Introduction to Meditation – Riding Herd on Your Monkey Mind
Introducing: Your “Monkey Mind”
Monkeys are hard to control. They do the most unpredictable things. They will jump on your head. They will steal your hat. They will pull your pants down.
Your mind is like a monkey, or so it goes in Buddhist philosophy. They call it “Monkey Mind” meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.”
I can relate. My mind jumps from thought to thought, constantly distracted with a bombardment of potential alerts. Texts, tweets, and emails are like bright, shiny objects. Squirrel!
In addition to the distraction, there’s the constant chatter. All day long there’s that inner dialogue, story telling, and analysis we all do. It’s been going on since early childhood, mostly unchecked. This mental monkey chatter, has been shaping your thinking patterns, day after day, year after year.
While Buddhists and other religious traditions have been aware of this for centuries, only recently have scientists begun looking into it.
Effects of Mind Wandering
Unlike all other animals, humans have the unique capacity to think about what is not going on around them–things that happened in the past, things that may happen in the future, or things that may never happen. From an evolutionary context, this is a great advantage. It allows us to learn, reason, and plan. However, it also comes with a cost.
Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University have labeled this ability to think outside of the present moment “mind wandering.” They studied it using an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask (1) how happy they were, (2) what they were currently doing, and (3) whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. They found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation and were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.
They also found that mind-wandering (also known as mindlessness) is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged. Moreover, on average, people’s minds tend to wander toward the negative rather than the positive, leading to their conclusion:
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
Of course, this is not absolutely true, but consider your own experience. I think you’ll agree that the more your are dwelling on past or future (or just somewhere else), the less happiness you feel. One possible reason is because a lot of people have negative “road maps” engraved into their brain. These are well-worn neural pathways we are likely to tread again and again rather than forging new ones. Somehow we believe that if we think about our stresses and problems, we will be better at handling them. So we worry about the upcoming job interview (what if we totally flub it), or we obsess about the argument we had (and what we should have said).
And then, even when we are thinking about something happy like a future vacation or happy event, we are often sabotaged by negative intruders and second guessing. We start wondering things like: Will I lose the happiness? When will the moment end? Will it end too soon? Will I be unable to hang onto it? Do I deserve this?
Why Do Minds Wander?
Part of the reason our minds wander so frequently may be hardwired from thousands of years of humans learning to compete and survive. A brain that can anticipate threats and imagine solutions is more likely to survive. As I wrote about previously, our brains also like to analyze past pleasure and pain, and then seek ways to maximize future pleasure and minimize future pain. These become thought loops, and they are often subconscious.
If you are like me, you’ve mostly given your mind “free reign” to do as it pleases. Why? Because you haven’t ever considered any alternative. It’s interesting how much people learn about and focus on other body processes like fitness and nutrition, but have never taken much thought about the mechanics of how to control their own mind. It’s like we all assume we are born experts on mental control and mental fitness.
Learning to Meditate: From ‘Riding Herd’ to Maestro
My monkey brain is used to complete freedom. It likes to go where it wants. It’s not used to being observed, much less controlled. Or, if you’ll allow me to switch metaphors (because this is my blog, and I’m in charge here) your mind is like having ten thousand cats in a field. How could you get them all to go in the same direction? Well, at first you’d need some trained cat herders, and it might look a bit like this.
Learning to meditate is like that. It’s pretty rough at first. Your thoughts defy control. They are indifferent. They scoff at your attempts to control them.
Then with practice and persistence, you get the upper hand. You get better and better at it, until one day, it transitions from cat herding to something much more civilized.
Strings first. Then percussion. Now just the violins. Now the flutes. Louder and louder. Faster and faster. Did you note the exquisite coordination and control?
The conductor is the maestro, the master, the expert, the genius, the wizard. That’s what learning meditation will do for you. You’ll become the maestro of your brain. It’s part of the theme of this site–becoming the master, the maestro, the guru of you.
I used to think that meditation was kind of weird. I thought it was for people who were somehow lost or needed a crutch. I thought you had to learn eastern religion to do it. I thought you had to chant, or mumble, and/or burn incense. I thought it was for hippie types. I’m not interested in any of that. I’m a trained scientist. I’m fairly conservative. I’m logical and rational.
Then I started hearing more about mindfulness. I started to read more about it. I realized how much suffering comes from people trying to silence or alter their minds with drugs, amusements, or distractions. I had been missing something important. So I started doing it.
Benefits of Meditation
There are many benefits of meditation. Here are some I have experienced:
- Live more in the moment (aka mindfulness, self-awareness). You will experience more because your senses will be turned up. You will feel, see, hear, taste, and enjoy more of the day.
- Feel more gratitude. You will build in practices that remind you of what is good about your life. Gratitude promotes contentment and extinguishes anger. You can’t feel grateful and angry at the same time.
- Become less reactive. You will learn to manage anxiety and intrusive thoughts. You will start to feel more conscious space between stimulus and response.
- Build resilience. You will establish strong, positive thought patterns to replace old, negative ones.
- Feel more empowered. You will feel a growing sense of confidence that you can create your own mental state and that you are master of your fate and captain of your soul.
At times the mind can seem like a wild monkey–unpredictable and capricious. Our thoughts jump from topic to topic, inevitably focusing on the past or future, but rarely allowing us to fully experience the present. Recent research has shown that this mind wandering reduces our happiness. An insightful comment from the Buddha captures the risk we take in not learning to control the mind:
Whatever an enemy might do to an enemy, or a foe to a foe, the ill-directed mind can do to you even worse.
Most of us have not taken the time to observe the operation of our minds. While we are mostly aware of the content of our minds, we have little awareness of how our minds function. Meditation and mindfulness is a practice that will teach you both to become more aware of your mind as well as learn to control its processes.
Call to Action
- Decide you want to improve your control of your mind
- Sign up for my email list to receive my free meditation guide
- Add meditation to your morning routine at least 5 days/week
Want to be happier? Stay in the moment. Matt Killingsworth shares his research on the TED stage.
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris
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