Monkey Brain


in Archive


When I started walking the 450 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I wanted to hear birds and waves and let my mind wander towards contemplations of life and philosophy and the divine. That was what I hoped for. My brain, however, had its own agenda.


The trip began pleasantly enough on a clear and cool October morning, following paths and small roads that hugged the crenulations of the northern California coast. In those first few days everything was novel: I felt the weight of the backpack, enjoyed the breeze coming off the coast, smelled the salt air.

That first night out I met a middle-aged man named Gary who was riding his bicycle down the coast. He was overweight and out of shape and had to push his bike up hills, so for a few days we often walked together, talking about work and families and the books of Eric Hoffer. After he rode off, I spent time with several homeless or semi-homeless men: Jesse, who proudly introduced himself as certifiably insane (“Really,” he said, “I get a check every month because I’m too crazy to work”); Scott, who had just lost his job and was camped out at a state park wondering what to do next; and Brad, his spine broken in a helicopter accident, who rode his bike back and forth along the coast as his personal rehab program.

As the novelty of walking vanished, and as I entered a three-week period of solitude, my brain turned inward and began digging around among old piles of National Geographic and dusty stacks of vinyl records, looking for entertainment. This was my introduction to what Buddhists call Monkey Brain, the ceaseless chattering of the mind. During those three weeks, my monkey brain never shut up. It was like being locked in a small room with a hyperactive Irishman, like mainlining an AM radio talk show host, like being forced to watch the E! channel for 24 hours a day. I hadn’t known my monkey brain existed. Then it was all I knew.

Most nights I slept on a beach or in an abandoned field, waking up stiff, hungry, and pleased that nobody had murdered me in my sleep. I would eat some food and start walking. Birds would chirp; the ocean would splash; my boots would slap the pavement.

Then the music would start. There I would be, walking along, minding my own business, when a song would begin playing in my head, over and over and over, as if a poorly-equipped DJ had stowed away in my cerebellum. Each song played in my head incessantly, like those radio jingles you can’t get rid of. The songs matched the beat of my footsteps, and most of them seemed to be drawn from my high school days, hits from big-hair rock bands such as Journey, Def Leppard, and Mötley Crüe. One day I listened to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” for six hours straight. This was beyond monkey brain; this was musical waterboarding.

Sometimes I could stop the musical repetition for a moment by talking loudly to myself, or interrupt the beat by changing my pace, but as soon as my feet began to beat out a new bass line, another song would appear to take the first’s place. At these times, my cranial DJ often selected songs about walking, such as “Walking after Midnight” by Patsy Cline, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers, and “I’m Walking” by Fats Domino. I could understand the repetition of Top 40 hits from my youth spilling out of some internal jukebox, but Fats Domino for three hours straight? That seemed both cruel and deliberate. Could my monkey brain be a sadist?

When the sun crept toward the horizon, my musical accompaniment inevitably was replaced by an endless litany of worries. It was as if the obsessive DJ in my brain had been replaced by a stereotypical Jewish mother. As evening set this voice would start: “You’re not going to make it to the campsite. It’s too far. Nobody can see you at night. You’ll get hit by a car. The campsite will be full. You’ll never make it. You’re probably getting sick. What if you catch the flu and have no place to stay?”

Later at night, after I made camp and ate dinner, came the fears of physical attack. In Salinas, a man told me how he’d been attacked by a Satan worshipper, and he lifted his shirt to show a scar on his belly looking as if he’d been burned by the skeleton of a small fish. He put one hand on my shoulder and made quick thrusting motions at me with his other hand.

“It happened just like that,” he said. “You got to be careful out there.”

My monkey brain made good use of this new information. I thought about the Satan worshipper on those nights when I bivouacked in a field, on the beach, or under some bushes just off the road. One night, walking down an unlit county road in a light drizzle, I convinced myself that I was being followed by the tall, hollow-eyed, knife-wielding Satan worshipper of my nightmares, and strode quickly, heart pounding, until at last I spun around to confront…nothing.

I started thinking about getting on a bus or hitching a ride the rest of the way. I had left San Francisco hoping to get in tune with nature, and hoping to make the connection between walking and the mystical that people like Rousseau and Kierkegaard had written about. Even grumpy Bruce Chatwin had declared that his god was the God of Walkers, and that if you just walked hard enough, you wouldn’t need any other gods.

It all sounded so deep and meaningful. But this endless attack from within? It was enough to drive a man mad. No wonder prisoners fear solitary confinement.

The voice in my head kept up its routine: music in the day, worries in the afternoon, fear at night, for about four weeks. Then, one warm dusk, as I made my way out of the inland roads back to the coast north of Santa Barbara, the voice changed. I was tired, carrying a slight virus, I think, and aiming for the beach. The anxious voice chattered away, complaining about my feet, fretting over getting ill, worrying about the distance to the beach.

Then, suddenly, I heard, “Shut up!”

This was alarming. It is one thing to have a monologue in one’s head, but quite another thing to have a dialogue. Was I going mad?

The first voice continued. “But what about the rain clouds? You don’t have a tent.”

“Shut up!” the new voice said again. “It’s going to be OK. It’s been OK for 250 miles and it’s going to keep being OK.”

“But what if…?”

“What if what?” the second voice interrupted. All you do is complain and worry. It doesn’t help. You’re making things worse. Get out! Now!”

And then the first voice was gone — like the rattle of a diesel engine suddenly switched off, leaving a quiet that I’d forgotten existed. I felt about for traces of the first voice and came back with nothing. The second voice then proclaimed, with (I noticed) a fairly self-satisfied air, “Right. Everything is going to work out.”

Then it vanished, too, and for the first time in weeks, my monkey brain stopped chattering.

That walk to L.A. marked the end of a time in my life when I traveled constantly. I would hit the road for six to nine months a year, work a job for a few months, then hit the road again. I did all this traveling with the idea that I was looking for something, some place where I would feel at home, where I would finally feel comfortable. But travel, with all of its constant novelties and distractions, is often just one means of not listening to what is inside one’s head.

I spent the last two weeks of my walk in the closest state to enlightenment that I have ever experienced. My monkey brain was quiet, the DJ gone home. My worries ceased to be worries and became practical concerns, as in, Should I stop here? How much food should I buy? Is it safe to cross the road? My fear of Satan worshippers blew away like the seeds of a dandelion in a stiff breeze. I enjoyed the feel of the sun on my face and wind on my cheek, the ache in my feet and the crash of the waves.

The walking was wonderful those last two weeks, but more importantly, the walking was peaceful. With monkey brain asleep, I was finally able to experience the world directly, without comment from the peanut gallery.

Most of us walk around all day with our brains jabbering like monkeys and never even know it. It’s almost better that way, because when the distractions are taken away and we finally hear what has always been going on inside, it’s frightening. Our chattering brains are always in the background, endlessly talking to themselves, repetitively chasing after every thought and feeling. We never realize how peaceful life can be until we finally tell the monkey to shut up. Then the road levels out, the campsites are free and plentiful, and nighttime is just the hours before a new day. • 12 June 2008