“Monkey mind is a mental experience where we feel distracted, scattered, and overwhelmed,” says Susan Chen, a former Wall Street executive who left the corporate world 10 years ago to become a meditation teacher. “The mind feels like it’s in ‘thinking overdrive’ and often lacks completeness of action.” If you meditate, monkey mind may already be in your vocabulary: The term is commonly used in Buddhist and Vedic meditation for a disquieted mind.
In fact, the origins of the term “monkey mind” go all the way back to ancient Chinese folklore. A folktale retold in the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West features a supernatural character named Sun Wukong (who initially takes the form of a monkey and earns the nickname of the “Monkey King”). In the beginning of his story, he is impulsive and childlike, using his mythological powers to transform into different animals and creatures, and conduct all sorts of mischief. But when he gets recruited by a Buddhist monk to be his disciple, the Monkey King learns the power of meditation and mindfulness as a means to achieve true enlightenment.
“Monkey mind is a term for the unconscious mind, which is run by habitual patterns rather than awareness.” —Jenna Ji Min Lee, life coach and meditation expert
In the centuries since, this story has become an allegory for the restless and rebellious nature of the mind, and the strength that comes with settling it. “Monkey mind is a term for the unconscious mind, which is run by habitual patterns rather than awareness,” says life coach and meditation expert Jenna Ji Min Lee. “Awareness in this context means a state of consciousness that is unconditioned and can therefore choose its words and actions rather than being driven by the past, family patterns, or pain.” (By contrast, monkey mind can unwittingly surface all sorts of thoughts tied to past psychological issues and unresolved wounds, without you really having any control over it.)
Why monkey mind can be so problematic
Have you ever taken a walk outside when your mind was racing, only to realize you spent the entire time worrying about work the next day and not a single moment looking at the beautiful sunset? “Not having access to the present moment due to the monkey mind syndrome of constant thinking can strip us of the joy found in daily life experiences,” says Chen, “such as being present for friends and family, enjoying a peaceful moment throughout the day, or even being focused at work.”
Jumping from thought to thought, monkey mind can be a nagging distraction from the task at hand, whether you’re trying to doze off or get down to business. If left to run wild during the workday, it can easily erode your productivity, says clinical psychologist Michele Leno, PhD, LP. She adds that if your racing thoughts become overwhelming, it could point to stress or sleep loss—both of which can be either the cause or effect of monkey mind, in what is often a vicious cycle. If your monkey mind becomes especially intrusive, however, and it feels much harder for you to focus than usual, it may also reflect underlying anxiety or depression, and it’s worth seeing a doctor or therapist.
That said, the occasional appearance of monkey mind happens to everyone, says Chen. In fact, it’s one of the reasons she initially developed a meditation practice. “I was in my mid-30s approaching burnout,” she says. “My thoughts of anxiety and worry felt, at times, all-consuming, and I came to meditation looking for a way to co-exist with what felt like ‘enemy territory’—my own mind.” But as she began to learn the principles of meditation and develop a daily practice, she noticed that monkey mind didn’t have as much power over her as she feared. “I was starting to feel the natural happiness and calm I knew I should have been feeling all those years but couldn’t quite access,” she says.
How to tame your monkey mind and return to the present moment
1. Discover—and accept—the patterns behind your thinking
It may sound meta, but the best way to start getting a grasp on your monkey mind is by thinking about, well, how you think. See if you can notice when exactly your thoughts start to go off the rails, or what events prompt your monkey mind. “As you rest, do some analytical digging,” says Lee. Ask yourself where this pattern [of thinking] might come from (whether that’s a parent or a past experience), and see if you can come to terms with that pattern, she adds.
Finding that kind of acceptance for your thoughts can be a challenge, but it’s an important part of a regular meditation practice. “Most people who practice meditation have trouble with radical acceptance,” says Lee. “As we grow up, we’re taught that certain thoughts and feelings are unacceptable, so we avoid thinking or feeling them, or judge ourselves when we notice them.” But, doing so will only cause them to surface unwittingly at a later point, á la monkey mind.
Instead, it’s important to realize that the thoughts and feelings you’re having are all part of the human experience, says Lee. When you’re investigating your own monkey mind, “allow all patterns to surface, and accept them without judgment,” she says. “This radical acceptance can dislodge certain [unhelpful] patterns from our minds so that we can eventually change them.”
2. Make friends with your inner monkey
If your monkey mind is reminding you about that embarrassing thing you said to your crush 20 years ago when you’re supposed to be finishing a work presentation, your instinct might be to scold yourself for not being able to stay focused, or to force yourself to work harder in an effort to stay on task. According to the experts, however, this is just the opposite of what you should do—which is befriending (rather than demonizing) your monkey mind.
“Buddhist meditation techniques place value on being a compassionate ally to the thinking and making friends with the mind through witnessing thoughts and other mindfulness practices,” says Chen. So, if you’re feeling unhelpful thoughts come to mind, seemingly out of your control, take a step back and acknowledge with a smile that your mischievous monkey mind has appeared. Take a few deep breaths, and try to accept your mind’s natural tendency for what it is, rather than resisting it; you may be surprised at the difference a change of perspective can make.
3. Resist the urge to multitask
Although it might feel entirely possible to cook dinner, answer emails, and clean out the fridge at the same time, our minds were not designed to multitask in this way. In fact, the more things you attempt to get done at once, the more likely your mind is to start veering into monkey mind territory.
“[You] cannot adequately divide your attention to give 100 percent to several tasks at once,” says Dr. Leno. “Either you are focused on the task at hand, the one before, or the next one on your list.” And if you continue to charge ahead with all of those tasks simultaneously, not only will the outcome of each one suffer, but also, the crossed wires in your mind will make you that much more susceptible to distraction.
By contrast, the more you’re able to consistently practice just doing one thing at a time, the easier it will be for your mind to stay on task.
4. Adopt a mantra
If you find yourself getting swept up in the chaos of the day, giving yourself a mantra may be a helpful way to stay centered, says Chen. In Vedic meditation, “we assign every meditator a personalized mantra, or sound vibration, that naturally cuts through buzzy, monkey-mind thinking and toward that deep, quiet layer that underlies all thinking.”
A mantra can be a simple phrase (for example, “May I be well, may I be healthy, may I be happy”), or it can be a comforting word or two that doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you; or, it can even just be a sound.
While in Vedic meditation, mantras are not typically shared aloud, you can pick anything you want to serve as your own personal mantra and speak it to yourself whenever you need it. For example, if you’re in yoga class and notice everyone seems to be nailing Warrior II except for you… and your mind suddenly starts surfacing every prior scenario where you’ve experienced self-doubt, say your mantra to yourself, take a few deep breaths, and refocus your energy back to the mat. If you’re in the grocery store, and a cranky person cuts you off in the checkout line, take a moment, say your mantra, and try a new lane. You: 1, Monkey Mind: 0.
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