June 13, 2022
When I get frazzled these days, I recognize that I have slipped into "monkey mind." I now reflexively seek to slow down and quiet my mind -- some of the time. That's why articles like this one are helpful to me as they remind me the skill I am developing.
How To Dial Down Your Anxious, Worried “Monkey Mind” (Without Moving To A Tropical Island)
“Truth: last week I online shopped too much. Then I ate 2 pounds of jelly beans to feel better about that. In fact, while I was trying to read soul-nourishing things all I could think about was shopping and jellybeans. Points to the monkey mind.” –Anna White, from Thoughts on Love, Life, and Leaps of Faith.
Our best intentions for a calm, centered bearing get derailed quickly and often by the notorious “monkey mind.” We all have one, btw–it’s not a thing you can avoid. In fact, it’s the mind’s job to think, just as it is our stomach’s job to digest the food we eat. When practicing meditation, we may feel like we need to stop our thoughts or clear our mind completely, yet that is impossible!
Even the most famous spiritual teachers continue to work around their busy thoughts, their worried musings, their unconscious wanderings, and little mental obsessions. This is the practice in meditation that trains you for being more skilled at dealing with the “monkey mind” in life.
The idea of the monkey mind comes from Buddhism. The term has been adopted by yogis to describe a mind that jumps from thought to thought as a monkey jumps from tree to tree. The monkey mind cannot exist in the present moment, but rather is constantly distracted by the thoughts that pass through.
What’s the Purpose of the Monkey Mind?
The Monkey Mind is both frustrating and necessary. Understanding why our minds work the way they do can give us permission to BOTH have our thoughts, AND simply change our relationship and response to those thoughts. So, what’s the purpose of the Monkey Mind? The machinery of our brains dictates that they must have something to do at all times–our neurons are built to fire and stay busy to some degree–even when we sleep! This “always-on” brain physiology helps us respond quickly to our environment and make decisions for our survival. We need that ability to get through each day–so does every organism on the planet!
But, when that machinery gets over-stimulated with too much stress, uncontrollable outer circumstances, and hard emotional hiccups like grief, loss, or even sudden success, our bodies can pay a steep price. Additionally, our response to this over-stimulation can add unnecessary and unwanted suffering.
Our thoughts race, we can’t sleep, and all our systems can experience physical symptoms of stress (like high blood pressure, adrenal fatigue, auto-immune diseases, heart attack, and gut issues.)
How do we Tame the Monkey Mind?
Taming the Monkey Mind with meditation is free, simple, and accessible to everyone–even if you cannot sit still for five minutes. (You CAN meditate while in motion–many people calm their frazzled brains even while their bodies move about with gentle tasks or leisurely exercise.)
Here is a new series of meditations that are designed to help you get into the present moment to change your relationship with your thoughts and experience using different points of focus that are always with you, including breath, body sensations, thoughts, and emotions (the last two will be published in the next two weeks.)
But How Come I can Barely Focus on Even One Deep Breath?
Remember, your brain is wired for thought. And that’s perfectly okay. The key to successful meditation is to gradually learn to be a better observer of your thoughts, and to re-direct them when they become stressful to you.
“Be the witness of your thoughts. You are what observes, not what you observe.” ~Buddha
For example, my mind floats off in several directions every time I meditate. It seems I always spend the first few minutes of my practice remembering my grocery list, recalling the last thing my husband told me before leaving the house, and fretting over an angsty text from one of my children.
Okay, fine. That’s just my brain doing its thing. I am aware I am thinking and I give myself permission to slow down and let go.
My meditation really begins when I notice where my thoughts have led me, and gently ask them to pass through, knowing they will be there when I am actively ready to address them. I recognize that my thoughts are not me and can allow them to pass without being attached to them or following these thoughts into a deeper story.
That’s why a bit of guidance in meditation is so helpful to the beginner–it gives your brain a task–something simple to DO, so you can practice reigning in your thoughts, or changing your relationship to your thoughts, a little bit at a time.
Many people can quiet their thoughts with a gentle voice inviting them to take measured breaths or to notice the various body sensations as they relax. A lot of meditations can gear toward an outcome like sleep and relaxation, or even confident decision-making. Think of that guidance like a baby elephant holding its mother’s tail on a walk. Left to its own devices, the baby elephant would be all over the place and likely find a bit of trouble. When the baby (monkey mind) has another tail to hold, the whole elephant family (your whole self) can get where they’re going a lot faster (the calming, relaxing present moment where you feel more ease and comfort.)
How will I Know if Meditation Works for me? (and how long will it take?)
Meditation is both mysterious and predictable. It’s NOT about stopping your thoughts–that’s not the measure of a successful practice.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when you can catch yourself going down anxious-thought rabbit holes more quickly. Or when you notice where your brain is headed and can interrupt the cycle with confidence. Think of the time between thoughts getting longer and your ability to detach from the thought happens with more ease.
Your blood pressure may lower, and several other physical markers can change for the better, like your cortisol levels. (A fight or flight hormone.)
You may notice that things that used to annoy you to the point of feeling “stabby” no longer get your goat like they used to. You may have a much longer anger fuse with your kids or spouse.
Some practitioners notice these changes almost immediately, and some take longer to see the effects. But, with a little patience and consistency, the changes DO come.
An Easy way to Enlist Support for your Monkey Mind
I’m always so excited to invite new meditators into the practice or support a re-start into a more consistent meditation. Remember, there’s no “right” way to do it—it’s crucial to discover the best space, time, and ritual for YOU.
While you don’t have to practice every day to feel better, there is a cumulative effect of the benefits. You can start with just 10 minutes a few times a week and this will help you gain a better understanding of your Monkey Mind and how to begin changing your relationship with it and your response to it.