Do you occasionally find it hard to concentrate? Are there days where you feel like there’s a million things running through your mind? Do your trains of thought keep getting derailed by some new worry or question suddenly popping up in your head? Don’t go ape over it: that’s probably your monkey mind going bananas.
The Monkey Mind
In order to explain what meditation is and what it can do for you, it helps to explain what the monkey mind is. It’s a concept from Buddhism that describes the restlessness of our inner thoughts. Buddhist philosophers compared the anxieties, daydreams, and tangents that fill our mind to a group of drunken monkeys that distract us with their incessant chattering. The art of mindfulness is learning to quiet those monkeys so you can be as close to a state of no-thought as possible.
If that sounds like an odd concept to grasp, take a moment to observe your thoughts the next time you have a quiet moment. You may be surprised at how busy our minds can be when they have little to occupy them. We start thinking about the weather or an itch on our leg or whether our crush likes us or random ideas like, “ I start reading more” or worries like, “Did I leave the oven on?” or “What was the name of the actor in that one TV show I watched all the time in high school?” and so on and so on. That is monkey mind in action.
Giving the Monkeys a Banana
Meditation is a practice you can use to give those noisy monkeys a banana and calm them down for a while. While meditation has its roots in spiritual practices like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shinto (with equivalent Western practices of contemplation and mindful prayer in certain schools of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the practice itself can be secular and requires no spiritual belief. It also requires no special equipment to do. As wellness practices go, it’s one of the cheapest and most accessible things you can do to improve your health.
In short: meditating is the act of trying not to think. There are many different types of meditation: some require you to be in a seated position, while others incorporate movement. The basic approach is to be in the present moment, focus on what your body is doing and how you feel, and to let the thoughts in your head pass you by without dwelling on them (like your mind is a body of water and thoughts are just little fishes swimming by). You try to keep your mind clear so that you’re not thinking about the future or worrying about what you did wrong today or dwelling on a past slight or nostalgic daydream. You’re just focused on where you are at that moment. If that sounds a bit like being bored, you’re not wrong. It can be boring at times. The trick is to push past that boredom, to resist the impulse to distract yourself, to fidget and twitch, and stay focused on your mindfulness.
In terms of specifics: a simple way to meditate is to sit cross-legged, eyes open or closed, and to stay in that spot for 5-7 minutes. In that time frame, you can either try to not think about anything or you can choose to focus on something to quiet your mind. Your breathing is a great way to do that. Focus on your breath going in and out, feel the air circulating through your body. Any time you start to feel the monkeys chittering, redirect to focus on your breath. Another way to meditate is by counting in your head. That’s all you have to do: just maintain a consistent count. If a thought comes in (“Oh, did I pay my electric bill?!”), start the count over again.
There are also visual meditations where you can either picture an object in your mind (like a red circle) or gaze at something in front of you like a candle or houseplant or piece of art. You can also do a guided meditation with an app where you hear soft music and a narrator guide your journey through a landscape you can imagine in your mind.
What’s Wrong With Some Monkey Business?
Why is this “monkey mind” a bad thing? It’s not a bad thing, necessarily: our minds are busy and active because we live lives full of stimuli that challenge and engage us. But all that mental noise can overwhelm us at times, leading to stress, anxiety, and poor decision making. One of meditation's most powerful benefits is to reduce stress.
Studies have also found that meditation can improve our attention span. A distracted mind is a mind that has to work harder to concentrate; meditating on a regular basis can build up that attention muscle, giving you an aptitude for deeper focus. Research finds that frequent meditation increases blood flow to the brain, which helps form a stronger network of blood vessels in the cortex that reinforces our capacity for memory. Not only can meditating make you better at paying attention, it can enhance your ability to retain information.
Meditation could also help you sleep better. Sleep studies have found that the state of relaxation meditation induces in our bodies can be effective at helping to mitigate insomnia and improve our quality of sleep.
Article by Austin Brietta
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