The monkey mind

“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, Eat, Pray, Love

I don’t know about you, but my mind can be a jumble of disconnected thoughts on a daily; hourly or even minute by minute. If you consider that per day, we can have between 50,000-70,000 thoughts per day, this means between 35 and 48 thoughts per minute, your mind is a constant jumble of thoughts.

What is a thought?

A definition that I came across suggests that a “thought” is a “sporadic single-idea cognitive concept resulting from the act of thinking, or produced by spontaneous systems-level cognitive brain activations.”

What I tend to believe is that a thought is those individual images; movies or silent conversations that we have. I have a mixture of these. Not sure if this is normal or not, so I would be interested to hear what your thought process is.

However, one thing I do know is that apart from the normal random thoughts that occur during the day including – “Why is that driver pulling out on me”; “what’s for lunch?”; “what is next to do?”; there are those reoccurring self-doubt thoughts.

“Why did I do that?”; “Why did I say that?”; “Will anyone notice I made a mistake?”; “Why do I continue to make the same mistake”; “Is so-and-so happy? Have I upset them?”; “Will I lose my job?”; “What about my health?”  – those types of thoughts.

These are associated with an expression called “Monkey Mind”. I love the idea of your mind as a tree and that each thought is a branch, and you, or at least the attention of your mind, is like a monkey, swinging from thought-branch to thought-branch all day long.

These self doubt thoughts drive irrational fears, made real by our own constant attention. Left unchecked you can literally come to believe that these thoughts are real!

The result of the monkey mind of self doubt, results in mental as well as physical fatigue. We’ve all had days where it feels like we’ve achieved nothing and there’s a mountain to climb tomorrow. You feel exhausted and completely worn out.

So what is the answer?

The first step is awareness. Are you aware that you actually have self doubt thoughts and all they are is thoughts. Not real, but purely your own self consciousness? As an experiment, set aside a notepad and for a while, every time you have a self doubt thought either write it down, or even make a mark on the paper. You will be amazed how many you can get in a short period of time.

Secondly, find a way to quieten those thoughts. You will never get rid of them, but you can find ways to reduce their intensity. You can try meditation; mindfulness (which is what I practice); yoga; or some other form of contemplative pursuit. You can try exercise, as it is very difficult to have many thoughts when you are pounding the treadmill, cycling, swimming or doing something physically taxing.

You could try event try a technique called the A-B-C Technique. A lot of the time, the monkey mind is caused by your thoughts disagreeing with what’s going on around you. When the present moment situation doesn’t align with what your personal beliefs are, your monkey mind begins to spit and howl. The A-B-C technique can help you deal with the disparity between what your monkey mind thinks should be happening, and what is actually happening. Here’s how it works:

  • A is for “activating event”. That is, something happens.
  • B is for “beliefs”. Your monkey mind starts interpreting what’s happening based on your beliefs.
  • C is for “consequences”. As a consequence of the thoughts that you’re having about what just happened, you feel certain emotions.

The key to taming the monkey mind by applying the A-B-C technique is to question the beliefs that the your mind is relying on in order to reach the conclusions that you are having.

I leave you with the following quote.

“We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real, and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.” ― Thomas Merton

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