Are you prone to distraction — or just wish you could focus at work for longer periods of time? Your problem has a name: monkey mind.
Being able to sustain your attention in a steady and prolonged way is one of the keys to having a successful career. But, that’s often much easier said than done.
Human minds tend to wander. It’s easy to jump from one thought to the next, and that can make concentrating at work — or anywhere else for that matter — something of a challenge. Thankfully, there are ways to tame your “monkey mind” both on and off of the meditation cushion.
What is monkey mind?
In order to unpack this concept, it’s best to start at the beginning. It might seem as though having a racing mind is a modern problem. But, evidently, that’s not the case. The idea of a monkey mind has been around for quite a while. According to the Samyutta Nikaya, a Buddhist scripture, the Buddha mentioned the concept in his teachings more than 2,500 years ago.
“Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way what’s called ‘mind,’ ‘intellect,’ or ‘consciousness’ by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.” SN 12.61
The Mahayana Buddhist teachings in China and Japan have talked about the “monkey mind” specifically for at least 1,500 years. And, the metaphor has also been adopted widely since then, even in the West, especially in recent decades. Today, the phrase is employed in poetry, literature and in popular culture, to refer to the unsettled or restless nature of the mind.
Our thoughts tend to jump from one thing to the next — swinging between one branch of thought to another ceaselessly and often to our own detriment. You may find that this is especially noticeable at work when you’re trying to stay focused and get something done. Rather than lingering on one singular point of focus, the monkey mind propels you to move on to thinking about the next thing, and the next and the next.
The whole process can be more than a little exhausting. It can often feel as though there’s nothing you can do about your racing mind — but that’s not the case.
You can tame your monkey mind
There are many Buddhist mediation practices aimed specifically at calming the monkey mind. But, you don’t have to stick to ancient traditions to benefit from meditation. Even just sitting quietly for a few minutes a day can help you to be more focused and feel better in general. The specific technique you use doesn’t matter as much as finding your way toward a regular, preferably daily, meditation practice.
Many studies have identified scientifically proven benefits to meditation. Not only does it lengthen the attention span, it also helps to reduce stress and anxiety and improves memory, just to name a few benefits.
You can expect profound results when you invest some time in the process of learning meditation, or deepening the practice you already have. Yes, you’ll be able to focus more reliably. But, the benefits won’t stop there. Meditation can help you to live as the best version of yourself more consistently, personally as well as professionally.
Having a meditation practice is great. But, what about the other 23½ hours of the day? How do you stay more present and in the moment then? This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness will help to calm your monkey mind because it’s a practice that encourages you to be in the present more. Think about the kinds of ideas that tend to distract you. What is the nature of the branches that your monkey swings to? If you’re like most people, they’re thoughts of the past and of the future. You’re distracted by your thoughts and feelings about something that happened previously. Or, you’re thinking about what could happen in the future. The monkey mind is not present in the moment.
Making an effort to be here now can go a long way. You can do this in all kinds of ways. For example, try setting up specific times to go over your schedule and make plans for the future. Then, if you notice your monkey mind trying to grab a planning branch, you can pull the thought back by reminding yourself that you have times set aside for that. This is also a really great time to remind yourself about the importance of being present. Similarly, if you find yourself lingering on thoughts of the past, remind yourself that it’s counterproductive and return to whatever is going on here and now.
Learning to be more mindful takes practice. But, even a little improvement can go a long way. For extra inspiration, try going for a walk outside or just spending time in nature in any way you enjoy. This is a great way to relax and get into the present moment.
“The energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present and at one with those around you and with what you are doing.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
3. Be more compassionate, especially with yourself
Sometimes, folks dodge the reality of the present moment because facing it is difficult. So, if you want to quiet your monkey mind and be less prone to distraction, it helps to practice self-compassion.
Perfectionists tend to oscillate between lingering on negative thoughts and feelings about the past and wrestling with fears about the future. If this sounds familiar, recognize that it really isn’t great to be a perfectionist — these tendencies aren’t doing you any favors. Then, find some self-compassion. All humans make mistakes, even you. The key is to learn from them and move on. Forgive yourself and get back to the business of what’s going on in there here and now.
Similarly, lack of compassion for others can cause anger about the past or anxiety about the future to rev up your monkey mind. Work toward letting these difficult feelings go, too. It will help you to be less distracted and more present for the good moments at work and in the rest of your life.
Forgiving others will get easier and easier as you learn to be less hard on yourself. After all, if you hold yourself to a super-high (maybe even impossible) standard, then you probably do the same thing to everybody else, too.
4. Be really present with people
Working toward being more fully present with other people can go a long way toward helping you calm your monkey mind. It will also probably do wonders for your career, all on its own. People tend to respond very positively to folks who have great interpersonal skills.
Take a deep breath and remind yourself to really listen when you’re interacting with someone else. Make connecting with them and staying engaged in the conversation a top priority. Other thoughts can fall to the side. Make a point to really engage when you’re interacting with people, both at work and beyond. You’ll feel calmer and more relaxed if you do. And, your relationships will surely benefit as a result as well.
5. Find time to just relax
Calming your monkey mind isn’t exactly the kind of goal you can pursue in the way you go after other objectives. After all, if you’re working hard at calming down, you’re kind of missing the point.
So, if learning to settle your monkey mind more reliably is really your goal, be sure to find some time to just relax during your off hours. Don’t schedule mediation sessions for these times. Don’t worry about being super present, or anything else for that matter. Just prioritize your own relaxation. Keep in mind that certain forms of “entertainment” may be exhilarating, but they aren’t exactly relaxing. For example, watching a scary movie might be fun. But, it won’t help you mellow out. Choose activities that are more soothing. Maybe even try stepping away from your devices once in a while. Doing so can go a long way toward helping you to feel calmer and more relaxed.
Sure, meditation, mindfulness and other techniques can help you to feel better at work and beyond. But cultivating the ability to be more fully present in your life is a positive step on its own. Life is so short. There are so many good reasons to work toward learning to be more fully awake as you move through it.
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