Friday, October 28, 2016

Meditation and Stress Reduction: Avoiding the Monkey Mind

Meditation is very common.  Maybe we all know at least one person by now who does it.  For many, it just means sitting still and being quite for awhile.  For others, it's a way to slow the breath, lower the heart rate, and reduce anxiety.  But what a lot of people don't realize about meditation is that its main purpose is not only to become aware of the thinking that races on inside of our heads, but to practise the art of not getting carried away by that thinking.

One common analogy is to imagine yourself looking out at the horizon while sitting on a beach.  As you look out over the ocean's surface, you imagine a boat entering your view from the left.  You notice the boat as it meanders across the surface of the horizon to the right, until slowly it vanishes off the screen of your mind, out of sight and "out of mind".

In the same way, thoughts also enter our mind as we meditate.  For instance, the grocery list might come to mind just like the boat when it entered your view.  If we are skilled at meditation, we can notice the thought and then watch it fade from our mind, just like watching the boat on the horizon as it meandered out of view.

However, what tends to happen with many of us instead, is that we might notice the thought of the grocery list, and that makes us think of something else which distracts our thinking mind.  The thought of the list leads to thinking about getting gas in the car while we're out, and then we recall we haven't put a certain item on that list and we worry we might forget.  That might lead us to think about an elderly relative that had memory problems and so we wonder what we will be like when we get old.

On and on the thoughts go until we are off track and the mind is racing.  This is commonly called the Monkey Mind, because it is jumping from "branch to branch" (or thought to thought), just like a monkey does.  And where the mind goes, the feelings follow.  So if the mind is jumping from one stressful thought to another, the body will not be as relaxed as it might be if we were doing something more focused with our mind, such as counting the breath.

Meditation takes practise, but you can get much better at it with steady repetition.  Here is a simple exercise to try when you have a little time:

After you've settled into your usual meditation posture and taken a few breaths, imagine that as you breathe, you can actually see each number right in front of you, as if each were projected on the back of your closed eyelids.  1...2...3... and so on.  When you get to 10, begin to see the numbers in reverse order, such as 10...9...8... and so on, until you are back to 1, and then repeat.  If you are not really a visual person, or have problems imagining things visually, then imagine the sound instead.  Imagine your voice, or another woman or man's voice saying the numbers as you count, "one"..."two"..."three", etc.  If you find that you have gotten off track or some distracting thought (like the grocery list) has entered your mind, just notice it, and then return to the beginning and start all over again.

It's very important to not be too hard on yourself when doing these exercises.  They should be done with a nonjudgmental intention, and a large dose of self compassion.  Don't beat  yourself up with thoughts like, "I messed up again", or "I just can't get this right".  Just notice when you've gone off track, and return to the beginning and start over.

Thanks to Brian Carson for his great photo - Morning Meditation