There are many words to express the restless chatter that can take over our mind when we try to have a quiet moment. Monkey Mind, The Circus, The Committee, Crazy Island all describe the unsettled, inconsistent, confused and seemingly uncontrollable thoughts that race through our mind like wild horses. Sometimes this constant chatter keeps us awake at night, other times it interferes with our ability to stay on task. While sometimes monkey mind can create the impression that we are multi-tasking and getting a lot of things done, it can also feed anxiety, indecision, and self doubt. Though Monkey Mind often seems to take control, there are ways to tame it. Perhaps the most effective approach is meditation, learning to quietly observe and redirect your thoughts. Listening to a guided meditation is a good way to start this practice as it gives clear focus and a direction to follow. It may be helpful to think of your mind as a muscle that needs to be trained and strengthened so it can perform the tasks you desire. A simple meditation to practice on your own is to think of a word or short phrase and co-ordinate it with your breathe. Breath in as you think half of it, and breath out with the other half. Continue to do this with quiet attention. If your mind starts to wander, gently and lovingly bring it back to your words and breath. Do not judge yourself if this is difficult to do. Instead, simply choose to practice it until it gets easier.
Other methods of taming those wild horses include:
Do something you like to do that requires focus. Creating art, doing crossword or other puzzles, yoga, dancing to music, playing sports, all train your mind to pay attention to what you are doing. Putting a basketball through a hoop, for example, requires quite a bit of training and practice, so keep at your task and don’t allow feeling of discouragement to get you to quit before you get good at it. Be patient with yourself if you get distracted and lovingly bring your mind back to the task at hand. Athletes sometimes use the phrase “in the zone” to refer to periods of intense concentration, and we can find those zones with intention, focus, and practice. Learning something new can also help create these dynamics.
Cultivate mindfulness, being present in the moment, noticing what is around you. Take a walk in the woods or even down the street. Notice everything around you, the leaves on the trees, the breeze, the scent of mint or flowers, the sound of birds. And when your monkey chimes in with, ‘hey what about that thing you forgot to do?!”, just smile and tell it “Later, Gator” and bring your focus back to the birds and see if you can hear any patterns in their calls.
Quit trying to multi-task. Recent research suggests that we cannot actually do two things at once, that we simply rapidly switch back and forth using different parts of our brain. Multi-tasking feeds the habit of scattered and often unfinished thoughts. So when you say you are listening to someone and texting on your phone at the same time, you are doing both of you a disservice.
Practice gratitude. Voice your appreciation of yourself and others. Journal about what you can feel grateful for today, even simple basic things like being able to walk or hear. Monkey Mind tends to shy away from gratitude and celebration.
If your Crazy Island Circus is haunted by a repetitive theme from your past, if you continue to fall into the same mental loops or behaviors, deal with it directly. Put it into words and talk about it to a therapist, clergy, coach, or close friend for support and help. Once in a while the monkeys are just trying to tell us we need to do something different.
Are you noticing a common theme? Monkey Mind often has to do with criticism and judgement. It reminds us of what we haven’t done yet, what we did wrong, what we have yet to do to avoid making a mistake….. The practice of loving kindness to yourself and others will diminish the noise of Crazy Island, in addition to enhancing whatever other practice you choose.