Grab Your Monkey Mind By The Tail

Look, Ma! I’m on top of the world!

“Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want.” ~Abraham Hicks

A few months ago, I joined a women’s midlife mindfulness and meditation group in my neighborhood. I had been meaning to get into meditation to rein in my monkey mind for at least the past 8 years and had even started practicing a few times, but I never stuck with it. When I saw the post on our local Facebook page, it was a sign. Now there would be some accountability. Even if I didn’t become a master at meditation, I reasoned, I might acquire more control over my thoughts and keep them from running away from me unnecessarily.

Last night our group met in the shade outside our local community center and discussed the “Don’t-Know Mind.” The don’t-know mind, I learned, is a central concern of Korean Zen, and it’s a representation of our enlightened mind before preconceived ideas, thoughts, judgments, and opinions create needless anxiety and suffering in our lives. Many of us spend our entire lives borrowing trouble that doesn’t yet exist. You have your negative life experiences and memories of bad news and you apply them to events that haven’t occurred yet. It happens all the time, and it’s a waste of precious life energy because we can’t possibly know how things are going to work out before they occur. We humans are not as all-knowing as we like to think we are. How many times have you imagined the worst only to later live a completely or mostly seamless experience? How much time have you wasted catastrophizing for nothing?

I can recount dozens of times I have borrowed trouble when I had no reason to believe an event would end badly. It happened last night. My sons decided yesterday to climb Mt. Bierstadt, one of the 53 peaks in Colorado over 14k feet. This is a well-traveled hike with a well-marked ascent. It is one of the easiest of these climbs. Hordes of people climb this mountain every day in the summer, and you rarely hear anything about it other than the trail was too busy. Still, my 18 and 20 year old sons would be leaving before dawn with a friend, traveling up the interstate into the mountains on little sleep to ascend to 14k feet alone for the first time. Their momma bear was anxious. Although I fell asleep quickly, I woke up with my mind racing and imagining the worst. I pulled out the don’t-know mindset.

You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You don’t know that there is any reason for concern. What if nothing bad happens? What if there is no traffic at all and they arrive safely? What if they packed the perfect amount of snacks, water, warm clothing, and safety gear? What if all that happens is that they make it to the top to view a cloudless Colorado morning with 360-degree breathtaking views? What if they make a memory together they will cherish forever? What if this gives them the confidence to climb other mountains, both physical and mental? What if they arrive home, beaming with accomplishment, and share photos from their adventure? You don’t know.

I took a few deep breaths, relaxed into the mattress, and fell back asleep, confident that the likelihood things would work out was far greater than the likelihood they would not. I slept so well I didn’t hear them getting ready and I didn’t wake up in time to say goodbye to them. When I finally awoke at 7:10, they were long gone. And when I checked my phone I noticed Joe had already sent a photo of them safely at the trailhead ready to begin their upward journey.

I think the trick is to grab your monkey mind’s tail as soon as you notice it. Once you have it in your grasp, tell that monkey to back off because it doesn’t know what it thinks it knows. The more often you catch that damn monkey, the more practice you have stopping its useless chatter. Eventually, you realize there is no benefit in determining an outcome you don’t want to have and likely won’t experience. You begin find stillness, peace, and positivity can fill the space in your head and give the monkey no room for running and jumping and bouncing around. I’m not there yet, but my monkey catching skills are improving.

The friends you meet along the way

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