Monkey Mind and Mindfulness

MonkeyMindIt seems fair to say that everyone has, at one point in their life, had an experience of “monkey mind” where their thoughts were frantically jumping from thought to thought. “Monkey Mind” is a term from Buddhism that describes that unsettling state of mind where our thoughts seem to be like a monkey swinging from limb to limb. When we are in such a state, our thoughts distract us from what is happening in the present moment, and some of us may even find ourselves feeling paralyzed from the anxiety.

Think of a time when you felt that way. What do you notice in your body when you reflect back to this experience? What thoughts or emotions rise to the surface when you think back to this time? For myself, I notice my breath becoming tight and shallow, and I sense a tightness in my abdomen. I also become really restless- unconsciously rubbing my hands or fingers together and needing to move around.

Being in a continuous state of distraction, which seems to be easier and easier to do in a society that promotes impulsivity, impacts our ability to accomplish that which we want to accomplish in our lives. This, in turn, can result in a loop of negative feedback where we judge and criticize our worthiness. A while back when I was feeling in a state of creative paralysis, I become inspired to write a song. It is a blues-inspired song that I called, “Monkey Mind.”

Below are the lyrics:

My thoughts are all muddled.
I haven’t got a clue.
Inside my heart is racing,
I don’t know what to do!

Monkey mind…
Swinging around inside.
Monkey mind…
Let me be still and I’ll see what I find.

Sometimes when I think
That I’m not good enough,
Instead of despair
I pull myself up a chair!

Monkey mind…
Swinging around inside.
Monkey mind…
When I am still
Then I see greater mind!

I gain so much clarity
When I just take the time
To come back to myself and my breath
And to tap into luminous mind!

Monkey mind…
Swinging around inside.
Monkey mind…
When I’m still…
And I breathe…
I see that everything’s fine!

An intention for writing the song was to sing the virtues of engaging in mindfulness meditation through coming back to the experience of breathing. Consciously reconnecting with our breath can help us to slow down in order for us to recognize that the fleeting thoughts/feelings/fantasies we have are simply thoughts/feelings/fantasies; they only have the power that we assign to them. The act of naming a thought a “thought,” or a feeling a “feeling” can help unhook us from the story that accompanies the thoughts and feelings. This, in turn, helps us to get unhooked from our personal perspective to a transpersonal perspective, a point of view that is larger than our individual selves.

Over the years I have become better able to recognize when my “monkey mind” is racing and when I’m on the verge of mental overwhelm. This is because I developed a mindfulness practice for myself as part of my clinical training at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Mindfulness practice, as taught by Chögyam Trungpa, was core to my studies as a music therapist and counselor, and as a result, the concept of mindfulness is foundational to my clinical and professional work.

The benefits of engaging in mindfulness practices are becoming better known amongst the public. Research is suggesting that mindfulness can have positive effects on our mental and physical states. In this series on mindfulness, I will further explore mindfulness practice from the Shambhala tradition I was trained in during my clinical studies. As well, I will examine the science and the art of mindfulness, with particular emphasis on ways that I incorporate mindfulness into my music therapy work.

A good place for us to begin on this journey is to first recognize the monkey that sometimes takes up residence in our minds. May your monkey become tamer as we go along.

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