It starts with recalling some regrettable thing you said last night. Then a truck beeps loudly outside your window, and you wish you lived on a quieter street. You remember that you haven’t been to the dentist in a while, and you’re behind on that work project. Then you wonder if any of this even matters in light of climate change.
For centuries, Buddhist scholars have used the term “monkey mind” to describe such worried, unsettled mental chatter. Author Elizabeth Gilbert describes it this way: “The thoughts swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit, and howl.”
When we’re caught in monkey mind, each thought presents itself as a new and urgent concern. Yet studies suggest most thoughts are repeats from the day before. What’s more, because of our negativity bias — designed to keep us safe from threats — most of our thoughts have a negative focus.
Yet monkey mind is its own kind of menace to well-being. Negative thinking affects perceptions and moods. Low mood can make everyday difficulties more challenging, and this keeps the nervous system elevated.
The stories we tell ourselves when we’re down often predict failure, humiliation, and catastrophe. Such thoughts can affect heart health, immunity, the endocrine system, and digestion. They also contribute to anxiety and depression.
There are ways to quiet the monkey mind. First, though, we have to abandon shouting at the monkeys or trying to ignore them. The best way to calm monkey mind is with mindfulness — standing back to witness thoughts without trying to rein them in.
My colleague Susan Bourgerie, MA, LP, recently took a virtual tour of Arashiyama Monkey Park in Kyoto, Japan, home to many wild monkeys. Her written observations about the park’s visitor guidelines can help us relate more effectively to the wild monkeys in our own unsettled minds.
Don’t stare at the monkeys. Staring can be very threatening to a monkey. It suggests that a predator has it in its sights, which can trigger a defensive aggression reaction. In a fight with a wild monkey, a human will be defeated. We’re just not trained to win these.
Likewise, if you’ve ever tried to fight with your monkey mind you know this only invites escalation. Monkey mind will defend its territory.
So, in meditation we learn to “watch” the thoughts without staring — without fixating on any one thought. We develop an “observing self” who can be curious without getting caught up in the antics of the thinking mind.
Here’s a simple visual image: Watch from the shore of the river as thoughts go tumbling by like leaves and branches in rapidly flowing water. If we sit still and watch this way, it allows thoughts to flow downriver, passing quickly out of awareness.
Don’t take pictures of the monkeys. It’s natural to want to capture the experience of walking among wild monkeys. But a camera can be an object of fascination for curious monkeys and trigger an attack.
Likewise, to hold on to thoughts, particularly negative ones, as if they’re worthy of memorializing, can give them far too much power. Taking a snapshot of a thought or story and focusing on it endlessly is called ruminating. This is a setup for fearful or depressed moods. It’s better to stay on the riverbank, not inviting an attack of rumination that feeds dark moods and drains energy.
Don’t feed the monkeys. Monkeys naturally eat a healthy diet of forest food, but when given enough treats, they learn to prefer handouts from humans and stop looking for their own food. They can also double in size. This results in more conflict between the monkeys and more aggressive behavior overall.
The same is true when we feed monkey mind, because these thoughts thrive on attention. What we pay attention to grows, often crowding out the space reserved for creativity or enjoyment of the present moment. Feeding the darker thoughts of monkey mind leads to more of them. If we can learn to stop paying attention to them, they will diminish.
Following the guidelines at Arashiyama Monkey Park can show us how to live in harmony with our own wild monkeys. Mindfulness practice offers similar benefits. We can choose not to identify with every thought, and learn to distinguish between a thought and reality. This frees us to make better choices.
Monkey mind is not a “bad mind,” only an unsettled and untrained one, caught in unhealthy patterns. Let’s appreciate it for what it is: a good place to begin to walk a more mindful path.
This originally appeared as “Tame Your Monkey-Mind” in the January/February 2021 print issue of Experience Life.