“I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind —the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” Elizabeth Gilbert
Everyone, without exception, suffers from a restless monkey mind—an expression The Buddha coined millennia ago when he likened the thoughts in our head to a crowd of drunken monkeys.
If you are lucky, your mind’s incessant activity may be, at worst, irritating — like a swarm of pesky flies that buzz around your head all day long and won’t go away.
Or, if you’re less fortunate, your troublesome monkey mind may be more like King Kong crashing through the jungle on amphetamines, leaving a trail of destruction and devastation in his wake.
Either way, having a howling chatterbox swinging around between your ears all day long is an inescapable part of the human condition.
What to do about it?
Abraham Lincoln once said “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
And it’s exactly the same with the mind.
As you go through the following 9 tips, you’ll see that the key to dealing with a troublesome monkey mind is to get to know it better. You’ll then understand why it doesn’t have nearly as much power to disturb your peace as you may have thought.
Fortunately for us, the Buddha and other great teachers left behind a host of practical ways to deal with a mischievous monkey mind.
9 Things That Will Help You Quiet Your Monkey Mind
1. Know You’re Not A Special Case—Everyone Has A Restless Mind
There is no such thing as peace of mind. Mind means disturbance; restlessness itself is mind. — Nisagadatta
Researchers tell us that the average person has around 70,000 thoughts per day. Even people who are relatively calm and laid back still have a crazy amount of traffic going on between their ears.
So don’t beat yourself up for having a lot of thoughts. Restlessness is the nature of the mind. Expecting it not to be busy is like expecting the grass not to be green.
The first step towards making peace with a restless monkey mind is to accept that it’s busy. Don’t create additional stress through fighting the fact.
2. See Your Mind, Don’t Be Your Mind
Most of the thinking patterns that drive you nuts run on autopilot. You unconsciously play them over and over in your head like broken records.
It is not so much your thoughts that cause you trouble, more your identification with them. You suffer when you wallow in them, chew them over, marinate in them— in short, when you are attached to them.
To find peace, it’s good to create some breathing space, some blue sky between yourself and the mind. Take a step back and objectively watch your thoughts—as you would sit on a riverbank watching the river flow by.
3. The Undercurrent And The Observer
In mindfulness meditation, we use a model called “the undercurrent and the observer” to illustrate our true relationship with the mind.
The undercurrent is the continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, emotions and impressions that pass through your awareness. It is self-arising.
In other words, it is not something you have any control over.
The observer is the one who is aware of the undercurrent. Unlike the thoughts, feelings and emotions, which change constantly, the observer (you could also call it your awareness) is constant and unchanging.
When you have a happy thought, you are aware of it. Likewise, when you have a sad thought, you are aware of that too. It is the same awareness that’s aware in both cases. Thoughts are many. Awareness is one.
Realise that the mind is only part of who you are—otherwise you wouldn’t be able to watch it.
4. Leave The Mind In Peace To Do Its Dance
Most of the suffering we experience at the hands of the mind comes, not from thoughts themselves, but from our resistance to them.
The path to peace is to sit quietly on the riverbank, letting the river take it’s course. Both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts (feelings and emotions too) will come along. Let them come and go without resistance.
Most people thrash about waist-deep in the river like crazed traffic policemen, frantically trying to control the flow. Resistance to the content of the mind is the main cause of suffering.
What happens to a sad thought if you don’t mind it being there?
Here’s a quote from my book “Kick The Thinking Habit.”
“Don’t be concerned about the thoughts that come and go. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone. Leave the mind in peace to do its dance, and it will leave you in peace to do yours. Don’t touch it at all, and you will remain untouched by it.”
5. Don’t Take Your Thoughts Personally
Another reason we suffer so much from our busy monkey minds is that we take our thoughts so damn seriously—and personally.
Understanding that the content of my mind is self-arising and therefore not personal, was a game-changer for me.
Before that, I believed I was the author of my thoughts. I felt personally responsible for the thoughts that appeared uninvited in my head. (I’m happy to expand on this if you care to leave a comment.)
The mind is very much like a computer, spitting out thoughts in accordance with what has been programmed into it.
The thoughts that appear in your head are echoes of the past, reflections of your childhood and cultural conditioning. Given your past history, you could not be having thoughts other than the ones you are experiencing.
6. Don’t Believe Everything Your Monkey Mind Tells You
Another reason many people suffer at the hands of an overactive monkey mind is that they believe everything the mind tells them.
Most of us have a ton of self-critical thoughts—usually echoes of what we took on board as children, when we were too young to discern truth from fiction.
“You’re a bad boy. You’re not good enough. You’ll never amount to anything. The world is against you. People don’t like you.”
Take everything the mind says with a large pinch of salt. The mind will tell you a load of baloney—but you don’t have to believe it.
Be like inspector Columbo. Challenge every belief the mind throws at you.
If you believe, for example, that you’ll never amount to anything, think of all the things you’ve successfully achieved in your life. Build a compelling case for the opposite belief.
You’ll find that most of your long-held beliefs will crumble under a little scrutiny.
7. Thoughts And Thinking Are Two Different Things
As mentioned before, there is nothing you can do to stop the thoughts that appear in your head. They arise by themselves.
Thinking is another matter, however.
Let’s say the thought appears, “My boss doesn’t like me.”
Before you know it, you find yourself catastrophising about the future, “ He’s going to fire me for sure. What will I do then? I’ll probably end up homeless, destitute and living on the streets with nothing to eat.”
This type of thinking usually occurs as an unconscious knee-jerk reaction and, if you’re aware enough to catch yourself doing it, you can choose to stop it in any moment.
Just think, “Whoaahh! Hold on a minute. I don’t even know for sure that he doesn’t like me, let alone that he’s going to fire me. And besides, who knows what will or won’t happen in future?
8. The Monkey Mind Can’t Exist In The Present Moment
Following on from the last point, another way to stop unconscious thinking in its tracks is to bring your attention to the present moment instead.
Your attention can only be in one place at a time. When you catch yourself running some old self-defeating story in your head, STOP.
Put your attention on your breath as it flows in and out, the sensation of your feet coming into contact with the ground. Tune in to the warmth in the palms of your hands or the sound of the wind or the birds singing .
There is nothing that can make you to continue running a broken old mind-movie in your head if you choose not to. You are the one in charge.
Becoming mindful of your surroundings is a great way to hit the stop button.
9. Learn To Meditate
“Everyone should meditate for at least 20 minutes a day. If you are too busy, you should meditate for an hour.” — Zen proverb
For me personally, having a regular meditation practice is my No. 1 weapon against a mischievous monkey mind.
There are two main reasons we suffer.
The first is lack of awareness. We become lost in unproductive mind-movies without even realising we’re doing it. The second is believing the mind is who we are—identification with thoughts
Meditation helps dissolve both these issues.
Thoughts are like little clouds passing across the sky of your awareness. Different types of cloud come and go— some dark, some light— but the sky remains unchanged and unaffected.
There is a part of your being that, like the sky, remains untouched by the monkey mind. It remains ever at peace.
Regular practice will help you identify less and less with the passing thoughts and more and more with the awareness that is your true Self.
Meditation will help you create an intimate relationship with the ground of unshakeable peace within.
The Mind Only Has As Much Power As You Give It
When you are experiencing swarms of intense thoughts, it is normal to feel overwhelmed and powerless.
But the truth is, the mind only has as much power as you give it— through identifying with it, judging it, believing it and taking thoughts personally.
Use the 9 tips above to change how you relate to the mind and you’ll find it doesn’t have nearly as much power to disturb your peace as you thought.
Leave the monkey mind in peace to do its dance and it will leave you in peace to do yours.
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