Monkey Mind Defined and Tamed

I have been remiss of late–this is my weekly column for the newspaper:

I want to share a book I finished reading a few weeks ago with you but my “monkey mind” is racing in all directions. I must focus. I must write this, my weekly column. And it has to make some sense, and satisfy the reader to some extent. But my “monkey mind”, defined by Wikipedia as “a Buddhist term meaning unsettled; restless, capricious; whimsical, fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable” is attacking me.

Compartmentalization is one of the ways that I deal with “monkey mind” and it is surprisingly efficient—along the lines of Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara declaring: “I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” I put things in their own little boxes, but sometimes they escape, get muddled, and I have trouble sorting them out.
In a Huffington Post article by author B.J. Gallagher, she tells us that Buddha has monkey mind all figured out. Titled “Buddha: How to Tame Your Monkey Mind”, she says that “The Buddha was the smartest psychologist” she has ever read. Calling him a wise teacher with keen insights into human nature she disavows that he was either a god or messiah, but someone who learned by observation and meditation.

He apparently described the “human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, clattering” and “carrying on endlessly.” Dozens of these little critters clamour for our attention all the time, but “fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.” This particular monkey is both irritating and a life saviour. Admittedly, sometimes we need this little guy so we will not step out into traffic—but when he stops you from getting on with life, he is getting a little out of hand.

Gallagher sometimes engages Fear “in gentle conversation”. She says that this little tete a tete can sometimes calm him down. Here is a little peek into her conversation:

“What’s the worst that can happen?” I ask him.
“You’ll go broke,” Fear Monkey replies.
“OK, what will happen if I go broke?” I ask.
“You’ll lose your home,” the monkey answers.
“OK, will anybody die if I lose my home?”
“Hmmm, no, I guess not.”
“Oh, well, it’s just a house. I suppose there are other places to live, right?”
“Uh, yes, I guess so.”
“OK then, can we live with it if we lose the house?”
“Yes, we can live with it,” he concludes.
And that usually does it. By the end of the conversation, Fear Monkey is still there, but he’s calmed down. And I can get back to work, running my business and living my life.”

Gallagher’s other advice for dealing with “monkey mind” is to meditate, and this she bases on the teachings of Buddha. She says it works. What doesn’t work is trying to banish the monkeys from your mind as “that which you resist, persists”. For me the jury is out regarding meditation. But I do find that having a “worst case scenario” conversation does calm me down. While sometimes my worst case scenario conversations do not have a happy ending—at least no one has died.

Oh—and the book I was going to tell you about? It is written by Ruth Reichl and called “My kitchen year: 136 Recipes that Saved my Life.” What does the book have to do with “monkey mind”? Well Ruth cooked and wrote a book to get rid of her monkeys. She lost her job as the Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine and was at a loss as to what to do next. She was in danger of losing her vacation house (oh, to have her monkeys!) but her anguish was real to her.

Reichl tamed her monkeys by getting back to her roots and cooking—something she had only written about for years. By chronicling her “kitchen year” she survived what she called her “difficult year”, and came to the realization that it is the simple things that make life worth living. At one time she was caught up in the whirlwind of a fancy life where she spent piles of money to “sit surrounded by strangers.” Now, she could come home, fix a quick and satisfying meal and have a quiet conversation with her husband, and be wholly content.

This mini review does not give the book its full due. It is honest, lyrically written, and has recipes to boot—there is not much more I could ask of a book. Oh—and the photography is awe inspiring. The book is a treat for the senses.

Do you ever suffer from Monkey mind? How do you cope?

Published in: on March 11, 2016 at 2:13 pm  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love this concept of a Monkey Mind. It doesn’t always help me, but it can be a calming influence during soaring moments

  2. Yes I too suffer. I have always used the “worst case scenario” idea to get me through things. I didn’t know it was a real thing! Since retiring, the monkeys sometimes take over, but it’s not as bad as when you are still working and have all the stresses of work in your head.

  3. Ah, the monkey mind. The bane of writers everywhere, when we’re sitting in front of the laptop or notebook and worry about what to cook for dinner, if the laundry is done, if the car has gas…I must say, meditation WORKS. I meditate first thing in the morning, and learn to just laugh at the monkey mind. It settles down and behaves the rest of the day.

  4. I love the visual of monkeys because that’s basically what my brain is comprised of– Distraction monkeys, Inspiration monkeys, Emotion monkeys, and yes, plenty of Fear monkeys. I’m not sure if I’ve really consciously come up with a way to cope with them all, especially Fear monkeys, but when they all get too loud, I just sit back, let them do what they want for a little bit, ask them if they’re done, and then move on with my life. It’s not a perfect solution but so far has gotten me through big life events so I guess that counts as success?
    Always glad to see you write, especially old blog friends! (old as in our years of acquaintance, not actual age because after all, that’s not important. 😉 )

  5. Yes, most all of us all have monkey mind. The image itself is clear enough. Carlos Castaneda refers to the internal dialogue. The mystic’s goal is to quiet, calm, silence all those chattering monkeys. Some try to put them in boxes, as you say. But then there are too many boxes and they start to clamor like monkeys. I think it’s best to put them all in a big barrel. And then, worse come to worse, you have a barrel full of monkeys, which can be fun.

  6. Enjoyed this post very much, happy to read your observations…..and yes the monkeys do inhabit my head! Meditative breathing helps as does a quick brisk walk or cleaning out a closet!

    • Yeah–I will get right on that closet thing….ha ha ha ha ha–am falling off my chair….ha ha ha ha

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