain experience, we will be able to use turbulent thoughts as a support for our meditation (pretty radical, isn’t it?). Until then, we need to be able to settle our mind.  But once our mind settles, we don’t have to remain in a tightly focused state of concentration nor do we have to create a blissful experience.

If we are too tight, we are blocking our senses and that can be quite an exhausting struggle. When we are too open and relaxed, we may feel good, but this can easily result in strengthening our fondness for creating experiences, the basis of all our trouble. Whether we prefer a state of control or creating a pleasant state of openness, we are still worried about circumstances, even if they are just mental states. The mind is naturally open, we don’t need to do anything, since everything that appears to us, appears in the mind. Otherwise, how would we know about it? We don’t need to block nor cultivate anything, we just need to get used to remaining present, aware of, yet undistracted by, whatever sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts and emotions appear in our mind.

When you have a difficult, disruptive guest at a party, an experienced hostess won’t immediately argue with the guest and try to throw them out. That could easily ruin the evening for everyone. An experienced hostess will instead flatter the guest, find common ground and give the guest something pleasant to do; perhaps a favorite beverage and first dibs at the deli platter, or the most comfortable chair to relax in. 

We don’t have to fight with this monkey-like, restless quality of our mind nor do we have to follow it around getting completely lost in thoughts. The monkey mind needs something to do or it starts creating all kinds of problems. So, let’s give the monkey mind something to do.

So, first we tell the monkey mind to watch the breath and for a few moments it behaves, but then monkey mind thinks something like “Pina Coladas are so delicious!” and we become distracted. But we don’t need to get mad, rigid and become a strict disciplinarian. We just gently remind the monkey mind that its job is to watch the breath.

In this way we gradually tame the restless monkey mind. Our mind becomes more pliable, more workable, and negative thoughts and emotions hold less and less sway over us.


Meditating by Watching the Breath

Sit comfortably on a chair or on a cushion, with your back straight.

To calm the mind, begin by Creating Space.  Relax and experience a feeling of spaciousness, then open your eyes.

Leave your eyes open, gazing naturally, relaxed into the space in front of you. There is no need to focus or rest the gaze upon anything.

Now, gently bring your attention to the rhythm of your breath.

As you breathe out, just know that you are breathing out; as you breathe in know that you are breathing in. Simply focus lightly on the breath, without intensely fixating or making a lot of effort.

Body still, speech silent, and mind lightly following the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation, just as it naturally occurs. There is no need to block any thoughts or emotions that may arise, just keep watching the breath. Thoughts come, stay with the breath; thoughts go, rest your mind gently upon the breath.

Present and aware, steadily keep your attention on the breath.

After awhile, you may realize that you have become lost in thinking about thoughts and have completely forgotten about watching the breath. At that very moment, gently bring your attention to rest once again on the breath.

There is no need to analyze how you became distracted or to scold yourself, but instead the moment you realize that you have become distracted simply bring your attention back to watching the breath.

There is no good or bad, no need for mental commentary on how your meditation is going. All that needs to be done is notice whether or not your attention is resting on the breath. 

That’s how simple and easy meditation can be.


Try spending 10 minutes each day practicing Watching the Breath. It’s a good idea to start by doing several minutes of Creating Space beforehand. This could be especially helpful if you have a lot on your mind or have a lot of stress in your life. After 5 minutes or so of creating space, open your eyes and begin the practice of Watching the Breath.