What separates us from our primate ancestors is our ability to think (hopefully intelligent thoughts.) But that comes at a price—we don't just think. We overthink, thanks to our monkey minds. Our thoughts are constantly shifting, swinging, vacillating, like monkeys from one branch to the next. Here's the 64,000-dollar question: Is the monkey mind a bug or a feature?
The story of the beautiful scarf
The Buddha held up a beautiful silk scarf at a sermon and asked his followers to identify the object. Predictably, everyone agreed that it was a scarf. The Buddha then slowly started to knot the scarf, a little bit at a time. After a few knots, he held up the scarf again and asked his disciples what they saw this time. "A scarf knotted multiple times," they chimed in.
The Buddha then asked what would happen if he pulled hard at both ends of the scarf to undo the knots. His wise devotees agreed it would make the knots that much tighter and harder to unravel. The only way to loosen the knots, they suggested, was to carefully review how the knots were formed in the first place and attempt to separate them methodically.
The Buddha concluded the sermon with this lesson:
Our minds are always like the beautiful silk scarf. But sometimes, we tie it up in knots through our thoughts. And then, instead of cautiously working through those knots, we tug harder at the mind by throwing more knots (thoughts) at it, eventually sending the mind into further entanglement.
This short Buddhist parable illustrates how easy it is for us to get all worked up about something. And once we do, we don't waste time finding creative ways of tying ourselves up in figurative hard-to-untie knots. We owe this exceptional talent of ours to an object every single one of us possesses—the monkey mind.
The Monkey Mind
What exactly is the monkey mind? And why is it hard to ignore?
The monkey mind refers to our constantly thinking minds. Our thoughts are like monkeys—swinging wildly, often without purpose, from one branch to another. The Buddhist term kapicitta (kapi – monkey, citta – mind) describes this agitated state of mind.
I'm sure all of us can relate.
One moment you are in the middle of a work email. A second later, a ping on the phone distracts you. And before you know it, the latest photo of your favorite Insta influencer has you vigorously clicking and scrolling—the adult equivalent of kicking and screaming.
The mind that cannot stay focused on a task is the monkey mind. Sadly, it's not just a nuisance but can have some serious consequences.
You notice a (new?) mole on your forearm as you put dishes away. You shrug it off and carry on with your life. A half-hour later, the thought returns; this time, it brings a friend with it—a more ominous thought. "What if it is something serious?" Then, before you know it, you are updating your estate plan and calling your loved ones (and the doctor) to grieve about how cruel and unfair life can be (or another version of —why do bad things always happen to me?)
The monkey mind has this amazing ability to turn a whisper in your head into a loud marching band. And that isn't simply unproductive. It can be debilitating, as in the case of severe anxiety.
Is the monkey mind evil, or can it be good? A foe to vanquish or a friend to nurture?
The answer is neither. Or both.
Not to be taken literally, this has nothing to do with monkeys in Switzerland. Instead, that the monkey mind is like Switzerland. It is neutral. Neither good nor bad. How the monkey mind behaves depends on your relationship with it.
If you let the monkey mind run amok and do its thing, you'll end up being ruled by its whims and fancies. On the other hand, if you can skillfully tame the monkey mind by keeping it busy and working for you (instead of against you,) it has the wonderful ability to turn thoughts into genuine insight and wisdom.
If that sounds complicated, there's some good news: there are tools to tame the monkey mind skillfully. The not-so-welcome news is that it can take some (or a lot) of time and effort.
The undisputable fact, though? If you value a peaceful existence, which I'm sure almost all of us do, you need to find ways to settle your mind.
So, why wait? Here are five tips to get started on before the monkey in your mind decides to swing over to another branch.
Calming the monkey mind
We think, on average, about 80,000 thoughts a day. A study also showed that the research subjects' minds wandered about 47% of the time, regardless of what they were doing. When you put these two statistics together, it means we think about 38,000 random thoughts each day. Whoa! We sure have some very active monkeys in our minds.
So how do we go about settling the monkey mind? Given the gravity of the situation, it's easy to lose heart because the odds seem stacked against us. Right? But there is hope.
1. Go Bungee Jumping
I'm kidding. I meant, try mindfulness meditation. Classic bait and switch. Yes. But I know you would've just glossed over this section if I'd started with the M-word.
It's a cliché at this point to say, "try to meditate."
If you can sit in quiet contemplation for thirty minutes, then nothing to see here. You already understand why that works, and you don't really have the mind-wandering problem, to begin with.
On the contrary, it is that one person—yes, I'm talking to YOU—who cannot sit still for a second that will benefit the most from the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Through meditation, you give your mind an object to focus upon. The most common thing to meditate upon is something we all carry with us ALL the time as long as we are alive—our breath. No matter what the marketers say, meditation does not require anything else—no special equipment, scented candles, fancy cushions, new age music, special instructions, or mantras necessary.
During the meditation session, you only have one job—to watch your breath. Maybe you can shorten it even further to watch just in-breath or the out-breath.
The lesson is straightforward:
When (not if) the mind wanders and when you become aware of its wandering (two distinct events, sometimes separated by a surprisingly long duration), you direct your mind to refocus on your breath.
That's all. And you keep doing this over and over and over again every time you meditate. Whether it's for five minutes or fifty-five minutes.
Isn't that the simplest assignment you've ever had in your life?
But for some of us, it can be the hardest thing ever to do—thanks entirely to the monkey mind.
Edison discovered over a thousand ways of how not to build a light bulb.
Harland Sanders submitted his fried chicken recipe to over a thousand restaurants before he became Col Sanders.
Meditation, likewise, is a test of perseverance. The mind will continue to wander because that's what it's always done. Your job is to keep instructing it gently, to return to watching the breath. The monkey mind will learn. Eventually.
And this general quieting will teach the monkey mind that you are not a prisoner to its whims and fancies. It will help you, in real life later, to stop thoughts from spinning out of control.
2. Limit the number of branches
Some would argue that human attention, not money, is the most valuable commodity there is. It's the ultimate scarce resource. – Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The power of passion and perseverance
Removing the number of branches the monkey mind can flit between is one way to tame the agitated monkey—fewer branches, fewer places to swing to and from.
It is easy to lose focus on something when there are easily accessible distractions nearby. Reconfiguring your space to remove all potential distractions is an easy way to give yourself a greater chance to focus on the task at hand.
The GRRM way
In a blogpost in 2011, the inimitable George RR Martin—GRRM, a modern era literary genius, said he considered himself a "dinosaur" because, while he had been using a computer for twenty years, he was still using "an old DOS machine" running what he called the "Duesenberg of word-processing software (very old, but unsurpassed)."
(Note: The references to DOS and Duesenberg may be confounding to some younger readers because you may have never heard those terms. Rest easy. DOS and Duesenberg are 20th-century inventions in the fields of computing and cars, respectively. Both were high and mighty in their prime. If you'd like to find out more, google is your friend.)
In a subsequent interview, GRRM clarified:
I actually like it, it does what I want a word-processing program to do, and it doesn't do anything else. I don't want any help, you know? I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lowercase letter, and it becomes a capital. I don't want a capital. If I'd wanted a capital, I'd have typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key. Stop fixing it.
It can be almost impossible to calm the monkey mind when you have too many distractions, things to do, or are physically in a loud, noisy environment. We could all be wearing T-shirts that say, "Easily distracted by shiny objects."
Eliminating distractions is a great way to calm the monkey mind and retain some semblance of focus.
3. Be intentional
There is a difference between doing something because you can versus doing something because you should. We often confuse busyness with purpose. The monkey mind loves busyness but has a hard time being purposeful.
Setting an intention before starting an activity can help us avoid being blown away like tumbleweeds in the wind.
Using tools like the Pomodoro technique to focus on one activity for a short duration intensely can go a long way in rewiring our brain, aka training the monkey mind to focus.
4. Embrace being unproductive
Do you know how hard it is for me even to say this? But, it's the truth.
The monkey mind is wired to constantly jump from one activity to another with no rest in between. But it's essential to rewire that brain circuitry. To teach the monkey mind that it's okay to chill in between. That not every living second of life has to be filled with doing something.
Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, says:
If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it's not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
Embracing boredom, especially in the age of social media, is a valuable life skill.
5. Swing to exhaustion
If all else fails, this can be your technique.
If you've raised kids, you'll know that sometimes it's futile to try to calm them down when they are hyped up. At such times, the best way to settle them down is to let them burn off their energy by jumping around in a park or the backyard and letting them go wild. Eventually, their battery will drain, and they'll be more malleable to sitting at the table for a quiet meal.
The same principle works with the monkey mind.
If you feel like your mind is out of control, instead of using brute force to focus, just let it wander for a while longer. One practical tip is to write out all the crazy scenarios your mind makes up and then simply toss that piece of paper into the bin. Or apply the five-year test to see if what appears earth-shattering today will matter five years from now. In most cases, it won't. Even if it did, there's no point worrying about it now.
Eventually, adrenal fatigue will catch up, and a calmer outlook will prevail.
It can be devastating when someone you know is afflicted with a disease like Alzheimer's. But there is a valuable life lesson the condition teaches you. It's called "living in the moment."
When an Alzheimer's patient can't recall what happened a few seconds ago or is not worried about how their action this minute will be perceived by someone next week, they are essentially free.
That's what living in the moment is—to stop trudging up the past or to second-guess the future constantly.
The monkey mind, if left untamed, can cause us to exist in a state of unrelenting panic and perpetual FOMO. Meditating, eliminating distractions, being intentional about our actions, and embracing boredom can go a long way in calming the monkey mind and make us appreciate the most important moment of all. The present.
Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now. – Eckhart Tolle