In Psalm 46:10, God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
For a lot of people, it would start by turning off their cell phones and anything else that provides background chatter.
I am not a cell phone addict. My television and radio are off most of the time. No one else lives at my house. Right now, I can hear the air conditioner fan and the ticking of a clock. My dogs don’t even have anything to bark at. So I regularly experience a level of quietness that many people today would find alien and threatening.
That’s outside of me. But I have monkey mind. I have to tame it to get the quietness and trust that would give me strength.
The idea of monkey mind comes from the ancient Buddhists. So a mind that chatters and jumps from one thought to the next is not a product of modern technology. It’s part of the human condition. We find it in Scripture, too.
In the King James Version, Psalm 119:113 reads “I hate vain thoughts, but thy law do I love.” Most modern translations say something like “I hate double minded people.” The keyword, Strong 5588, occurs only this once in Scripture. It means ambivalent, divided, half-hearted. To me, it seems more helpful to hate my own parade of ill-formed thoughts than to hate anything about other people.
What can we do with monkey mind besides hating it?
The stillness of contemplation
The anonymous author of the Medieval English devotional classic The Cloud of Unknowing acknowledges that humans experience a frustrating darkness between ourselves and God. It can make people give up on breaking through to God at all.
He says to spend time in that cloud and place a “cloud of forgetting” between ourselves and all our other thoughts. Let there be nothing else in our mind but a love for God that seeks to get through the “cloud of unknowing,” even though we’ll never penetrate it in this life.
He suggests combatting all other thoughts with prayers of a single syllable, such as “God,” “love,” or “sin.” See? Eastern religions might have named the mantra, but they didn’t invent it.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition has given us the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s often shortened to ” Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” It has brought many people to a place of contemplation, but not me. So maybe even the short version has too many syllables!
Limiting my mantras to a single syllable seems too rigid. “Jesus” has two, after all! I have allowed myself three or four to concentrate on attributes of God that, frankly, I have always had trouble truly believing. “God is good.” “God is near.” “God is love.” “God is my strength.”
It’s not enough to try to think them. Monkey mind will overwhelm my attempts to control my own thoughts. I have to say them with my lips and tongue moving. Perhaps loudly enough that I can actually hear them. When God commanded Joshua to meditate on the law, the word for “meditate” means “mutter.”
Does it work?
How to succeed in stillness without being a monk
Sometimes I wrestle with monkey mind for as much as half an hour without getting it to shut up. I probably give up too quickly. But The Cloud of Unknowing was written by a monk for the edification of other monks who were supposed to spend hours in contemplation.
For all my wrestling and apparently losing battles with my monkey mind, however, I’m finding that I’m calmer throughout the day than ever before. When my monkey mind serves up thoughts that used to agitate me so much I couldn’t function for a while, I find it easier not to pay attention to them. They go away having done less damage than before.
Not bad for a few months of trying to establish a new mental habit.
But like the mantras of Eastern religions, it takes time. At least several minutes at a time several times a day. Do you have a daily quiet time? That’s a start. Don’t rush into your Bible reading or prayer list without first taking a couple of minutes to be still.
Beyond that, take “God breaks” throughout the day. Mutter your syllables while you walk or drive or work out at the gym. Of course, that means turning off the radio. If you never quite break through that “cloud of unknowing” or never quite establish your “cloud of forgetting,” you’ll at least be still enough for God to get your attention and start to do a work.
Quiet contemplation. Some rights reserved by luckyjimmy. Link to Flickr no longer works.
Dark cloud. Some rights reserved by Jo Naylor.
By the sea. Some rights reserved by Julie Jordan Scott.