6 traits of the 'monkey mind' and how to train it with mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient Buddhist practice that enables us to move into the present moment by quietening and stilling the body and focusing on the breath. Mindfulness is applicable to the modern day practitioner and can help us overcome the overwhelm and disconnect we encounter in everyday life.
Buddhists label the restless, thinking mind 'the monkey mind'. The more we observe the mind, the more we realise it is indeed like a naughty, restless monkey, with an insatiable appetite for bananas... sorry, thoughts! Here is Tibetan Buddhist Master Mingyur Rinpoche talking about how to train the monkey mind.
Mindfulness is a very simple exercise, and as Mingyur Rinpoche explains, a very easy, light focus on the breath, without the need for intense concentration or the expectation of clearing the mind, works best. The resources at the end of this post will help you get started with a practice. I recommend going slow and steady. Just a few minutes each day to begin, and then you increase the length when the exercise starts to become easier. The Headspace app is my go-to tool for meditation. Apart from anything, I can't get enough of the teacher's calming voice!
Here are six reasons why you might choose a mindfulness practice, and how it can be of benefit to you in your life, right now.
Getting lost in thought
When we start a mindfulness practice, we usually find it quite difficult because we spend so much of our time lost in thought, and we don't even notice our disconnection to the present moment - we identify with our thoughts and these become our reality. Living in this way creates an undercurrent of dissatisfaction or discomfort, and creates a disconnect with the world around us. And when the thoughts we have aren't all that healthy and we can't disentangle them from our reality, life becomes much more challenging.
Rather than stopping thoughts, mindfulness helps us create space in the mind between the present moment, and our thoughts, so we are not overwhelmed by their power. Thoughts still come and go, but we are able to take a step back from them and watch them objectively, without letting the thoughts, or the emotions associated with them, take over and catapult us into a state of upset.
Being unable to control emotions
When external events get the better of us, it is natural to have an emotional response. This can be so powerful that it clouds the reality of the moment. Emotional responses are usually triggered as a result of our conditioning and are not always in service of our true selves, or our Spirit. Depending on how deeply we are enmeshed in our misunderstanding of ourselves as a result of the event in our past that created the conditioning, the emotional response can be quite strong. We may feel compelled to lash out at each other or towards ourselves, or repress and hide our feelings, which only stores them in the body, to be unleashed some time later, when something or someone triggers us in some way.
Just as with thoughts, engaging in a mindfulness practice over the long term can help us create space between what is going on in the present moment, and our emotional response. We still feel the emotion, but we become able to observe it objectively as it happens in the body, rather than getting caught up with the emotion. We can learn to become wise to our typical responses and recognise when we are repeating old patterns and judgements that do no good to ourselves or others.
Being unable to reconcile the past
We are unable to change our past, and we carry the imprint of past events in the tissues of our bodies. Our past is inextricably part of who we are, yet we must be careful not to frame our experiences based on our past experiences alone. We learn from our experiences, we change and we grow, and ultimately, we must learn to forgive ourselves and others for our past, otherwise we risk carrying the burden of the past into every moment of our lives, and affecting those we are close to as well.
But how to move on and reconcile past events? How on earth can we forgive for events that had such an impact on us? For those of us with trauma in our past, this must be done with the help of an experienced therapist, and I recommend seeking out a qualified psychotherapist or a Somatic Experiencing therapist. Female-centred Tantric practices such as the Jade Egg practice can help women who carry trauma in their bodies to reconnect back to themselves.
Whether or not you are engaged with any other form of therapy, a mindfulness practice is a great place to start when trying to reconcile past events, as it teaches you how to get still in the body and mind and take your focus inward. It then becomes easier to examine how the past might be shaping or framing your relationship to the present moment. It is essential to practice kindness while doing this, which is a great challenge in itself. By bringing us back to the present by continually refocusing our attention on the breath, we can start to unhook ourselves from the stories and patterning we have created around our past, that colour our present.
Worrying about the future
Worrying about the future can manifest in many different ways, and when this worry reaches a certain level of intensity, it can show up as anxiety in the body. In the case of anxiety, we worry that in the future, we will be hurt by others just as we were in the past, so we put up a protective wall around us. When something happens to threaten the protection we have built for ourselves, for instance if our vulnerability is exposed in some way, it feels dangerous. Our fight-or-flight response is therefore triggered and we get anxious. Anxiety can be overwhelming and when we are in it, we can feel very alone. However, it is helpful to learn that anxiety is a completely natural part of the human condition and we all experience it.
With mindfulness, we are able to get space from feelings of worry and disengage from the power they hold over us. Over time, with lots of compassion and self-acceptance, we can learn to change our relationship to feelings of worry as they arise. Mindfulness is not a quick-fix for anxiety or worry, but if we practise it daily, we will usually start to feel results within just a few weeks. Over months and years, it can be transformative.
Feeling disconnected from others
In our modern era, we have come to believe that we are part of the web of technology around us. Video calling, social media, text messaging, Netflix and a whole host of other digital applications are firmly woven into the fabric of our lives, so much so that if they were taken away, we would feel bereft and lost. Over time, this constant stimulation can impact our ability to listen and mindfully communicate.
Ask yourself honestly, when you listen to people, do you really listen? Or are you thinking about other things while you're 'listening' - e.g. what to say next, what pressing task you feel you should be doing, where your next coffee or cigarette is coming from, how to leave the conversation because you're too busy to talk, etc, etc. And what could you learn or experience by being fully present with that person?
Mindfulness trains the brain to remain present by constantly, repeatedly bringing the focus back onto the object of attention, usually the breath. It is with this repetition that we train the brain to become more present with whatever is going on in the present moment. Over time, we start to live much more naturally in the present, which leads to greater awareness of others' feelings, better listening skills, and more skilful communication, as well as more joy in the simple moments of connection with others.
Taking on energy from other people
Empaths are people who pick up on others' energy very easily, particularly those we live or work with, or spend a lot of time with. This can be both painful and disorientating, as we often feel it more strongly than our own energy.
To balance this, empaths often need lots of their own time and space to recharge. Mindfulness gives us that time and space and allows us to return to our centre.
Interestingly, the more we practice mindfulness, the more sensitive we are to other people's energy, as being more present translates to being more aware of the energy going on around us. This can be disorientating at first, as you can feel swamped by the range of emotions around you, particularly in busy places, like city centres, or places where people are suffering, such as hospitals. Rather than letting this detain us, we need to keep on practising, as over time, the practice will help us to observe and notice the energy of others, without getting caught up in it or taking it on as our own.
Be sure to always bring kindness into your practice, and remember that mindfulness is a lifelong journey. We cannot expect to have overnight success, so trust the process, allow yourself to laugh at the mind's wacky ways, and enjoy this journey of learning!