Can You Not Stop Thinking?

Quieting the monkey mind isn’t as complicated as you think.

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Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

I woke up in the middle of the night in a panic.

An offer I had put on a condo had just been accepted and I was in the middle of the “cooling down” period. Where I live, this is a 7-day window during which the buyer has the option to back out of the deal.

I had spent a couple of hours the night before reviewing my finances and the condo documents, and the situation was stressing the hell out of me.

As I laid there in bed, eyes wide open, questions and emotions were crashing through my mind. What if my mortgage payments stretch me too thin? What if the building suddenly requires major repairs and I have to pay a huge lump sum? What if I discover a ton of problems with the condo itself? What if I end up hating it?

Needless to say, I didn’t fall back asleep that night.

Does this ever happen to you? Does your mind get stuck in loops of thinking that you just can’t seem to get out of?

Maybe it’s not real estate that gets you going. Maybe it’s your job that’s stressing you out. Maybe it’s your marriage. Maybe it’s your kids. Maybe it’s school. Whatever it is, most of us don’t escape this kind of hellish thinking.

The question is, what can we do about it?

Are we really helpless in the face of our stressed-out minds? Are we destined to spend countless days of our lives struggling to cope with what the Buddha called “the monkey mind”?

The short answer is, no. This doesn’t have to be our fate.

In fact, the solution isn’t even complicated. It’s just not easy.

Your brain “at rest”

When you aren’t focused on any task in particular, when the mind is at “rest”, there are specific regions of your brain that rev up. These brain regions are collectively called the default mode network. The functions of this network include self-referential thinking, remembering the past, and imagining the future.

Experiments have shown that the “resting” brain is nearly as active as a brain focussed on a specific task. Does that surprise you?

In your moments of “downtime”, what does your mind turn to? Does it ruminate on your past mistakes and embarrassments or anxiously anticipate the future?

And when you’re absorbed in an activity, like playing sports, cooking dinner, or talking with your best friend, doesn’t all that kind of thinking often go away?

We already know we can somewtimes quiet the monkey mind. But, is there more we can do to shut those damn monkeys up?

Focus on the present

These days, it’s all about being present.

Live in the moment, they say.

And, while this might sound like a great idea, do we really know what this means? And, even if we do, do we have the ability to live like this on a regular basis?

Being present and living in the moment are related to something called mindfulness. You’ve probably heard this word a million times by now, but people rarely go into any detail about what it means.

Essentially, mindfulness is the skill of being able to observe your mind, to see its inner workings, and to discover its idiosyncrasies. Like riding a bike, it’s not something that we’re born good at. It takes work to develop.

What does being mindful have to do with quieting the monkey mind? It turns out that practicing mindfulness (for example, by meditating) quiets the default mode network, the part of our brain responsible for all that relentless chatter.

Interestingly, practicing mindfulness not only quiets the default mode network when you’re practicing but the effect continues even when you’re not practicing. This means that the more you practice being mindful, the more it spills over into your everyday life. The more it spills over, the more relief you’ll have from the monkey mind.

Why it’s so hard to be mindful

Our brains are amazing machines but, for better or worse, they become what we train them to become. As Aristotle famously expressed, we are what we repeatedly do.

By default, our brains seem to be unmindful. As a result, we have unwittingly trained the very monkeys that drive us mad.

Thankfully, our minds are plastic — they adapt to the circumstances presented to them. This is called neuroplasticity, and it’s a wonderful thing. It’s what allows us to learn new information and behaviours.

However, just because we can change, doesn’t mean we will. While the brain has the ability to change, it won’t change willy-nilly. You know this from experience. Have you ever tried to start a new habit, like getting regular exercise or starting a writing practice? The brain resists.

It’s useful to know that the brain resists change because knowledge, as they say, is power. What use is it knowing that our brains resist change? It’s useful because now you know the reason it’s so hard to change. It’s not that you’re weak or lack willpower. It’s that any kind of change is hard. Period.

So, when you try to practice mindfulness, keep this in mind: your mind will rebel, and it will rebel hard.

The good news? Practicing mindfulness isn’t all that complicated.

So, how can we get started?

How to be mindful

When I talk to people about mindfulness and meditation, I realize just how much misunderstanding there is about these topics. So, I’ll start by mentioning what mindfulness is not.

Some people think that mindfulness and meditation are about blanking out the mind — stopping all thoughts and emotions from arising. This is not the purpose of either.

I’ve heard others say that they “practice” mindfulness while, say, walking or cooking. While it is possible to practice mindfulness doing any activity, if you don’t have experience in practicing more simple forms of mindfulness, you’re probably not actually being mindful. In fact, you’re probably just lost in thought.

If you want to be mindful, you need to practice. You need to do the work.

I think the best place to start is to observe your breathing, which is a form of mindfulness meditation.

Set a timer for a minute or two, and focus your attention on your in- and out-breaths. Feel your chest or diaphragm rise and fall. Hear the breath leaving and entering your nose. Follow your breaths all the way in and all the way out.

When your mind wanders off (and it will!) simply bring your focus back to your breath.

Remember: your brain resists change and it can be very convincing when it wants to be. It will kick and scream and try everything to convince you to stop. It will tell you you’re wasting your time. It will tempt you with videogames, TV shows, and food. It will make you feel restless and anxious.

This is normal. Try to simply observe all those thoughts and feelings and allow them to pass, then re-focus on your breathing.

I want to mention that this will not come naturally to you. You will not become an Olympic-class meditator overnight. If anything, it will be so hard that you’ll probably think, this just isn’t for me.

But, if you do think this, know that you’re not alone. Everyone who has ever tried to be mindful has had this experience.

If you can endure these challenges it will be totally worth it. You will look back on your journey and be so grateful that you didn’t give up.

Because, in time, the monkeys in your mind will begin to settle. Instead of crazily swinging through the branches of your mind, they will become more calm and subdued.

You will have taught them discipline and patience, and you will have earned your peace.

Thanks for reading!

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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