Do you ever sit in meditation and wish that your mind would just shut up and give you some peace and quiet? Even just a few minutes peace seems like all you need but hard as you try to concentrate your mind just won’t stop. The conversation with Karen from HR, the jingle that was playing on the radio on your way to work, your shopping list, that song that keeps popping into your head, a conversation you had with your ex 8 years ago, that song again, a scene from a movie, that song again. This is what our minds are often like, and not just when we are beginners to meditation but even many many years into the practice.
You might have heard of the saying ‘monkey mind’ before; this is the Buddhist concept of the mind that is always leaping from one thought or idea to the next, never able to settle for more than a few seconds. This is something that you can see pretty much every time you sit to meditate or even at any moment if you are mindful. But I’d like to give you another way to think about the contents of your mind – the parrot mind. A parrot will repeat back whatever it has heard and your mind will do the same thing. Don’t believe me? Well just meditate for a while and watch carefully what pops into your mind.
I know for myself that if I’ve been watching a TV programme when I sit and meditate elements of it pop into my thoughts; perhaps replaying a scene or speculating about a character, or even the actor who played them. I know I’m not the only one who does this, one of the ajahns said that when he was a layperson he used to watch the soap opera Coronation Street, and he would end up worrying about what was happening to the characters while he was meditating!
If I have read a news story about something bad then I sit and meditate, I find the story and my responses to it are in my meditation. Going through it in my mind, weighing out an argument against it, and feeling the anger or outrage rising up in my body. I find this happens even if I have only read a couple of sentences, the length of a Twitter post for example, the negative emotions and reactions still get triggered by it and it comes up in my meditation.
If I have been listening to music or if I have heard music coming from a passing car, or a radio in a waiting room then the songs pop up in my mind, and sometimes the songs lead onto other ones that have a similar sentiment or are connected to the song in some way until I have a jukebox playing on random in my head. I see it or I hear it and my parrot mind just repeats it back to me.
We like to think that the contents of our mind have some meaning but when you meditate and watch the mind you quickly discover that very few of your thoughts are anything other than just brain junk, just the stuff that fills up your head during the normal course of your day. When you look at the contents of your mind in meditation you can discern quite easily the thoughts that are just being repeated to you parrot fashion.
What use is this to us though, knowing that our minds are just like parrots? Well it can help us to let go of thoughts as they pop into our minds, when we recognise a thought as just something the mind has picked up from somewhere then we know that it isn’t important and we can just let it go, we don’t need to think about it.
But it also gives us an insight into why we have to be careful about what our minds get exposed to. The more a parrot hears the same things the more likely it is to repeat them. If we don’t want our mind to keep going back to things we don’t want to think about then we have to be careful to not repeatedly expose the mind to them.
This exposure isn’t only from external sources but also from our internal behaviours too. For example if we continually have negative thoughts about a person then each time we see or hear about them then it is likely that our mind will repeat that negativity back to us and we will have more negative thoughts about them. In fact that habit of having negative thoughts will then extend to having negative thoughts about other people too, and then to other situations until our habit is one of having negative thoughts. Whatever we do repeatedly in our mind will become the habit of our mind.
Nowadays scientists call this neuroplasticity, the brain will grow new neural networks in the brain from repeated actions and behaviours. The repeated use of these networks will reinforce the connections and will make it more likely that the new behaviour will happen. But the Buddha knew about this 2500 years ago when he was teaching. He understood that whatever the mind does frequently it will continue to do, and the habit will continue to reinforce itself.
The Buddha understood the power of habit all too well, the noble eightfold fold path is in fact to train you to change your habitual responses. This is why the teaching he gave us put so much emphasis on taking ourselves away from the ordinary things of life because we have these deep rooted habits and we need to break them to allow us to fully develop our minds.
The teachings put a lot of emphasis on ‘guarding the sense doors’, this means being careful about what we expose our senses to. For us nowadays this means things like being careful about what we watch on tv, movies, online; what we read; what we listen to in terms of music, tv, conversations; the sights we expose our eyes to; the taste of food we eat; the physical sensations we indulge in; the thoughts that we allow to occupy our minds.
The purpose of this element of the teaching is twofold: the first is to lessen exposure to compelling sense pleasures that we might attach to and create craving for, this would create suffering and would reinforce our identification with these feelings; the second was to change the habit of the mind from always looking outside itself to find something to excite it, to the habit of keeping the mind within itself, calm and centred.
The Buddha though was unaffected by anything that he was exposed to, he had achieved enlightenment and his mind no longer clung to anything. Don’t think that your practice is so strong that you can also do the same thing, if you are attentive and honest with yourself when you meditate you will see clearly what the mind has been exposed to and how repetitious your thoughts are.
We cannot see the mind, we can only see the contents that are in it, so if you don’t like the contents of your mind then you need to change what it is being exposed to. If your mind is full of cynicism then look at where these cynical ideas come from. Yes there might be a lot of funny stuff on the internet or on TV but most of it is pretty cynical, if this is affecting your mind then you need to decide if it really is harmless entertainment. If you want your mind to be good then you need to expose it to good things.
When we understand how fundamental this facet of our mind is, this internal parrot that will give back to us whatever we have been exposing it to, then we realise that we have quite a serious task on our hands that requires us to be always mindful about what we are exposing ourselves to.
We like to think that we are in control of our thoughts and that through applying our intelligence that we can put anything negative that the mind gets exposed to into context and not let it bother us. Or like cynical, sarcastic humour we dismiss it as just idle entertainment. But when you see the parrot mind in action you realise that is not the case. The mind is like an impressionable child that takes in everything around it and gets influenced by it. You are not in control of the impact that negative things will have on your mind, the mind will take it in and feed it back to you, and it will be further shaped by these influences too.
This is a big deal, this means that the only way to get away from negative thoughts and behaviours is to stop exposing yourself to the things that create and reinforce that negativity. You are not in control of your mind, it is just like a parrot that will squawk back to you anything that it has heard, so if it is telling you something you don’t want to hear then you need to stop exposing it to that thing, be it an external source or your own internal habitual ways of thinking.
This is where mindfulness is such an important skill to develop. The Buddha told us that our mindfulness should be like the guard at the gates of the city, always alert to any danger that might try to get in. The city is our mind, and by paying attention to what our senses are being exposed to and how it affects us, and by paying attention to the nature of our thoughts, we can protect the mind from negativity.
But it isn’t just negative things that the mind will replay to us, it will reinforce our good thoughts too. If I have been on retreat and my mind is lovely and calm and clear then I find that my natural response to any situation will be similar, this becomes the habit of the mind. I went on a metta retreat and for a few weeks afterwards my habitual response to everything was with love and acceptance, not because I am a wonderful kind person but because the mind had taken on the habit of always seeing things that way. The parrot nature of the mind isn’t just a weakness to guard against but also a strength to take advantage of. If you expose your mind to good, wholesome, kind, and skilful things then it will pick them up and make those its habit.
But I’m not suggesting that you will benefit from just forcing yourself to have positive thoughts all the time, if it isn’t how you really feel then you are just denying your reality and you must never do that in your practice. You must always be 100% honest with yourself about what you are thinking and feeling otherwise you will never be able to see how your mind works, you will always be trying to hide it.
Like all things in the practice growth is gradual so take small steps to make changes. First of all use your meditation to see just what it is that impacts on your mind, what your mind’s habits are and how that subsequently affects your actions and meditation. Then see how the mind changes when you expose it to positive things, and notice how that becomes a habit. Once you have seen this mechanism in action then you know that your thoughts aren’t a matter of willpower and choice but a matter of exposure and habit, and armed with that knowledge you can really make some big changes to how your mind works.