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Taming The Monkey Mind

“Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.”- Buddha

The title of this article and the quote above are not meant to be merely humorous. It is, however, rather imagesironic that a guy who live in the fifth century BC described the human mind perfectly for those of us who live in the 21st century. He used the monkey as a metaphor for the way that a troubled mind processes things and functions. He often describes the mind as being filled with drunken monkeys jumping from branch to branch, screeching, and endlessly chattering and carrying on. I’m sure this analogy makes a lot of sense to you. One can only imagine the metaphor that this 5th century BC philosopher would use if he were alive today.

Over the last 2,600 or so years, this statement by Buddha has been reviewed, interpreted, and analyzed. Contemporary Buddhism contends that the monkey mind is a product of the human ego. Not ego merely in the sense of pride or narcissism, but in the sense of self deprecation as well. The human ego, if there is such a thing, is usually bad. People with an “over inflated ego” think they more important than they really are. We all know them, the “hey, look at me,” type that work the room at every social event we go to. They shake hands and back slap with everybody, kiss and hug every member of the opposite sex, and mail you those obnoxious Christmas cards where they send you a three-page newsletter about how great their family is doing. Pretty gregarious stuff for someone that you see once a year. There is, however, another way that ego gets in the way of serenity. Some people believe that they are responsible for everything bad that happens around them. It’s that they carry a “what did I do wrong, it’s my fault, I’m not good enough, smart enough…,” mindset that sets them up for misery. While it looks different from your backslapping buddy at the New Year’s Eve party, it is a variation of the same thing, an over developed ego.

If you’re with me so far, or are a regular reader of this blog, you are probably quite aware of the role that thoughts play in creating our life’s reality. Most, if not all, of our views of life are because of the meaning imagesthat we attach to them. Many of us know this, but still struggle with the episode of Wild Kingdom that we carry around inside our heads. Recognition of this internal primate cage is the first step in taming the troop. Consider some of the following examples:
Your phone rings at 6:30 AM on Saturday morning. What do you say to yourself immediately?
Your boss greets you, first thing in the morning at work, and says,”We have to talk this afternoon.” What’s the rest of your day like?
You open your mailbox and there is a letter there from the IRS. What’s the feeling in your chest at that moment?
Your 10-year-old car has to pass the state inspection. What’s the monkey telling you as the mechanic drives your car into the garage?

Yeah, I know, each of the above statements makes you feel like you are hiding in a wagon, covered with hay, trying to flee Nazi Germany. Most of us have been there. Most of us can relate to Buddha’s analogy of mind as monkey. So, how we bring those monkeys under control?

Here’s some practical, how to strategies, to implement into your daily life that have been proven to help:
1. Become an observer to your own life. By that I mean learned to view what’s happening from a third person perspective, observing your own reactions without judgment or labels. Notice the words that you say to yourself about these events. For example, is the traffic really “awful,” or is it only going to make you three minutes late for work? Notice the impact that your internal judgments and evaluations have on your perception of events. You’ll often find that these events are what you tell yourself they are. Also consult Therapies from the Categories section to the right of this blog post. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=936 for more on the observer strategy)
2. Be careful of what you pay attention to. The human brain is wired towards pattern recognition, so we tend to notice what we look for. In other words, what we focus on becomes our reality. Noticing the good in situations creates an entirely different reality for us. Notice things that create an attitude of gratitude and focus on those. Sounds simplistic, but compiling a daily gratitude list of three different things, no matter what they are, over a 30 day period can lead to a profound change in one’s outlook on life. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=742)
3. Exercise daily. While you don’t have to overdo it, a little enjoyable physical activity each day can Karate-Chimpground you, slow the world down, and engross you in your physical body. Any activity will do, but you may find that mind-body activities such as a yoga, dance, tai chi, or martial arts are best. Anything where you have to think before moving tends to give the result that we are looking for here.
4. Learn to breathe correctly. A few minutes every day engaging in the practice of deep breathing slows down your thinking significantly. Focus on the breath in a circular manner, breathing easily on the inhale and just a little more forcefully on the exhale. The goal is not to hyperventilate, but to calm. Over time, the breathing will become more localized in your abdomen, rather than in your chest. Placing your hands, folded, over your abdomen will give you feedback. Proper breathing is not New Age nonsense, up to 70% of the body’s waste is eliminated through the respiratory system. Some of this waste can be negative thinking.
5. Learned to meditate. There are numerous ways that one can attain the relaxation response that we refer to as meditation. The breathing activities outlined in number 4 above qualify as meditation. Starting with an awareness of breath focus, 2 to 3 times per day, for as little as five minutes will bring the response that you are looking for. If you want to plunge into meditation more deeply, there are literally hundreds of YouTube videos, MP3s, and iPhone apps that can walk you through the process. Find something that resonates with you online and commit to it over the next 30 days to get started.

Be patient with your monkey mind. Realize that it will always be there to some degree, as it is part of being human. Your goal is to put those monkeys in the cage and continue to function effectively when they get out of control.

P. S. Books from mindbodycoach.org are available in the search box located to the rights of this post. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

2 Responses to Taming The Monkey Mind

  1. Caroline M says:

    Your article really resonated with me, thank you for posting it. Have you read The Chimp Paradox by Dr. Steve Peters, an excellent book with good tips on how to deal with the ‘chimp’ part of your mind. I’ve found it a real help with the 1st point you raise about being an observer of your life and understanding why I react in certain ways to some situations.

    • josann says:

      Thank you Caroline.I’ll definitely check out that book.I’m glad you enjoyed it and hope that it helped.


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