If your mind is currently master more often than servant, you probably want to whip that monkey into shape sooner rather than later.
The expression ‘monkey mind’ is a Buddhist term for a mind that is characterised by any or all of the following states and conditions: unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.
Any of that lot familiar to you?
Let to its own devices, our minds will have us:
- feeling anxious or insecure, through unexamined thoughts gone wild.
- helplessly overthinking, ruminating or projecting future anxieties.
- being a magpie for even moderately tempting procrastination substances.
I suffered with all of these, and now significantly less so. It didn’t even occur to me that things could be different; that I could change the way my brain worked in the same way I could develop muscle strength through physical exercise.
These days, as I am more aware of my own monkey, I can also see the scavenging effect of other people’s. It creates a sort of perma low level harangued effect, powerlessness and lack of self discipline.Not training the mind, like not training the body, makes it flabbier and generally less attractive Click To Tweet
But the good news is, given a little intention and practice, everyone can make their mind their servant. And it is the Buddha again that offers us the solution: concentration and awareness (or meditation and mindfulness).
This post deconstructs the basic exercises to do to get your mind under your control, and goes on to talk about some of the miraculous stuff that happens when you do.
the two components of brain training
Mind training has two key aspects:
- having a closer awareness of thoughts and their effects; and
- having the muscle of being able to consciously direct your mind.
As I mentioned, the way to exercise the brain is through meditation and mindfulness. Here is a very noddy description of each:
- Meditation: Attuning your awareness to your breath for five minutes every day (minimum). In. Out. When the mind wanders, return it to the breath without self criticism. That is building the muscle of concentration or focus. It helps with both 1 and 2 above – but mostly 2.
- Mindfulness: ‘thinking about thinking’; this is noticing thoughts and sensations in the process of moving through life. It is being present, but a step removed from things.
To practice mindfulness, begin by doing one activity that is already a part of your day, but with more awareness. Note thoughts that happen as you proceed, as well as physical sensations in your body.
This simple exercise works to make you more aware of the space that always exists between event and interpretation; between stimulus and response. It helps with both elements 1 and 2.
3 benefits to taming monkey mind
If you have been practicing meditation and mindfulness a while, then you’ll recognise the following fruits. If you have just started, this is what you have to look forward to.
1. You’ll be able to select which thoughts you feed
We cannot control our thoughts. However, we can control which thoughts we feed.
We are all like gardeners tending to the various plants in the garden. You can either be selective about it, or you can allow the weeds to steal water and nutrients from the soil, so that everything good in the garden eventually dies. A violent analogy, but strangely appropriate!Your brain is neuroplastic, which just means that over time you can change it Click To Tweet
Because our brains are neuroplastic (which just means they change shape with repeat patterning), after a while of consciously selecting more constructive and beautiful thoughts/plants, you may even start to notice less of the thoughts/weeds arising to begin with. (You can also help yourself out with this by taking more care about what you read).
This isn’t happy clappy nonsense. Being able to consciously direct your attention this way basically changes your life. You’ll have a clearer self perception, and a more accurate grasp of reality.
What the brain defaults to doing
It is worth highlighting what happens if you don’t train your brain and choose the thoughts you feed.
Eventually, your experiences will wear you down. That’s because each time you have even a mildly disturbing emotional experience, it gets stored and remembered on a level of mind that you mostly aren’t aware of even operating (your subconscious mind, also called the ‘reptilian’ or ’emotional’ or ‘primitive’ mind).
The annoying reptilian brain muddies up the lens through which we view life events. The brain training described above counteracts that, and prevents us from unknowingly holding ourselves hostage by the past and accumulated hurts.
2. Your fears and insecurities will no longer define you
Part of training your brain is becoming keenly aware of your inner world – that litany of complaints, critical self talk, and external judgments. It happens through the mindfulness exercise above.
In becoming aware of this soundtrack, you begin to viscerally understand the meaninglessness of it, as well as the impermanent nature of your thoughts and moods. All of which helps you to get a distance from them, and question their validity.Brain training helps you to get a distance from your fears and insecurities Click To Tweet
Often, this means you are able to act in spite of your fears and insecurities. You gain the perspective and space to do that.
3. You’ll be able to achieve what you set your mind to
This is a bit of an old school expression that reminds me of something my dad would say. But being able to achieve what we set out to do is a skill that is getting corroded by the way we live now (our brains haven’t caught up with technology). And it is also something that is important to a lot of us, whether we can admit that or not.Meditation dramatically improves your ability to set your mind to achieve what you want Click To Tweet
This benefit is developed mostly through the meditation muscle. If you can choose how to invest your focus/energy, then much like being able to select the thoughts you feed, you’ll have more control over your output in life. Some key benefits I notice:
- being able to spend long periods of time engaged in deep work.
- being able to respond more often than react.
- easier job in refraining from unhelpful and self sabotaging behaviors.
It is basically the process of being able to wield your will.
3 books that helped me to train the monkey mind
Here are a few books that helped to inspire me to do brain training. Because it is all too easy to forget and let things slide, to stay motivated, I’d definitely recommend reading a mindfulness/meditation book periodically.
10 Happier (Dan Harris).
Breaking the Habit of being Yourself (Joe Dispenza).
Power of Now. (Eckhart Tolle).