Before We Face the Monkey Mind

A reader has written to me with the following question:

I make my living as a psychotherapist & most of my work is spiritually oriented counseling with Christians.  I have long been trying to introduce clients to contemplation through encouraging brief periods of silence, solitude and openness  (15-20 min).  I also taught an introductory  course through my church.  Finally, I am preparing to lecture other therapists on using contemplation in therapy.

As I have tried to introduce others we always deal with the “monkey mind” experience… I tend to see a continuum of practice from more structured (lectio) to less structured (use of sacred word or pure silence).  I have found that pure silence or even use of a sacred word may be a difficult place for some to start.  While I have read about all these practices I have not seen anyone organize them in terms of structure or discuss how starting more structured and moving to less might be helpful. My concern is that so many beginners give up so easily.

Are you aware of anyone who has written about  contemplation in this way?

Your question reminds me of The Cloud of Unknowing, which warns against efforts to become a contemplative when one is not, or not yet, called to this form of prayer. In chapter 75 of The Cloud, the author suggests that some people may think they are called to contemplative practice, but only “natural intellectual curiosity” is driving their interest — and that, of course, will eventually pass. The author goes on to suggest two criteria for determining if a call to contemplation is genuine.

The Cloud of Unknowing

First, a person should ensure that they have “done everything possible to prepare their conscience for this work.” I think this goes beyond confessing your mortal sins to a priest. I see this as saying that we need to achieve a level of psychological maturity before we can properly engage in deep contemplative work. Another way of looking at this, that feminist contemplatives from Kathleen R. Fischer to Dorothee Soelle have pointed out, is that a person cannot embrace egolessness unless she or he has an ego to surrender. So for many of us, the first step on the contemplative life is, paradoxically, not the descent into silence but the healthy attainment of a mature sense of self. And yes, that includes owning up to one’s own shadow and capacity to do harm, which brings us back to the Cloud-author’s insistence on a “purified” conscience.

But the Cloud-author insists on a second necessary sign for a vocation to contemplation: and that is an ongoing sense of being called to it, which manifests as a sense of finding “no peace” in the normal actions of life, including the ordinary routines of work and of religious observance. Dryness in vocal prayer is classically understood as an invitation into contemplation. But we need to be doing such prayer in order to find dryness within it.

Meanwhile, those who give up on contemplation may well be acknowledging that their interest was more of the “passing intellectual curiosity” variety and not really emerging out of a deep sense of being called into silence.

So before we face the monkey mind, I think everyone (at least, in a Christian context) needs to have some sense of a structured spiritual life: participation in a community of faith, familiarity with scripture, a recognition of the paradoxes and mysteries that permeate the faith, and at least an attempt at a regular practice of prayer. All of this will help the Christian seeker to have a more rich encounter with the mystery when entering the silence, and something to fall back on when the monkey is particularly discouraging. Obviously, this advice is irrelevant for non-Christians, although I would encourage all potential contemplatives to be grounded in some sort of wisdom tradition: if not Christianity, then Buddhism or Vedanta or even secular psychology. Again: you gotta have an ego before you can lay it down.

Into the Silent Land

Back to my reader’s questions. It seems that you are looking for a systematic overview of Christian spirituality that encompasses both kataphatic (devotional/verbal) and apophatic (contemplative/nonverbal) forms of spirituality; but it seems to me that you may be making a mistake by seeing the kataphatic as a sort of “preparation” for the apophatic. Kataphatic spirituality needs to be embraced for its own merits, and not just as a bridge or a prelude to a more contemplative practice. If you say “I’m going to pray the rosary or the daily office or engage in a daily practice of lectio, but this is just to prepare my mind for an eventual contemplative practice,” frankly, that sounds to me like an effort to control the relationship with God. Worse yet, it’s like a man who dutifully takes a woman out, buys her dinner, takes her to the theater, and so forth, but all he really wants is to get her into bed. He’s being narcissistic: he’s not interested in her, only in utilizing her body for his own gratification. Spirituality is always at risk of collapsing into a type of psychic narcissism, where “God” is just a projection of one’s own ego onto the cosmos, and the efforts to unite with God is really just a grand exercise in self-love.

So I think my advice would be this: you basically have two choices. First would be to simply introduce your clients to contemplation, stressing to them that the monkey mind really is hard to face, but that’s okay (and this is why beginning contemplatives need competent and available spiritual direction, to help them navigate the challenges that they will face in the caverns of their own distracted silence). In doing this, you will in fact see again and again that many beginning contemplatives will lose interest or lose heart (remember the parable of the sower!), but for every nine who give up there will be one who perseveres — and that person will thank you for introducing them to this precious gift. Your other option would be to offer your clients an overview of all the various devotional practices available, recognizing that some will choose practices other than contemplation, and that’s okay. Unlike the Cloud-author, I myself do believe that everyone is at least potentially called to the contemplative life — but (and this is a big “but”) not all people are ready, and some people may not be ready for years to come, and it’s never my place to judge. For such persons, I think practices like lectio or the daily office need to be offered, but without any agenda of seeing such practices as a prelude to something deeper/more silent down the road. Let the Holy Spirit be the ultimate spiritual director, and trust that at the right moment — the kairos moment — those who are called to silence will discern that call in their hearts. For that matter, the person whom you introduce to silent prayer who gives it up after two months may well come back to it ten years from now, happy that your introduction gave them a sense of what they ultimately wanted, when they were finally ready for it.

The nice thing about both lectio and the daily office is that, while they are primarily kataphatic/devotional forms of spiritual practice, both include invitations into restful silence, even if only for a few seconds.  The final step of lectio, of course, is contemplatio: resting in the loving silent presence of God. This can last as briefly or as long as someone wishes, which means that for many people lectio can be the way they discover the treasures of sustained silence. The daily office calls for silence after the readings, and again, most people will just dip their toes in at such moments. But that is a great start. Yet once again, let me stress: for some people, these practices may be all they want/need, now and for years to come. Let the Spirit be the guide.

Sacred Reading

So, given how I’ve answered your question, I really don’t have a book to recommend to you; but I would like to suggest two books that, taken together, might help you in your ongoing journey toward providing direction and guidance to others. First is Sacred Reading: the Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey, which I think is the best book on the subject out there; I think it will help most people who are seeking a deeper spirituality but who are for whatever reason not ready or willing to face the emptiness of vast silence (and the chattering monkey who dwells therein). But I also think that even dedicated contemplatives in the Christian tradition ought to have some sort of a relationship to spiritual reading, and so this book really is for everyone on the path. The second book I’d like to recommend is Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird. I think this is the best single introductory book to Christian contemplation currently available, and I think many beginning contemplatives would find much reassurance from Fr. Laird on, among other things, how to deal with the monkey. His writing is light, luminous, gentle, and filled with common sense. It’s orthodox but also expansive in its presentation of prayer. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

So maybe the trick is to rely on both of these books, to honor both kataphatic and apophatic approaches to prayer, without trying to make one better or more privileged than the other. And then go enjoy the journey!


Pentecost and Ecstasy
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Talking about "Befriending Silence"
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • TB

    What a great question and answer. As a therapist who teaches contemplative elements in my therapy practice and teaches contemplative prayer at my church this letter’s storyline felt very close to my own. And I totally agree starting in the depths of silence is often too much for people–I guess that is how I stumbled on my own personal mosaic for training people in the practice (in both secular and religious contexts). I think my method of training is also formed, in a great deal, by the teachers and traditions I practiced which led me to that place of being “ready” for Christian contemplative prayer (which included yogis and buddhists).

    I think this is critically important to have many progressions to contemplative prayer–so many people can benefit from it but, equally, so many can be put off if they go straight to the hardest part!

    I always love the great sources you give in your reply’s to letters! I am also deep into thinking about this progression of practice as I work on a tiny e-book on just that experience. It is one of the biggest components in my “Contemplative Prayer Advocacy” because I think so many people get scared off by getting in too deep, too fast.

    Thank you as always for your thorough attention to such an important question! And, as always, for the wealth of resources and insight from someone who has clearly been intentional along their road of contemplative prayer.

  • Nolan C.Galloway Jr.

    I recognize this as a truth I embrace with some difficulty – I have tried to evangelize contemplative prayer or centering prayer and failed miserably. Afrer some personalization of the rejection by some of this most remarkable prayer activity I have finally realized that until one is called to this activity all my encouragement will fail. I now suspect this is a matter of timing in one’s life. Karl Rahner is quoted as saying ” Sooner or later you will be a mystic or nothing at all”. For some it will be sooner and others later.

  • Julie

    As always, a good and thoughtful post. Regarding choice of language, though, I think that turns of phrase like “being ready for contemplative practice” or “prayer may be all they need” reinforce the idea that kataphatic forms are a baby step on the way to apophatic forms and/or therefore lesser, not fully viable forms of spiritual life in and of themselves.

    • Carl McColman

      I’ll admit that I have an apophatic bias. I tried to keep it from creeping in to this post, but obviously I’m not perfect! :-) Thanks for your eagle eye, and for keeping me honest.