Have you ever been meditating only to find yourself completely overwhelmed and frustrated by the incessant, acrobatic gyrations of monkey mind? Some spiritual paths put a lot of emphasis on getting the little chimp under control. Or rather, getting better at being present, so he eventually decides to go sit in a corner and quietly amuse himself with a twig or leaf instead of bothering you. I don’t mean to pick on any of these well-intentioned traditions. The teachings aren’t the problem, it’s the way that we apply them. Namely, sometimes we put way too much pressure on ourselves.
Evolutionary psychology offers some insights that put the way I experience my inner world in context. As a result, I feel affection instead of exasperation towards my monkey mind, and showing the chimp a little love actually settles him down rather nicely. I wanted to share some of that wisdom from brain science as it applies to spiritual practice.
The human brain is the product of several iterations. The prototype reptilian brain is composed of the cerebellum and brainstem. These structures govern the five F’s: fight, flight, freeze, food, and the four-letter word that sounds like “fire truck”. These instinctual responses make our survival possible, and we should be very grateful to have them. But the reptilian brain can also get in the way of our best interests. For example, as I am writing this I notice that Katrina just posted a great piece about fear at Freedom to a Full Life that dovetails nicely with my point.
The limbic system developed with mammals. This governs the ability to feel emotions, and its healthy functioning includes dreaming. It enables mammals to form bonds and nurture young, which is unnecessary for reptiles (who lay eggs and set off to find a new partner to make more). The mammalian brain also enables the development of social groups, hierarchy, and the notion of status. Again, while I deeply appreciate the ability to form deep bonds and have feelings, I also see how this can get out of hand. And in so far as it amplifies reptilian drives with strong emotion and competitive status-seeking, the limbic system can get me into even deeper trouble.
Evolution came out with a new mammalian brain model via the primate neocortex. I think you can guess that this is where the monkey mind lives. The neocortex is akin to a computer – constantly processing permutations and combinations of information, including input from the reptilian brain and the limbic system. The primate brain is capable of generating scenarios, looking back into the past, or forward into the future. It weighs pros and cons, calculates probabilities, predicts consequences, and scientists speculate that this part of the brain is what makes free will possible.
What I appreciate about knowing this is that it shows me that many of my troublesome tendencies have their roots in ancestral ways of operating. Though evolution has added new elements, the old structures remain, as do certain unwanted patterns. When I understand where these patterns come from, they are easier to deal with. So I don’t have to beat myself up for eating that last piece of pie or missing my bus stop because I was daydreaming. Of course that doesn’t mean we get a free pass. It is not OK to simply shrug your shoulders and blame an affair on your reptilian brain. My point is that we can be a little more forgiving and gentle with ourselves for not being perfect when we understand and appreciate our less evolved parts. Fortunately, evolution is not done with us yet and has already provided a way to manage this motley inheritance.
We humans have a unique pre-frontal cortex or frontal lobes. This area performs what brain scientists refer to as “executive functions” like intentionality, purposefulness, and high level decision-making. This peculiarly human faculty involves the ability to override the less evolved parts of the brain. So there is no excuse for dismissing egregious mistakes as biological in origin. We actually do have the ability to know better and make wise choices. But when it comes to everyday slip-ups I think we can cut ourselves a little slack and thank our frontal lobes for the opportunity to do it right next time.
These days when monkey mind pays me a visit on the cushion I pat his furry little head and thank him for the ability to multitask, do my taxes, and remember a loved one who has passed. And then I choose to breathe in… and out.