How visual journaling calmed my monkey mind
I first heard the term monkey mind from a meditation facilitator, who used it to describe the mind’s inner chatter. I giggled because the words sounded funny, but at the same time I knew I was all too familiar with mind monkeys.
When I first began practicing meditation, my mind would often use the quiet space to get busy bouncing from one idea to another. I would create and review mental to-do lists, scheme up creative projects, reflect on something someone said earlier in the day, or plan Sunday dinner.
My thoughts were more akin to a three-ring circus than the antics of a single monkey.
For me to relax into the present moment of meditation, my inner ringleader needed to devise some mind-animal training tactics.
Finding a Meditation Practice That Works
I tried focusing on my breath. It worked for a few minutes, until my thoughts snuck in like little monkey ninjas. From out of nowhere, there they were riding the waves of my inhalations and exhalations, chattering away.
One of my friends recommended I try guided meditation. I let myself be guided on an inner journey as I envisioned walking through a peaceful wooded scene and crossing over a babbling brook, when suddenly, thought monkeys dropped down from the trees.
Clearly, I needed a new plan.
Fortunately my “a-ha” moment for monkey-mind management came one day while I was painting. I realized that, as an artist, I had already experienced the sense of present-moment awareness I was trying to reach through meditation.
As the first layer dried, I paused to rest in that blissful silence I had sought for so long.
Getting Lost in the Moment
That day I was painting a rural landscape filled with puffy white clouds—not unlike the clouds my meditation teachers had suggested I use to release my thoughts.
Time morphed as I got lost in the project. Three hours of immersion in the process of mixing and applying colored pigment on canvas felt like seconds. This is the state that artists call “being in the flow.” That’s when the idea came to me to throw some paint in front of my monkeys!
It turns out that mind monkeys like paint. In fact, my monkeys, along with the other circus mind-animals, are also fond of crayons, collage materials, markers, and glitter glue.
I learned this when I started integrating creative expression with my meditation practice. At first, I would do a quick paint sketch to relax and get into the flow. Before my mind reactivated, I would sit in a comfortable chair, close my “outer eyes,” and practice mental stillness.
Not long after those initial experiments with creative meditation, I discovered the concept of visual journals in The Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy Malchiodi.
Visual Journals: Layers of Mess and Process
Unlike my prior painting practice that focused on creating a finished product, visual journals provided an art form focused on process. I could get as messy as I liked on the page, both physically and emotionally.
I began my journaling sessions with a period of release. Some days this meant scribbling my emotions as a first step. Other days I needed a more tactile approach, so I squirted craft paint from the tube and smeared it with my fingers.
Having cleared my mind, I would set my prayer intention for the session: gratitude, forgiveness, awareness, or peace.
As the first layer dried, I paused to rest in that blissful silence I had sought for so long. Then I let myself be led into the artistic process, intuitively choosing my materials from a nearby craft box. I stayed present to my own thoughts and feelings as the page progressed.
I would frequently intuit messages and affirmations from within and write them on the page. I found comfort in these words as they moved me from doubt to understanding; from fear to peace; from a sense of separation to an awareness of oneness.
By being present to and accepting of whatever was happening in my life, I found the spirit of God within it all, including myself. Keeping a visual journal showed me that expressive arts can help me process my inner and outer life, not unlike the practice of mindfulness meditation—without the monkeys.