“Monkey Mind” is the Wrong Metaphor for Mental Confusion

A five year old sees things as they are. A bird, a tree, filtered only with the first bindings of human sensation and perception and memory. Just five years of language is not enough history to contort the thing.

There was life in the world before people were there to see it. There were people in the world before there was speech to talk about it. The first speech was like an encounter today with someone who speaks a different language: pointing and grunting, pictures and acting. Primary speech is another physical experience in the lifeworld — utterances, vibrations of the tongue in the air.

Spoken words are for communication, correlates of things in the lifeworld. Some words resemble the sound they describe: buzz, murmur, splash; they are examples of onomatopoeia. Most spoken words are unlike their counterparts in the world. Words can be used to speak of things even when they are not present; it is a type of memory. Words can also be used to speak of things that do not exist in the lifeworld. They can used for persuasion. Centuries of human life have piled words upon words. Derivative speech shapes and twists our perceptions. The spoken word is a second binding, a copy of a copy, error upon error, separating people from their experience.

Shoshin is beginner’s mind in Zen Buddhism. Openness, fresh interest, and a lack of preconceptions. A beginner’s mind is not clouded with the noise of the “monkey mind,” a Buddhist metaphor for the clatter of our unceasing and wandering thoughts and language and attention.

How speech developed is unclear. Unlike writing, spoken language is ephemeral, leaving no evidence to study its development. Speech organs evolved first for basic bodily functions such as feeding and breathing. It evolved into language. Monkeys, apes and other animals have evolved sound patterns for social communication. What appears distinct with humans is the use of the tongue to modulate sound. In most mammals the tongue is long and flat and contained within the mouth. In humans, the tongue is short and round and extends down the throat, enabling the articulation of vowels. Given the complexities and error with human speech, “monkey mind” is the wrong metaphor for mental confusion.

A five year old and a Zen Buddhist see things as they are. Philosophers and psychologists understand this kind of observation. Phenomenology is the study of structures in consciousness. Phenomenologists talk about qualia, that is, individual conscious experience. For example, your experience of eating this orange now is subjective. Is it possible to sidestep complex language and share this raw experience? Phenomenologists talk about intersubjectivity, the practical ability to nod and know that we are speaking about the same thing. Within a context, called the homeworld, there is common frame of reference. Can we truly know that my orange and your orange have the same taste? It depends on whether we are really separate from our experience and each other. Are we locked in tin cans, always separate? Or is it only derivative language and its pileup in memory that separates us?

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