There’s a Buddhist phrase “Mind Monkey” that is used to describe the restlessness and capriciousness of our brains, the way they often refuse to quiet down and jump from one subject to the next with little care or intention. Lucky me, I have not just one Mind Monkey but a whole cast of them in my head, and their chatter can accompany me like the broadcast on a radio that I carry around in my pocket with the volume turned on high. In moments of peacefulness and satisfaction, their voices quiet down, but in times of stress or anxiety, their voices can grow so loud that they drown out every other aspect of my experience. Confident on their throne of entitlement and authority, they hand down observations, plans, and edicts like monarchs on speed.
Each monkey plays a unique role and has its own personality. There’s the Taskmaster with his stopwatch, commenting on whether I’m accomplishing everything I’m supposed to with adequate speed and thoroughness. There’s the Judge (or Inner Critic) who provides quality control for the Taskmaster, comparing my output with an infinite checklist of rules and standards and pointing out ways in which they don’t match up. There’s the Storyteller, a keen analyst who observes what’s happening and tells me stories about what it all means. There’s also the Planner (always prepared, that one), the Unsolicited Adviser (overly generous with his suggestions), and the Fearmonger (who keeps his binoculars to the horizon scanning for evidence of problems that might lie ahead).
I’ll give you an example of how they all work together:
This morning I woke up in a particularly bad mood. Just as I began to notice how tired and irritated I felt, the chorus began.
“My, my, somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” said the Storyteller. “You clearly didn’t go to bed early enough last night.”
“You always do that,” added the Judge. “You don’t take care of yourself properly. You know the importance of rest, but you still don’t get enough. And now look what you’ve done. You’re grumping all over yourself and ruining your day, not to mention everyone else’s.”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure other people don’t like it when you’re cranky,” agreed the Fearmonger, its voice shrill with panic. “People are going to stop liking you if you can’t get yourself in a better mood.”
“So true,” said the Unsolicited Adviser, shaking his head. “You should really get more sleep and try not to be so irritable.”
“And so you will,” said the Planner, rapping his knuckles on my schedule. “Tonight we’re going to finish up early and then you’re going straight to bed, young lady, by 10:00 at the latest.”
“All this chatter,” complained the Taskmaster, “and you haven’t even started breakfast yet. Will you please get busy so you can get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight and be a decent human being tomorrow?”
“Unlikely,” concluded the Storyteller. “It’s not in your nature. You can’t help being pissy any more than you can get enough rest.”
And with that, I found myself tensing up, irritated with where the conversation was heading. Missing nothing, the Judge immediately took note and added its two cents. “See,” it says, “there you go again. Instead of getting better, you just made things a whole lot worse.”
And on it goes. We all have some variation of this motley crew in our heads. Sometimes we recognize their voices as independent from our own; other times we identify with their concerns or perspectives so completely that we don’t even notice that we’re using their voicesd to speak to ourselves. Everyone’s cast of characters is different, but they all have something to say, and as we walk around life it’s easy to stay enmeshed in our heads listening to their ongoing chatter. What personalities do you carry around with you? What is each one concerned about, and how does it address its concerns?
Given that these characters are so often bullying and insensitive, why do we tolerate them? And who invited them in in the first place?
We did, because at some point we thought we needed the help of experts, and they promised to mediate our experiences with things that we find difficult, unpleasant, and potentially overwhelming. If we’re thinking about something, analyzing and trying to fix it, we’re avoiding or at least mitigating the pain of experiencing it. Too often we don’t trust ourselves to handle a painful experience or feeling. We don’t trust ourselves to know what to do in difficult situations, so we look to our Mind Monkeys to analyze the situation based on past experience and tell us what to do. Even if we know what to do, we don’t trust ourselves to actually do it successfully, so again we employ other monkeys to watch over our efforts and make sure we don’t fail.
The trouble with monkeys is, they’re stuck in the past and distorted by fear. All they know they learned when we were helpless children, which is why when we listen to them, we often feel powerless and fearful. They’re scared because they think we’re dependent on others to provide for our needs, as we were when we were children. They don’t want to let us alienate anyone or take any risks or do anything wrong because that would risk our very survival. They’re stuck in the past and can’t see the beautiful, talented, and capable adults that we have all become.
Given our sense of powerlessness, does that mean we’re stuck listening to their invasive and domineering commentary? Not at all. We may feel helpless in their presence, but the truth of the matter is that they’re only as powerful as we let them be.
The Monkey Kings get their power when we think we need them. We think we need them when we are avoiding our experience. If we can stay with our experience without trying to change it or fix it, they are no longer necessary. Their voices do not always disappear, but it’s as if someone has turned down the volume. We recognize their cacophony for exactly what it is: harmless chatter.
The experience we’re trying to stay with may be one of sadness, regret, irritation, anger, boredom, dissatisfaction, loneliness, jealousy, grief, fear, or intense vulnerability. Or it may be quiet and peaceful. We may feel anxious about it, and we may not want to feel it or become aware of what’s causing it. But the more we are able to let ourselves experience our state, notice what it’s like and be curious about what it has to tell us (difficult states always have something to tell us), the more powerful we are and the less we need our panel of experts to act on our behalf. (For an amazing book on how we can open up to the teachings of difficult states, I highly recommend Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are.)
Our mind monkeys may want to get in on the process, but it’s not about having a monkey command us to quiet down and stay with our experience. This is different from actually experiencing something in the same way that telling yourself to relax is different from actually relaxing. Focusing our awareness on our breath, feeling into our bodies and noticing what sensations are there, or asking ourselves what we’re feeling and what that’s like can all be good places to start. So can dancing, yoga, journaling, meditation, or other expressive or physical activity that requires being present in the moment.
Eventually the Monkey Kings stop believing in their own divine right and start trusting us to experience and respond appropriately to our situation without their endless edicts and advice.
So this morning, after listening to the conversation in my head for a few minutes, I went back to noticing my experience. I noticed what a foul mood I was in.
“Wow, I’m feeling really tired and irritable. I wonder what I should do?” The monkeys started up again, but this time I knew the answer: what I needed to do was feel tired and irritable. So I did. And the more I settled into my bad mood, the less intense it felt. Eventually it occurred to me that I was neglecting some of my needs. It was an effortless realization–it just surfaced on its own–but suddenly I was aware that I had been trying so hard to be responsible and take care of myself and the people around me that I hadn’t been very spontaneous or indulgent or asked for any support for myself recently. And bingo–now we’re at the heart of the issue.
That’s usually how it happens. When I’m in my experience instead of fighting it in my head with a battalion of monkeys, it tends to resolve itself quite effortlessly. Not painlessly, but effortlessly. The monkeys settle down, the volume is turned to low, and I’m free to do exactly what I need to.