Taming a Time-Traveling Monkey: Newbie Observations On Meditation

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve been meditating for about three-and-a-half months, meaning I’m by no means an expert. Still, I feel that being closer to a complete novice versus a meditation master places me closer to the highs and lows of a meditation newbie that may prove useful to newcomers. Here is what I’ve learned and experienced about meditation during my first three months.

What Am I Even Doing?

Dan Harris (author of 10 Percent Happier, Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics, and creator of the 10 Percent Happier meditation app) says that, 

“Meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever.” 

The failure to adequately express the simple nature of meditation is due to its hijacking by pseudo-spiritual chi-mongers who are looking to leverage spiritual insecurities to sell classes, books, and app subscriptions (not you, Dan — you’re cool). It’s not uncommon to see watered-down Eastern spiritual symbols associated with the marketing of meditation — from yin yangs to chakra diagrams to people sitting crossed-legged with their thumb and index fingers pinched (something I’ve never seen outside of stock photography). However, from my own perspective as a religiously spiritual person coming to meditation, when the practice is broken down to its most essential parts, the practice feels about as spiritual as pushups or jumping jacks. 

So, what is meditation? Simply put, I’d say it’s “presentness practice.” When executed, I’d say it’s the process of taming a time-traveling monkey that lives in your head.

What do I mean by that?

The Default Mode Network

We spend most of our waking lives in a part of our brains called the default mode network. This system of brain regions is fired when we’re not actively concentrating on an immediate task or solely on the present moment. This zone is where your mind goes when you’re daydreaming or simultaneously comparing thoughts with moments to determine your next course of action. 

While your default mode network can help brainstorm a new idea for a marketing campaign based on past successes, when combined with insecurities or painful moments, it can also lead you down a spiral of dread and anxiety. Past experiences can result in healthy stress that can keep you safe. However, the default mode network can cause you to dwell incessantly on the pains of the past or worry incessantly about potential hardships of the future. How do can we avoid this mental pain spiral while also increasing our attention span? By making it easier to escape to where things are likely better — the present. How do we do that? Through meditation. 

All We Have is Now. Might As Well Enjoy It! 

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that things are good for you right now. I’m not talking about what happened earlier today or what will happen later this week — but right at this moment. If you’re reading an article online, that means you likely have a little time to yourself, you’re in a comfortable position, you have access to a technological device and electricity. Even if you’re reading a printed version of this, you’ve likely ok right now. Take a second to push the past and the future aside, take a deep breath, and just enjoy this moment. I’ll wait. 

Pretty nice, right? Well, meditation can help you access that place more often and with less work. 

Taming the Time-Traveling Monkey

The following practice can potentially hurt the read-through rate of this article, but I’m willing to risk it: 

  1. Take ten seconds to shake all focus on the present moment. Just allow any thought into your mind and feel free to follow it wherever it goes. 
  2. Ok, come back! 

If you’re not an experienced meditator, what you just experienced probably felt the way a tuning orchestra sounds — just a chaos of noises and thoughts, some ok and some negative. You just allowed your default mode network to have complete control of your mind. It was probably wholly directionless, like riding an innertube through stormy seas. This is what is popularly known as the “monkey mind.” Like a monkey on your back, it will cause you to waste time, believe your insecurities, covet the successes of others, and just be unable to focus on the task at hand. If you’re reading a book, the monkey mind is the reason why you can sometimes read an entire paragraph only to realize that, while your eyes took in the sentences, your mind couldn’t tell you want they said. It was busy time traveling to the past or future. Yes, this is why I compare active meditation to taming a time-traveling monkey. 

Is It Working? 

If you start a diet or exercise routine, you can typically see metrics of your progress. These metrics may appear on the bathroom scale or the number of reps you can perform without toppling over. However, unless you’re part of a clinical trial studying the mental effects of regular meditation, these metrics won’t seem so evident. 

One of the catch 22’s of meditation is that you won’t experience tangible evidence of the benefits because meditation itself takes you out of your ruminating mind that would detect such improvements. Still, you will recognize these benefits more abstractly. The following is a personal example: 

Just as background for those who don’t know what mindfulness meditation consists of, it’s essentially focusing all of your mental bandwidth on the raw data of the inhale and exhale of your breath — two indications of the present moment. When your mind begins to wander to events not happening at that moment, the key is to make a note that your mind is wandering and return your focus to the raw data of breathing — in, out, cool, warm; however you feel it. 

“I feel it working!”

One day, I was included in a meeting on a project which would one-day require my involvement. Because the information being discussed at the moment didn’t immediately correspond to my role, my mind began to wander. What should I have for lunch? Did I leave my phone on my desk? Did I remember to lock my car? Suddenly, upon taking a breath, the sensation of the coolness of the air entering my nostrils reminded me of my meditation sessions…and told me that my mind was wandering from the meeting. While I could have carefully studied the notes of the meeting later, it would be much easier to fully experience the material now for my role in the project later. Upon seeing my distraction, I immediately brought my focus back to the person speaking — a realization and redirection that probably took two seconds total. This feat would have been substantially more difficult without my meditation practice.

Neuroscience, Y’all

Though that instance required a stimulus (my breath) to remind me to focus, I have been receiving the “You’re wandering — focus” notification in my mind much more often in daily life when I become distracted as a result of daily meditation practice. Eerily enough, this is actually due to meditation changing the setup of my brain. A 2011 Harvard study looked at before-and-after scans of participants who took part in an eight-week meditation course. The scans showed a cortical thickness of the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory) as well as other regions of the brains associated with the regulation of emotions, perspective-taking, and self-referential processing. Scans also showed the shrinking of the amygdala — the zone related to stress, anxiety, and fear.  

Despite all of the benefits that daily meditation has had in my daily life, I’m anxious…to see what the future holds.

Ok, that was corny, but I couldn’t help it.

Additional resources:
If you’re completely new to meditation and would like to try it out, no tools necessary, enjoy the one-minute meditation tutorial I wrote here.

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