Have you ever found yourself with your mind spinning on stressful thoughts? Ones that wake you up in the middle of the night? Ones that steal your energy and focus? This is “monkey mind.”
Monkey mind is an age-old way to describe these thoughts. It is found in Buddhist practice, where they relate a mind that jumps around from thought to thought to a monkey jumping from tree to tree – never resting, always chattering.
I like the term because as soon as I notice my mind spinning and I remember to frame it as monkey mind, I find I have to chuckle a little. And that breaks the cycle.
That is the first step in managing this kind of stress – becoming aware of it. Once you recognize the pattern, it becomes possible to change it.
Sometimes these thoughts are incessant and it is easy to get caught in them. Often they come from your fears, something hurtful that recently happened, even excitement. They can be draining, especially when they wake you at night.
There are many ways to recenter and move on. Here are two examples:
Shift gears: The example above, seeing some humor and breaking the cycle, is one example. Find an activity that absorbs you and leaves no room for spinning thoughts. Look around, pick something up and really pay attention to the details in it. In a meeting? Count how many times people use a word or phrase. It doesn’t need to be a big activity.
Pattern recognition: You are stressed, your mind is spinning. Take a breath. Take a step back. These thoughts will happen, acknowledge the pattern. Respect that you have a concern here. Then remember that spinning doesn’t contribute to a solution; it only drains you. Rise above the thought and let it pass. You are not putting this off. You are reframing things – conserving energy – so that you can truly assess then address the heart of the matter.
The Heart of Mindfulness
Increase your focus by learning to acknowledge and move past distracting thoughts. This naturally brings you to mindfulness.
Mindfulness practices have reduced mind wandering, as evidenced in a number of studies. They bring a wealth of other benefits. An article in the December issue of Mindful Magazine explores recent research and has links to work in this field. Areas explored range from bringing meditation practices into schools to military applications to enhance attention and working memory.
Meditation is one form of this, and meditation in and of itself takes a wide number of forms. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training and Cognitive Behavior Therapy are other areas of study and practice that relate back to managing your thoughts to manage anxiety.
The distracting thoughts are often not about what is directly in front of you. Meditation and other mindfulness practices bring you back to the present moment.
Living with the Monkey Mind
You can tame the monkeys but they never go away; they are a part of who we are. Remember Captain Kirk,”I need my pain!” The key here is that they don’t have to run the show. We all have the power to manage them so that they don’t.