What is "Monkey Mind" and How Do I Tame It?

man asking what is monkey mind

Many of us go through our days in a frenzy, a mental state sometimes referred to as "monkey mind." It's a Buddhist concept known as shin'en, which translates to "heart/mind-monkey."

This primitive nickname is used to refer to those frenetic, unobserved thoughts; their movements rapid and overactive, much akin to an ape swinging from tree to tree. The concept of monkey mind represents most people's everyday mental marathon— both the conscious and unconscious consent we give to our minds to bounce from place to place, screen to screen, and conversation to conversation.

By the day's end, even as bedtime approaches, our brains may still percolate with thoughts, fears, to-do's, and what-did-I-says. This frantic state of mind can lead to depression, anxiety, and increased negative thought processes.

However, the monkey mind philosophy is as much about our thoughts as it is about actually being. As Adam Oakley of Inner Peace Now writes, "The monkey mind pretends to be you... this unconsciousness means we are identified with every thought and emotion that arises— we believe these things are who we are.""

The point is this: you are not your thoughts, you are the space in which these thoughts have the opportunity to exist. The true you retains the awareness of your emotions, thoughts, and perception.

Fun Fact: The macaque in the blog picture actually won a lawsuit for his selfie!

How to Achieve a Peaceful Mind

While it may seem counter-intuitive, the first step to achieving a peaceful mind is to relinquish the longing to control what's in your head. The more you fight, judge, and/or resist your thoughts, the more pervasive they become.

Your aim should be to simply acknowledge and be aware of your thoughts without analysis or criticism. "Awareness," according to Inner Peace Now, "is what separates you from your monkey mind... When you can stop judging and just watch [your thoughts], then you will begin to feel inner peace."

Meditation is Imperative

practitioner meditating to tame monkey mind

Before we dive into why you should meditate, let's outline what meditation actually is. As defined by Psychology Today, "meditation is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra."

In other words, it's the act of focusing on the present.

Meditation gives way to awareness; the exact opposite of the monkey mind. Healthy living expert and clinical psychologist Robert Puff Ph.D., breaks down this relaxation process into a simple set of steps:

  1. The set up: Find a quiet spot where you can sit upright
  2. Inhale and exhale with a short mantra
    • While inhaling, say to yourself "I am"
    • While exhaling, say to yourself "peaceful"

At first glance, meditation seems like breeze; however, if you've attempted it before, you'll understand why you have to practice.

Meditation Leads to Better Sleep

If you're having trouble falling asleep, you're not alone. According to a report by the American Sleep Association, around 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder. Whether our collective insomnia is caused by artificial light from too much screen time or the stress of a long to-do list, proper sleep hygiene is not our strong suit.

However, the solution may be found for some in mindfulness meditation. This is a relaxation process that slows down anxiety-provoking thoughts by turning the focus to breathing and developing an awareness of the present moment.

However, it's important to go beyond learning about meditation and actually practice it. Using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (which measures sleep quality, sleep latency, sleep duration, habitual sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, use of sleeping medications, and daytime dysfunction over the last month), David S. Black PhD and his team recorded sleep quality among two sets of participants. One set of participants received a regular class about sleep, meditation, and wellness, while the other group actively practiced these meditation techniques.

Although both groups improved the quality of their sleep, the participants who were practicing mindfulness achieve a 155% better sleep score than those who simply learned the techniques.

Different Ways to Meditate for Beginners

person walking mindfully to control monkey mind
  1. Try Yoga: Whether you go to a night class or just practice at home, yoga can bring about the awareness you need to disengage your monkey mind. If you're unsure of whether yoga is for you, start by purchasing an inexpensive mat to begin your practice. If it feels right, invest in a higher quality one.
  2. Take a Walk: Going for a stroll has incredible benefits. Guided walking meditations can also be helpful for beginners who are trying to learn how to meditate and also want the additional benefits of physical exercise.

    Brain scans from Dr. Chuck Hill, professor of kinesiology and of community health, shows two CT Scans side by side, one of a sedentary brain, and the other brain after a twenty minute walk. The sedentary brain has light shades of activity whereas the active brain is lit up like a Christmas tree.

  3. Listen To Music: Music can truly sooth the soul. Try focusing on each individual instrument in a mellow song. Or, if a peaceful soundscape works better, focus on the bird chirping or the waves crashing. If you're meditating in bed, try AcousticSheep's SleepPhones. They're headphones designed to be worn while you sleep. Once you try them, you'll never go back!
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