My Monkey Mind Is A Shameless Attention Seeker
Mindfulness is a hot topic right now. As fast as some articles come out extolling the virtues of being in the present moment, others speak of how it’s not the silver bullet for mental and emotional issues. In this post I examine my own 5 years of experience in trying to calm my mind through a combination of regular meditation and mindfulness practice.
I am what is known as a highly sensitive person (HSP). In short this feels as though my senses have been dialled up to 11. It has the upside of meaning I’m extremely empathetic towards other people, am a fast learner and have a great memory. It has the downside of making everyday life very tiring and of course, with such a great memory, making many thoughts hard to shake.
Growing up as a HSP was challenging especially when I saw how other people reacted differently in similar situations. I first noticed it as a teenager at a sleepover with friends (see my article How My Super Sensitive Senses Ruined My Sleep). I struggled to be comfortable enough to even doze let alone fall deeply asleep on the living room floor. It felt as though I had been stripped of the protective mental padding that others invisibly carried around.
Being a sensitive type, and having experienced some very difficult situations in my early adult life, it was easy to fall into the crushing habit of worrying. At this point my mind became my greatest friend and my greatest saboteur. It would step up and comfort me by convincing me that every problem had a solution, I just needed to think a bit harder. It warned me to avoid all the usual addictions people fall into which would only distract me, create greater long-term problems, and of course, weaken my mind. As I congratulated myself on side-stepping those pitfalls, I had unwittingly let the wolf in through the door.
How overthinking took its toll on me.
My name is Mackensie and I am addicted to thinking. It is currently something I can manage but I’m uncertain that it will ever be cured.
Sure enough as the issues passed, the evidence proved that using my mind to think myself out of situation really worked. It had convinced me that I could rely on it for everything. I became very resourceful, and was often congratulated for being so. Surprisingly, my addiction to logic and the ‘next sensible move,’ actually kept my ego in check by constantly reminding me to see things from other people’s points of view. I have always never assumed I’m wholly in the right in any situation. Even now I still constantly ask ‘what have I missed?’ And then stray into hours of rumination.
My thinking affliction grew and was no longer confined to working out solutions to big problems.
Now my mind focussed on every nano-issue going - including the problems of strangers and even fictional TV characters.
I became mentally exhausted. This was when I decided my mind momentum had to be slowed.
My addiction to thinking had an enormous time and energy expense. Every facet of an issue, every possible outcome was pondered, all angles considered, pulled apart and dissected - all just for one solution in the end. It was empowering but ultimately finding answers to problems, big or small, consumed my mind.
So has taking a detached view on my thoughts ‘worked’?
Five years ago, tired of feeling tired, I turned to meditation in an attempt to calm my monster mind. Those years have flown by. Headspace, my mediation app informs me that since I signed up two years ago I have meditated 6734 minutes - an average of 9.5mins every single day.
The central concept of meditating is not expecting any particular outcome - a perfect counterbalance to my constant need to solve everything.
And since I still have A LOT of mind chatter when doing it, it’s fair to say I will not become a monk any time soon. But I do now have a moment in my day where I can give myself permission to put aside thinking and judging - and literally create breathing space. This is where I notice how tight my shoulders are and release them. It’s a powerful reminder to see how mere thoughts create very real physical reactions. Stopping and observing myself creates moments of appreciation. Life is actually pretty good, pretty comfortable and quite humorous - especially when my cat takes this opportunity to jump on my lap and knead my stomach.
Is meditation enough by itself?
From my point of view, the answer is no. With a mind as willful as mine I have to supplement my mind calming with other activities. Logically, doing meditation led onto doing Yoga and, more recently, a dedicated mindfulness practice. As great as it was using meditation to touch base for 10 minutes or so in the morning, the grounding effects soon wore off and by lunchtime my mind was just as acrobatic and exhausting as usual. Especially so when any life crisis flared up.
Throughout this whole process I have begun each day acknowledging and being grateful for having such a keen and curious brain. There’s no need to turn such a useful ally into an enemy.
But I would like it work with me, not at my expense. As author Eckhart Tolle accurately said in his book The Power of Now:
“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use the mind wrongly - you usually don't use it at all. It uses you...You believe that you are the mind...The instrument has taken you over.”
I have begun to see that key to managing my mind is introducing democracy to my day-to-day existence. My mind is no longer the sole dictator.
There is now a parliament that brings together the various semi-autonomous states such as my mind, my body, my ego, my needs, my values and considers their input when thinking about a situation. For example, when I am in the middle of some rumination that my mind has sneakily persuaded me needs to be thought through immediately, but it’s giving me a stomach ache or making me nervous, I ask my mind to adjourn its deliberations until I’m feeling better. I shift my focus and pay close attention to my physical sensations, letting my body have a say in proceedings for a while.
How has my mind reacted to mindfulness practice?
For me personally, the key to a calmer mind is practicing mindfulness. It slows the juggernaut before it has had time to build a head of steam. My mindfulness practice, however, is somewhat of a double-edged sword.
As I continuously remember to bring myself back into the now, it has developed hilariously sneaky ways to get my attention and draw me back into thinking.
It still trips me up into rumination, pretending I haven’t come up solutions to problems when I already have. I noticed that I am ‘forgetting’ solutions I deem to be imperfect or ill thought out. My Significant Other pointed this out to me as we embarked on a conversation he claimed we’d had for at least the 20th time about a particular issue. He had to remind me of the approach we had agreed to take on at least three other separate occasions. For my mind, ‘forgetting’ solutions means the pleasure of going around the thought-loop again. Not to be caught out, I have actually taken to writing out my strategies so I can refer back to them as the need arises - no more need to rework everything anymore; ergo energy and time saved.
Taming the beast: My Monster Mind is now a Monkey Mind.
It’s fair to say that being mindful is surprisingly tiring - like constantly reminding yourself to pay attention or sit up straight. Once this becomes habit, it no doubt becomes easier. I’m already much better acquainted with my mind then I have been throughout most of my life. Its antics have grown amusingly familiar. I have observed some very interesting things, even as I made breakfast this morning:
The ‘now’ is BORING.
My mind finds the present moment incredibly boring. This is not an unusual phenomenon.
When I asked Google why this was so, the search page lit up with results from other people experiencing something similar.
Divine Intervention on the Guru’s Feet forum talks about the strategies of mindfulness with the reminder that “The mind finds this microscopic view of now terribly boring. ‘How can you compare this skimpy moment to the vastness of the past and the future?’ it asks. The mind cannot tolerate boredom, not even a tiny possibility of boredom....It's funny how our minds try to tell us that this or that thought is too important not to think about it. Our minds tell us that we simply cannot wait, for we must think about this now or else there is surely dire consequences.”
I have told my mind the ‘dire consequences’ thing will no longer wash and it has helped a little.
On calm days, when there are no pressing issues to think about my mind is now filled with a mixture of repeating music and snapshots of TV shows or conversations I have had with people.
If it really wants my attention it plays with me, noting my lack of hypervigilance and slipping in the odd gut-churning moment from my past. Thanks brain.
It has taken to childishly attention seeking. As I practice disengaging with negative thoughts it churns out new and unexpected ways to get my attention such as random vocabulary from Spanish and German lessons - all as if to say 'Look, I learnt this! See, I can remember. Now pay attention to how great I am!!’ This is the reason I had the words 'eine Schürze’ (german for ‘an apron’….of all things) rolling around my head as I washed my face this morning. I questioned its relevance and let it go.
Just now when I took a break, it was trying to outsmart me by bringing words into my mind for which I don’t even remember the translation. What does ‘die Vergangenheit’ mean again? Dammit, I have been suckered into looking it up….no point in having a word I don't know the meaning of cluttering up my mind…. It means 'the past’ by the way. Very cunning; now it's trying to bug me in foreign languages to mull over the past!!
What can I do to try an remain present?
It’s ironic that I am enlisting my mind to find the very strategy that will help to calm it. Here are a few I think are very helpful:
1) It’s all part of the process: During a withdrawal phase, or the disappearance of something formerly popular, there is an inevitable backlash against what is happening. This is how you know what you are doing is actually succeeding. Just be patient and kind to yourself.
2) Consider the arc: I consider the present moment to be like the horizon. If you look at the horizon, it looks flat and simple. That is until you do some complex mathematics and realise your seemingly endless 8.5 mile panoramic view is imperceptibly curved by 0.12 degrees.
If you add together every moment you have, every seemingly minute decision, thought or action, you are creating an arc for your life. Is this the one you want to be on? This makes every moment precious and gives it a state of importance; something to be acutely aware of.
3) A mantra to bring the now into sharp focus: ‘It's petrifying how little from the world truly exists: only the now. Such a narrow flickering glimpse.’ - Divine Intervention on the Guru’s Feet forum. I like to augment this with a momentary acknowledgement that each individual moment, when scaled up to include the whole globe is like a snow flake; completely and utterly unique. There will never be another point where the exact same combination of people, events and happenings occur in precisely the same way.
Whilst having an active, enquiring and curious mind is important, it ought to be trained to play fair with the other parts of our existence. There is no need to introduce tension into the situation by forcibly quelling it. But everybody can benefit from taking a more detached view of their thoughts. It’s incredibly empowering to see just what characteristics it has; monkey-like, childishly playful and shamefully attention seeking. For me, the more I observe and understand it, the more affection I develop for it and the more freedom I have to decide what happens next.
The past is memory. The future is simulation. And they are both occurring in the now, which is the only place where we can affect what happens next.
Have you had any powerful or interesting experiences when practicing mindfulness or meditation? Do you have any suggestions you use to quell your mind momentum? Let us know in the comments section below - we'd love to hear them.