As humans, we have at least 50,000 thoughts every day, which means we have a new thought approximately every 1.2 seconds. This human condition is often referred to as the monkey mind, and it can make us feel like we’re crazy.
Buddhists gave our minds this nickname and defined it as “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.” While not a particularly flattering nickname for our mind, it’s quite accurate as our minds jumps from thought to thought, just as a monkey leaps from tree to tree in search of the next banana.
The state of our mind is the driving force of our world. The mind controls how we move, it controls our energy levels, how we feel, and how we show up in the world. When our mind is operating in monkey mind mode we are not able to settle enough to focus, to get clear, or to take appropriate action in our lives.
Have you ever felt like there is something in your way of reaching a goal? Some roadblock or thing holding you back from taking a step forward? Sometimes it can be difficult to identify what that obstacle is, and many times it’s ourselves—our own minds presenting us with limitations and distractions and insecurities and unhelpful thoughts. All of these things get in our way of achieving this, or completing that: finding the perfect job, getting a promotion, or simply getting in the way of us being right here, right now . . . in this present moment.
This state of our mind—the monkey mind—is part of being human. It’s important to fully understand that all humans have this same experience (unless you’ve overcome this through training, in which case I will be very impressed by you). We all suffer from the constant chatter of our minds—the voice inside our heads—and its innate nature to get lost in cycles and bounce, bop, and flop around. Left to its own agenda, the mind will be restless, unsettled, and often confused and uncontrollable. Not so attractive, is it? But we can all intimately relate.
“Most people don’t realize that the mind constantly chatters. And yet, that chatter winds up being the force that drives us much of the day in terms of what we do, what we react to, and how we feel.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
You Are Not the Voice in Your Mind
One of the most important stepping stones in the realm of personal development in my life was when I fully realized that the voice in my mind was not really me. Catching onto the fact that the voice in my mind was little more than a succession of thoughts—with no correlation to me, my personality, or my true nature—was a real game changer.
When I’m worked up about something, it may come as no surprise that the voice in my mind spins on that one thing I’m angry about—over and over. The voice tells off the person or thing I’m angry with many times over. It yells, it shouts, it makes demands, and speaks its mind. But the voice doesn’t stop when I’m not angry. It’s there all the time.
I used to follow my thoughts and look for meaning in them. But the vast majority of the time, my thoughts show up when I’m trying to sleep and say things like:
- “I need to remember to call Tom tomorrow. Call Tom. Call Tom. Don’t forget to call Tom.”
- “Mike from yoga is kinda cute. I wonder if he’s single.”
- “I hope I didn’t upset Laura when I went into her office with feedback earlier. Although … she is too sensitive.”
- “Why are some people so sensitive?”
- “I should not have eaten that second cookie after lunch. I DEFINITELY have to work out tomorrow.”
- “Maybe I’ll try the new core class at the gym. I should look up the schedule now. No, I need to go to sleep now. I’ll look first thing in the morning. I hope they have a class at 6:30. I should just peek at the schedule now. I need to plan my day.”
- “I’m hungry. What kind of wine goes best with honey glazed salmon?”
- “I wonder if I’ll ever get married.”
And when I’m going for a walk, I hear things like:
- “I hope I’ll make it to the coffee shop before it closes. I don’t usually drink coffee after 2 p.m., but I am really dragging today. I hope it doesn’t keep me up all night.”
- “You’re really forgetful. Always forgetting your jacket. It’s chilly—I can’t believe you forgot your jacket again. You could have at least tucked a sweater in your bag.”
- “Awwww . . . what a cute dog. I think I’ll get a dog. I wonder if my landlord would let me have a dog if it’s under 40 pounds.”
- “I should call my mom. Don’t forget to call your mom.”
These thoughts—and many more—would take place over the course of just minutes. How do these types of thoughts define me as an individual?
So I stopped spending so much time following the thoughts, making sense of them, and analyzing why I had them—and started to detach from them. I simply became the one who listens to the thoughts, instead of the one who creates them.
If you’re not yet convinced—try to take some time to listen objectively to your thoughts. Go ahead, evaluate them: Do they have meaning? Are they novel ideas? Do they hold valuable pieces of information? Will your thoughts change the course of your day . . . or your life?
From my experience, when you really tune in you’ll find that the majority of what that voice “says” provides no value or meaning, and will have very little impact on your life. The fact is that life is going to unfold whether you overthink decisions or not, and the act of listening to those thoughts is generally a big waste of time.
And who has time to waste?
But don’t take my word for it. If you’re open to this concept, take a look for yourself with an open mind. As you observe your mind, ask yourself:
- Are your thoughts actually important?
- How relevant are your thoughts to the particular moment that you’re in?
- Are the thoughts about the past, the future, or the moment?
- How pertinent are your thoughts to the task you’re in the middle of or the priority at hand?
- How do those thoughts make you feel?
Detaching From the Monkey Mind
When your mind is operating in monkey mind mode, you’re not able to listen to what you really want in life—to what your heart is telling you. It’s only when you’re able to settle your mind and gain awareness that you can begin to align your mind with your heart and with the present moment. It’s only then that you can begin to translate your visions into thoughts and actions. This is at the center of a mindfulness practice.
Life changes in positive ways when your thousands of thoughts are no longer reacting and ruling over your world. When your world is instead led by awareness of your truth; when you are truly aware of whatever it is you are doing—in the moment—it can defuse excessive stress-producing thoughts and activity within the mind.
Meditation is what I’ve found to be the most powerful tool to develop the mind to be less of a monkey, and more like a calm and even-tempered deer. True, weird thoughts about my workout routine, my love life, and what I ate for lunch still arise—even during meditation—but I don’t pay them much mind. Detaching from the endless chatter enables life to become less of a struggle and become more joyous, more simple, and have greater potential than we ever imagined.
*This post was adapted from the book, The Type A’s Guide to Mindfulness: Meditation for Busy Minds and Busy People.