Taming the Monkey Mind

by Mike Shea on 16 March 2013

"Monkey Mind: A Buddhist term meaning 'unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable'."

- Wikipedia: Monkey Mind

"Had he been a Manni holy man, he might not have even been thirsty; he could have watched his own body dehydrate with clinical, detached attention, watering its crevices and dark inner hollows only when his logic told him it must be done."

- Stephen King, The Gunslinger

30 Second Summary

We all feel anxiety at different points in our life. We might feel that tightening knot in our stomach as a flash of panic hits us or wake up with a work problem first and foremost on our mind. When minor anxiety hits us, there are a few things we can do to help deal with it. Here are a few:

Time for the Disclaimer

I'm no shrink, and there are over 24,000 books on handling anxiety. Anxiety and panic attacks can be a real problem, not just some first-world problem for white collar "knowledge workers" (I use quotes to keep my feet out of the bullshit). If anxiety is getting in the way of your life, this article isn't what you need. If anxiety, depression, and panic is a real problem, seek professional help. This article is a way for me to bring my thoughts together on the topic, poke and prod the ideas in public, and find what works best for smaller bouts of non-debilitative anxiety.

On Anxiety

We all feel anxiety. Regardless of how much we've simplified our life, reduced our inboxes, and focused ourselves on the most important areas of our lives — anxiety still flows in from both seen and unseen forces. It sneaks up while we might be involved in our favorite activities. It manifests as a tightening in the pit of our stomach, a slight flow of adrenaline, or simply a preoccupation on a topic about which we can do very little.

This sort of anxiety is just one of the irrational behaviors of the monkey mind, a general metaphor for the chaos of uncontrolled thought.

Recognize the Monkey Mind

The first thing we can do to deal with the monkey mind is to recognize it for what it is. This is one of the better techniques for dealing with panic attacks. If you can step outside the situation for a moment, step outside your own body, you can look at it and try to understand it. You can look objectively at both the physical and mental effects and any potential causes. Many times these causes do not warrant the effects. This doesn't mean one should disocunt the feelings — we feel however we feel &mdash but it means we can get a better undestanding of why.

Understand What's Really Going On

All of these ideas circle around the idea that we must first understand what is really going on, recognize it as our own problem and not strictly an effect of the situation. This is where we can change the nature of our internal questions from externally focused to internally focused ones. Consider the following:

Now compare to the following:

Internalization helps us move our focus from trying to change the world around us to changing how we behave and act in the world as it is. It's the key idea behind the serenity prayer and the cornerstone of a lot of mental health work.

Analyzing The Situation, Avoiding Decision Paralysis

One of the reason nerds love system like Getting Things Done is that the system returns us to widgets. GTD takes big hairy problems and breaks them down into small simple steps with clear actions that help us move things forward. Breaking down the things that bring us anxiety into small actionable steps helps us turn unknown problems into things we can face.

Sometimes even after you've done all you can do, after you have your actions taken care of, you still have that anxiety. It isn't gone yet. It may not be a big deal in the length of your life or in the history of the solar system but it's a big deal right now. How can you tame the monkey mind that keeps stewing about it?

Find Your Flow

What activity do you do that fully engages your mind? What activity are you best at in your life? What is the activity you perform in which time slips away completely? Those activities are where you find your flow. For me, I find my flow in reading, writing, coding, gaming, watching exellent movies or TV shows.

My mom loves making jewelry and singing in the choir. It doesn't matter if she's in a half-empty church or in front of a bishop. When she gets into the song, she loses sense of everything else. She's "in the zone". She doesn't have time to think about reorganizations at work or some bit of Facebook drama. She's wired in to what she's doing.

Most of us, I believe, have activities like this. We have moments where we completely lose ourselves in a single activity. I have it right now as I write these words — writing self help bullshit is apparently one way I find my flow. What are the things in which you find flow? When do you lose track of time? What activities make you feel like you have total agency and control? What activities take over your whole brain, pushing out the monkey mind and focusing you on the moment?

Find those activities. Embrace them. Write them down. And delve deep into them when the monkey mind gets out of control.