Paul McCarroll, blogger and mental health support worker, offers three suggestions to help tame your monkey mind.

The Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention. 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.

From the moment we wake, to falling asleep at night, thoughts will continue to seek our attention.

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Thoughts can be likened to a ‘double edged sword’. On the one hand, thoughts can be incredibly useful. When we approach a pedestrian crossing and get ready to cross the road, a thought such as ‘look right and left’ emerges, prompting us to take useful action, preventing us from getting knocked down by the oncoming lorry.

You have an exam coming up in a couple of weeks, you haven’t begun to revise, you may be prompted with thoughts such as, “If you want to get that good grade you have been hoping for, you better put time aside to revise.” Both these thoughts are incredibly useful and when we pay attention to them and let them guide our behaviour, they help us to move forward in life.

But a lot of our thoughts have some sort of negative content and are incredibly unhelpful. Take the example of Johnny. He would like to meet a nice woman and start a relationship. He has been single for many years and would like to find someone special. However, when out with his friends and he sees someone he likes, he can’t make the move to go and initiate conversation. He wants to approach the woman he likes, but just before he does, he has thoughts such as, “She won’t have any interest in me, I’m too boring”, “She is out of my league ,she will just say ‘No’ and I will embarrass myself.” He ‘buys’ into these thoughts completely and believes them like they are the biblical truth. So he misses an opportunity to move his life forward in a positive direction and returns home at the end of the evening, berating himself for not making the effort to approach the lady. The lady may not have been interested in dating him, she may well have found him boring, but as he didn’t approach her, he will never know!

But what if Johnny didn’t have to believe his thoughts like a puppet on a string? What if he could learn to take his thoughts with a pinch of salt, giving them his attention if they are helpful and ‘letting them come and go’ if they are not? Here are some useful tips.

1. Thoughts happen to us, they are not a reflection of who we are

“Our minds secrete thoughts like our bodies secrete enzymes. Its just what minds do. They think. Its part of survival,it’s supposed to happen. It ensures survival,it ensures flourishing. So we’re not trying to stop thoughts and we’re not trying to control thoughts. What we are intending,is cultivating a wiser relationship with thought.”  Tara Brach.

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When we wake in the morning and get up to open the curtains, we have no control over what weather conditions will meet us. Sometimes we will feel the sun on our cheeks, sometimes the rain will be crashing against the window. At other times we may find it difficult to open the window because of a strong wind. Even if we went outside and brandished a samurai sword waving it at the sky, shouting at the weather conditions to ‘stop, stop’, they would never change. Some things in life our not within our control. Our thoughts and feelings fall into that category. They ‘happen’ to us. Some mornings we may wake and feel full of life, ready to take on the day. On others we may feel so lousy that we just want to lie with the covers over our heads. Of course we want to feel good and prefer not to feel bad. But what if we could learn to move forward with our lives, even when our thoughts and feelings are not to our liking?

2. Bringing our thoughts and feelings with us

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Generally, when we are feeling anxious or low, we would prefer to feel differently. We would rather feel inspired, happy and motivated. As I’m sure you can resonate with, life can be difficult sometimes, and challenging life circumstances can stimulate troubling thoughts and feelings. When going for a interview for a job you really want, you are highly likely to feel anxious. This is quote on quote ‘normal‘. If a loved one dies,it is ‘normal’ to feel intense grief andsadness.Where the real problem lies and where people often get stuck and make their symptoms worse, is when they try hard to get rid of these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings,believing they are not normal. Again,this is a very natural human trait, but what if trying to alleviate our thoughts and feelings,actually makes them worse?What if we could learn to bring our thoughts and feelings with us to the job interview or to the first date, acknowledging the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings while putting our attention and energy in to the task at hand (doing a good interview,acting as you would like to on your first date)?

3. Allow thoughts to come and go

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As mentioned above, some thoughts can be incredibly useful and can help us to live a life of purpose and meaning, but others can be self-sabotaging and they aren’t helpful to pay attention to. So what can be done instead? Many common ways in which we  try to deal with our negative thinking is to to try to ‘get rid of’ the thoughts or ‘struggle’ against them. In the external world, this works very well; If there is dirt on the floor,we can use a brush to ‘get rid of’ it. But in the internal world of thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations trying to ‘get rid of’ them, paradoxically, only makes them stronger! With practice we can allow our thoughts and feelings  to come and go . When a thought is helpful, we can give it our full attention and let it guide our behaviour. If it is self-sabotaging we can learn to let it play on in the background like a car radio. If we like the song, or news article we can tune in and listen. If not, we don’t have to change the channel or turn it off,we can just let it continue to play,while we focus on our driving:) Remember, thoughts and feelings aren’t controllable but behaviour is:)

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