Anchoring the Monkey Mind
The mind has enormous power, which if we fail to control it, can work against us. As the Dhammapada says: “Whatever an enemy might do to an enemy, or a foe to a foe, the ill-directed mind can do to you even worse.” A mind that erratically jumps from one thought to the next - like a monkey swinging from branch to branch – erodes your focus and obscures your purpose. If you’ve ever suffered from such a monkey mind, you’ll know that it’s a frustrating and anxious state to be in.
I’ve always been prone to monkey-mindedness, but when it properly flared up a few weeks ago, I decided to make a conscious effort to tackle the problem, and as it turns out, there are some very sound exercises and practices you can do to anchor that restless monkey mind.
Anchor #1 PRESENT MOMENT AWARENESS
The monkey mind takes you out of the present moment, out of your surroundings and into your head, into a jungle of distractions, daydreams, and anxious thoughts about what you should be doing. Here, the monkey mind functions as a saboteur, a voice in your head that sabotages your work and erodes your confidence. In order to disable this saboteur, you need to reconnect to the truth of the here and now, to the hard facts of your current situation. And I mean this literally: Start by enumerating 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. I got this 54321-exercise from Jay Shetty's podcast "On Purpose," and it's an effective way to anchor yourself in the present moment.
Your breath can be another powerful anchor for the monkey mind. I paticularly like the 4/6 breath, a simple exercise I learnt from Julie Montagu. Inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 6 puts you into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for resting and digesting. If you feel comfortable enough, you could even take this a step further and practice inhaling for 7 and exhaling for 11. Imagine that with each slow exhale, you are slowing down the monkey, until he finally just sits down on a branch and rests.
As soon as you notice the monkey mind preparing to usurp your brain, it's vital that you strictly adhere to your routine. I've noticed that although I normally religiously adhere to my well-structured daily routines, my monkey mind still manages to tempt me to overthrow it all. It does that by telling me in a very caring voice: "You need a change. You've tried it this way for long enough, now it's time for a change." I've learnt from experience that giving in to this voice only exacerbates my confusion. Sticking to your routine makes it easier for the brain to focus on what's important, rather than having to deal with the demands of an all-new situation. When the monkey starts swinging, don't swing along with it, instead root yourself in familiar and effective routines.
Another form of discipline that I've found to be a strong anchor for the monkey mind is silence. I got the idea from Jay Shetty's book, Think Like a Monk, where he talks about having had to keep completely silent for 30 days when he was a monk. Obviously, that's taking it to the extreme, and especially in lockdown, I wouldn't advise you to try to stay silent for even one day. But in case you, like me, are a very chatty person and tend to use talking, either to yourself or to others, as a form of procrastination, I challenge you to notice that urge, and then make a conscious decision to stay silent. I used this strategy throughout last week, when I was going through the bulk of my university exams. Instead of postponing revision by chatting to my parents, friends on the phone, the dog, or myself, I stayed silent, forcing the monkey mind to fall silent too.
Anchor #3 TRUTH
The previous exercises work effectively on the spot, but in the long run, if you notice that your monkey-mindedness even deludes you about the quality of your work - "This is fine, just leave it and watch Bridgerton instead" - you may need a long-term strategy to defuse the saboteur. What's worked best for me is soliciting honest feedback from an expert, or even better, from multiple experts in the area that I'm working on. In order to find the right expert for your problem, look for the people who consitently exhibit competency in your area of work, and who ideally also have your best interests at heart. According to Jay Shetty, receiving feedback is just the first step and needs to be followed up with evaluating and responding to that feedback. As you receive, evaluate and respond to honest feedback, you will find that your monkey mind becomes anchored in the truth that you filter out of that feedback.
Anchor #4 GRATITUDE
Last but certainly not least, finding gratitude can be both an in-the-moment and a long-term anchor for the monkey mind. When you're in the grip of the monkey mind, and you've maybe already done the 54321-exercise, follow it up with making a written list of at least three things/people/experiences you are grateful for right now. This shifts the focus away from what you don't have - concentration, motivation, results - to what you have - support, tools to deal with the situation, perspective.
In the long run, you could make gratitude a part of your evening routine, like I've done. Inspired once again by Jay Shetty's book, I've started making two lists every night before going to bed: One list with all the bad things I did to others that day, and one list with all the good things others did for me that day. This is an incredibly humbling exercies, and a mind grounded in humility is less prone to delusions like the monkey mind.
As you work on grounding that monkey mind, remember to be self-compassionate. It's no use berating yourself for getting distracted in the first place - it happens to the best of us. These are difficult times and you may feel like you are yearning for a distraction, an escape from reality. That too is normal, but if you choose to take that momentary escape, do so consciously, and ask yourself whether it will satisfy you. If that's unlikely, maybe it's time to confront that monkey mind. I hope you will find the exercises I have provided useful!
Thank you for reading,
Until next time,