TAMING THE MODERN MONKEY MIND
“When you are mindful, you are fully alive, you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you." - Thich Nhat Hanh
Have you ever laid in bed unable to sleep because of the racing of your mind– generating to-do lists, pondering worst-case scenarios, scrutinising the details of the argument you had with your mother, and then jumping back and forth between each? Or that feeling of needing to concentrate on an important deadline– only to be drawn away to check your email, social media, smartphone...
This is what ancient Buddhist texts refer to as the "monkey mind". As Buddha observed, just “as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night”(S.II,95). It is an uncanny metaphor to imagine the ordinary human mind as a distracted, constantly moving and flustered monkey. This metaphor that is even more relevant in the era of smartphones and hyper-connectivity.
When observing the monkey mind from a scientific perspective, it overlaps greatly with the psychological concepts of the behavioural activation system (BAS) and the behavioural inhibition system (BIS). These systems control human motivation and behavioural responses to cues of reward and punishment. When we are faced with fight or flight cues, the BIS is activated. This produces an inhibitory behavioural response and equivalent emotion, such as anxiety or fear.
“As a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night” - Buddha (S.II,95)
Everyday, we make decisions based on perceived rewards and threats. People are either motivated by their search for reward or their avoidance of punishment. Some people are more sensitive to reward, which means they perceive relatively more sources of happiness and enjoyment in the world around them. Others are more sensitive to punishment, meaning they perceive more sources of stress and anxiety.
The monkey mind is essentially the BIS gone haywire. Our perception of threat dominates our minds and pulls our consciousness towards those thoughts, bouncing from anxiety to fear and back again. It is difficult to suppress these thoughts, especially since we are evolutionarily attuned to taking threats seriously and devoting our attention to finding a solution. However, in modern life, these usually aren't real threats, but rather normal occurrences inaccurately classified as threatening.
Practicing mindfulness, as in Buddhist practice, is the antidote to monkey mind. Research shows that people who are more prone to naturally being "mindful" show less activity in the areas of the brain associated with searching for possible threats (i.e. the BIS) than those of "less mindful" people. What does this mean? Mindful people may be particularly capable in taking control of their thoughts and taming their monkey mind.
Just like unsuccessfully chasing a tribe of mischievous monkeys away, when we tell ourselves to stop thinking about something, it actually tends to have the exact opposite effect. In fact, there is a story in Buddhism that describes this perfectly: despite trying to chase monkeys away from wreaking havoc on a town, every monkey the townspeople chased would return. As a solution, they instead planted trees on the outskirts of the town and allowed the monkeys to leave naturally.
In psychology, this is called ironic thought suppression. Acceptance, as opposed to suppression, of unwanted thoughts is a core component of mindfulness. Taking this approach towards combatting negative thought cycles is far more effective than a simple brute force attempt to banish the monkey mind.
"Living mindfully is to be able to maintain awareness of the present, and to observe our passing thoughts without judgement."
What we must remember when thinking of mindfulness is that, in our popular culture, this is often mistaken for the act of practicing meditation. Rather, we should more accurately see mindfulness as a lifestyle choice and philosophy. A meditative practice is just one of its many components.
Living mindfully is to be able to maintain awareness of the present, and to observe our passing thoughts without judgement.
With the rise of digital technology and the abundance of things continually competing for our attention, it is no surprise that millennials have flocked toward seeking a more mindful lifestyle. While mindfulness meditation may be a first offensive in taming a monkey mind, embracing a philosophy around mindfulness as a lifestyle can be even more effective.
So next time your mind is racing, take a step back and accept the flow of your thoughts as part of your biological self-preservation system. Allow yourself to move past the non-constructive thoughts towards a focussed awareness of the present moment.