In this article, we’re going to take a look at the more distracting side of our minds, which is something we’ve all experienced but perhaps never put a name to. The distracted, disorganised and often chaotic feeling we have in our mind is called the monkey mind. In this guide, we will share with you what the monkey mind is, explaining its causes and offering some advice on how to tame this part of your brain in order to take back control and live a more relaxed life. Let’s dive in.
What is the Monkey Mind?
The “monkey mind” concept was first taught over 2,000 years ago by the Buddha. He described the human mind as being full of drunken monkeys, constantly screeching, fighting, chattering, distracting, and generally creating mental chaos. As people with anxiety disorders, stress issues, or other difficult habits of mind will testify, it often seems like we’re constantly at war with our brains. That’s what the practice of meditation tends to deal with.
One particularly loud and distracting part of this is fear. Whether it’s fear of what can go wrong, fear of the unknown or fear that what we have done in the past will come back to damage us in the future, this negative feeling can be particularly debilitating.
In today’s fast-paced, technologically advanced world, there are more distractions than ever, and it’s particularly hard to focus on work and study. This is compounded by the constant stream of breaking news from all around the world, which needlessly increases anxiety levels for many people.
This is why it’s vital to learn how to control and tame your monkey brain. Give yourself a break from the constant distractions, identify what’s important to you, and focus on what you can control.
Causes of the Monkey Mind
There are plenty of reasons why the monkey mind has become harder to control in the modern world. People today are often regularly juggling multiple tasks, while technology is constantly at our fingertips, wherever we are, meaning that we never have to be bored.
However, being bored has its benefits. Moments of boredom can help create the conditions for amazing moments of creativity, imagination and enhanced states of being. Have you experienced a eureka moment? Maybe you’ve been trying to solve a problem or come up with an idea, but nothing seems to work. Then later, you’re cooking, cleaning or completing another everyday task, before suddenly, a brilliant idea or solution pops up out of nowhere.
Being bored also helps us build social connections, by prompting us to have conversations with those around us. Talking with friends and family becomes more effortless when we’re not focusing on our phones or our problems. Lastly, boredom can also end up helping us deal with stress, by offering opportunities for relaxation. Instead of looking for distractions on social media, at work, or on the news, try taking a break from it all. Switch off your phone, let your mind relax and take in your surroundings. Try to cultivate a beginner’s mind and allow yourself to become curious. When you’re bored, embrace activities such as journaling, exercising, organising your environment and thinking about your goals, all of which can benefit your mental health.
Excessively using your phone has the opposite effect on the human brain to boredom. Taking out your phone every time you’re bored or feeling uncomfortable does not relax the mind. You might get some temporary escape from the boredom, but this only feeds your monkey brain and makes it more difficult to control. Ultimately, temporary relaxation and long-lasting peace of mind are two very different things. Let’s look at some things that you can do to start taming your chaotic monkey mind.
The Default Mode Network
The default mode network (DMN) is a group of brain regions that are active when we are not focused on any specific task. This network was discovered by accident when researchers noticed high levels of brain activity in participants who were supposed to be resting quietly. The DMN is thought to be responsible for our “default” or habitual thoughts and behaviours, such as daydreaming, mind-wandering, and remembering past experiences. This network includes the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and inferior parietal lobule.
The DMN is also thought to be involved in self-referential processing, such as thinking about the self, thinking about one’s own thoughts and feelings, remembering the past and planning for the future.
The research suggested that the default mode of the mind is not one of rest and relaxation, but rather one of activity and productivity. This was a surprising finding because it was previously thought that the brain’s default state involved “resting” or “dozing” in an effort to conserve energy. The implications of this research are that the brain is not always in a passive or resting state, but rather it actively constructs our experience and behaviour.
On the other hand, when we are engaged in any activity another network is activated. The task-positive network (TPN) is a neural network that is responsible for our conscious attention towards the external environment. It helps us process sensory input from our various senses and directs it toward our internal condition. The key to activating your TPN is to intentionally engage it and allow natural physiology to disengage your default mode network (DMN). When the TPN is activated, it allows us to be present in the moment and enjoy the here-and-now. It also helps us focus on what we’re doing, which is a critical aspect of mindfulness.
Scientists are just now confirming what Buddhists have recognised for years: the DMN is the brain’s “monkey mind” because of its tendency to jump from idea to idea without any intentional direction or focus.
8 Ways To Tame Your Monkey Mind
The benefits of meditation range from reducing stress to tackling anxiety, decreasing blood pressure to increasing productivity. And meditation is effective because it has the exact opposite effect of the monkey mind. Mindfulness meditation techniques are able to change the way our brains operate, with processes such as self-directed neuroplasticity allowing us to literally change the structures of our own brains. Neuroplasticity represents the ‘muscle-building’ part of the human brain — what we practise becomes stronger, and what we don’t practice becomes weaker.
You don’t need an in-depth action plan. A few minutes of quiet meditation each morning will set you up for the rest of your day and help you develop a consistent practice in your daily life. Meditation can be used to tame your monkey mind and teach you how to deal with stress and anxiety more healthily. Popular forms of meditation include breathwork, body scanning, noting practices, focused attention and more. If you’re not sure which meditation style is for you, watch our video to find a suitable technique for you.
Journaling is an excellent way to decrease the presence of recurring and distracting thoughts. The human mind is constantly spinning, throwing ideas and problems around; writing something down frees up space in your mind and reduces the dominance of certain negative thoughts. Don’t worry if you’ve never written a diary before; you don’t have to come up with a definitive book about anxiety, but recording your thoughts and feelings on paper can be a great way of helping you cope with them.
Another effective technique to use before bed is a brain dump, in which you write down anything and everything that’s on your mind. Seeing it on paper can help you realise what’s in your control and prioritise what’s important. Decide on a time that works best for you and incorporate it into your daily routine.
How often do we genuinely work through individual tasks one at a time, rather than multitasking and getting nothing done? Instead of just going for a walk and taking in our surroundings, we’ll listen to a podcast, text friends, or take pictures along the way. This just adds to mental chatter and increases the loudness of the monkey brain.
Instead of doing multiple tasks simultaneously, try to focus on one thing at a time. We also might think we’re being more productive by multitasking at work; however, the truth is, this has a negative effect on our productivity and mental health.
Recognising that multitasking doesn’t work and focusing on tasks individually can help reduce constant thinking and enhance your sense self-awareness. When you’re eating food, genuinely enjoy it and take in each flavour. If you’re cleaning your room, try cleaning it without listening to anything and see if you did the job better or faster. By focusing on one task at a time, we become less distracted and more able to retain focus.
4. Choose how you react.
You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you react. Crucially, you should make an effort to respond thoughtfully, rather than reacting emotionally. This is a common thread amongst stoic philosophers and mindfulness practitioners. Instead of worrying about something you can’t control, choose to worry about things you can control. And whatever is out of your control, you can choose how you react to it.
5. Use an affirmation or prayer.
There’s a reason why prayers, affirmations and mantras have been around for thousands of years. They help to soothe the mind and bring a sense of comfort, particularly in times of pressure, stress or difficulty. They also help interrupt the monkey mind and break up any recurring thoughts you might be experiencing, by giving you some sort of anchor, mantra or thought to think of and return to.
Try to choose something positive, or think of something that you’re grateful for. Repeat this sentence, either in your head or aloud, engaging all of your senses and reminding yourself that you are good enough.
6. Offline activities
The internet is an endless rabbit hole, and it’s the perfect place for your monkey mind to grow and become more of a distraction. By forcing yourself to go offline for a sustained period on a regular basis, you’re giving your mind a break from constant comparisons and anxiety-inducing posts on social media, shocking news stories from all over the world, and the heavy demands of your work. By choosing to embrace offline activities such as exercising, playing an instrument or reading, you’re choosing to engage and challenge your mind. And you can even use these moments to improve your understanding of your own mind. For example, you could read Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, an honest and insightful book about anxiety, its causes, effects and potential cures, by American author Daniel Smith, or you could attend an in-person class or lecture about the brain’s psychology, or about how to sleep better. There are plenty of things you can do to get away from the internet’s harmful distractions.
7. Breathing exercises
If you ever have an experience with anxiety or become overwhelmed by your thoughts or experiences, breathing exercises can be an excellent way of increasing feelings of relaxation, energisation, and present moment awareness. Here’s a quick guide to Box Breathing, which is a useful technique that ticks all those boxes:
- Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
- Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
- Exhale for 4 seconds
You can do 10 rounds of this exercise before returning to a normal breathing rhythm.
8. Talk to someone that will listen
The old saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” communicates the idea that sharing the burden of your thoughts and problems with other people reduces how much of an effect they have on you. By having more mindful conversations, you’re organising your thoughts and explaining the reasoning behind them. Leaving the monkey mind to control your thoughts means that your ideas will just bounce around in your head, and a solution will never be found. This is why talking with someone and journaling is so effective. These techniques can help you find a solution and hopefully feel much more positive about your situation.
Monkey Mind vs Monk Mind
We have seen that the Monkey mind is restless, unruly, and hard to control. But we are not bound by our monkey minds. An analogy can be drawn between a monkey’s mind and that of a monk. A monk is someone who has renounced worldly things in order to devote themselves to training their minds. We can also focus on seeking knowledge, practising meditation, and being present even without going to a monastery. As a result, we will be able to break free from our monkey minds and live more effectively in the world.
Here’s an example of the main differences between the Monkey mind and the Monk Mind:
- Jumps from thought to thought
- Goes where it’s taken
- Compares and criticises
- Tendency to overthink and procrastinate
- Easily distracted by small things
- Looks only for pleasure
- Searches for temporary fixes
- Reacts impulsively
- Focused on what is important at each moment
- Can be directed intentionally and consciously
- Caring and compassionate
- Has a sense of perspective
- Looks for meaning
- Looks for genuine solutions
- Responds appropriately
Learning to live with your monkey mind
We all have a monkey mind, and we all have to learn to live with it, whether we are aware of this part of the human psyche or not. When it comes to improving mental well-being, learning to manage your monkey mind is one of the most beneficial things that you can do. Take some time out each day to think about how focused or distracted you feel. Pay attention to your thoughts, identifying which ones occur most frequently, and make a real effort to understand them. While we might feel like we have no control over our thoughts, stress or focus, the truth is we do.
The problem is, in today’s world, attention is a form of currency. Social media companies, the news and big tech are all constantly after your attention. They want to distract you constantly, and stop you from ever experiencing a dull moment. But these dull moments and boredom can have huge benefits. As we covered earlier, boredom is essential for our mental health, because it gives us time and space to look inward and be truly present within our environment and within our interactions. Do you want to learn to control your monkey mind with the help of meditation? Try out our free meditation course today.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.