The 2 ways to approach your monkey mind

9 minute read

Take a minute to look around you. Can you find anything that is not the direct product of human thought? Anything that did not start out as an idea, planted as a little seed in some fellow human’s mind? Allow me to explain to you what I mean.

On many of the object surrounding you right now there might be text visible. A linguistic expression of the thought that justifies the object’s existence: “Toilet”, “All-You-Can-Eat” or “Platform 5”. When we glance upon the text we hear the words of the thought in our mind. And these objects can be considered very valuable. Take expensive billboards for example: objects with text specifically designed to involuntarily put ideas into out minds.

But these ideas need not be expressed as text. We are surrounded by abstract objects such as chairs, bricks and computers. For many of these products we don’t know how they were made. Nor do we know which steps are required to construct these objects ourselves from raw materials. We simply do not know much more about a chair than that it is called a chair and that we can sit on it. Many everyday objects remain abstract constructs of thoughts for most of our lives.

“We’re all living in an ever-expanding and deepening system of ideas”
– Sam Harris

Let me ask you a question right now. What is a city? What is it really, that makes up a city?

My own thought when first confronted with this question was something in the direction of a collective of buildings in a specific location on earth. But  are these really the most important properties of a city? Is it not the people and their everyday activities that give the rationale of the cities existence? Indeed, more than anything, a city is a collective of people who support the same idea. The idea that they are part of the same group. A group of people that we call the city. And it’s this idea in turn that gives rise to the buildings and towers over time. Do you begin to see how powerful thought really is?

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If we break up the abstract concept of a ‘city’, we will only encounter more abstract objects such as ‘towers’

And it’s not just the physical reality that surrounds us, that is soaked with ideas. Also our relations, the society with its politics in which we live and our careers are completely based on human thought. Or take consultancy for example, an industry completely based on selling abstract thoughts reciprocally.

I hope I have convinced you by now that we (experientially) live in a world of thinking. A world of abstract ideas and thoughts. We live in an increasingly abstract reality, really. We do not perceive the physical world in its raw form, but rather as the conceptual ideas that are represented by the objects around us. We do not think ‘what a nice piece of wood’, but rather ‘that table would do fine for a dinner party’. And this is generally a useful thing.

Abstract ideas help us to navigate the complex world around us. To develop institutions like hospitals, emergency services and schools. And these institutions in turn help us to reduce the amount of suffering in our physical world. Nothing abstract about that.

However, some modes of thinking are not helpful at all. Imagine what happens when negative thoughts come by. Let’s say you have a thought that makes you feel sad. “3 months ago my boyfriend broke up with me”. Then your next thoughts will also be coloured by your sad emotional state and make you even more sad. “I will never find someone like him again”. Or imagine you’re having a thought that makes you angry. “My boss didn’t use that report I spend all of last week working on”. And consequently you will become more angry about being angry. “He never takes me seriously, what an asshole”.

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The problem here is that we can only observe the world around us conceptualised by our thoughts. Thoughts that emerge from the fog of our emotions. When you engage with the thoughts put forward spontaneously by your current emotion, you amplify the emotion. And when we start amplifying negative emotions shit hits the fan.

I believe that this process of engaging with negative thoughts is the main cause for our daily suffering. In this modern world it is very hard indeed to find suffering, large and small, that is not the direct consequence of thinking.

“Okay, great! So let’s just stop having negative thoughts then”, you might say. Unfortunately, as I discussed some months ago, we cannot control which thoughts will come up next, nor can we stop the stream of thoughts in our minds. If we already knew our next thought, we wouldn’t need to think it, right? (Whoa bro, take it easy on those psychedelics…)

“Our spontaneous experience of the world, charged with subjective, emotional, and intuitive content, remains the vital and dark ground of all our objectivity.”
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Most of our thoughts are automatic responses to our environment, resulting from millions of generations of evolution. We are designed for an environment where we might at any moment be attacked by a lion. In such a case, ‘getting stressed’ is a useful biological mechanism urging us to get the fuck out of here. However, in this rapidly changing world not all of these automatic thought processes are useful anymore. One might notice that ‘I have to file that one report before monday 2pm’ is a relatively new problem in the scope of our evolution. Also you might have noticed that this automatic process of getting stressed isn’t helping us much in this situation. I’ll call these automatic thought processes in response to our emotions monkey thinking. It might look as follows.

Initial spontaneous thought: Look there is a seagull landing on the roof over there. It’s standing on a chimney. Engaging with thought: My parents used to have a fireplace back at home. It’s nice to burn wood, its cozy and more durable than gas. Trees grow in forests, I like forests. When is the last time I wend for a walk in the forest? Oh yes, it’s that day that I went on a walk with my mom. We didn’t walk the way I wanted to walk then. We never do. She never listens to me. I want people to listen to me more often, nobody takes me serious. It just makes me so angry. It’s not fair, I listen to them don’t I?

You see how quickly our monkey brain can lead us to suffering from our own negative emotions? We might even feel angry with mom next time we meet her and expect her to apologize for her behaviour, assuming that she miraculously knows why we are angry. Most of our thinking is monkey thinking, and most of it doesn’t gain us anything at all. It’s even very common to feel a certain satisfaction in thinking our way into self-pity. (This effect is refered to as the pain-body by Ekhart Toile.)

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The unrelated and spontaneous nature of our thoughts becomes visible when we let creativity flow

“So what are you saying? I cannot just stop thinking, I need my constant thinking to keep my life together! Worrying helps me to prepare for my future.” While some amount of thinking might indeed help us, we can do way more in the moment than what we give ourselves credit for.

We are used to engaging with every thought that our mind puts forward. To identify with them as if we constructed them. Instead, we would do good to train ourselves in consciously monitoring the random thoughts that spontaneously pop-up in our heads. To simply observe them and consciously decide when to engage with our thinking. Or more importantly: when not to!

“The first step in achieving greater emotional diversity: simple self-awareness. Noticing and accepting what you feel when you feel it.”
– Mark Manson

And you are right, this is more easily said than done. We are constantly thinking. This is only natural. But when we are not aware, not mindful, of these thoughts, we can be taken over by them. Luckily, humankind already developed a solution to this problem a few thousand years ago: meditation. Few things have been passed on through the generations as meticulously as the different meditation and mindfulness traditions. In my eyes this is a clear tribute to its effectiveness, and a reason you should give the practice of meditation a try.

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Of course, some situations in life demand some more thinking than usual. If you mastered mindfulness and your mind is a clear pool of water, when will you ever remember to do your tax forms? This might require you to engage with many negative and distracting thoughts for some time. This is a problem I struggled with for a while, until I discovered the value of keeping a journal.

“Your journal is like your best friend. You don’t have to pretend with it, you can be honest and write exactly how you feel”
Bukola Ogunwale

I use a journal before I go to sleep to reflect on my past day and to plan my next day. By reflecting in this way I get to see in what situations I caused myself and others needless suffering. And by letting my mind run freely for this short time I remember to-do points that I can integrate in the next day’s planning. The next morning I again write a short entry to set myself an intention and a goal for that day. This daily planning and intention setting give structure to my day-to-day life. It allows me to develop myself consistently. And it does so without requiring me to think everying through ‘on the fly’. This leaves me with more head space to skilfully respond to the different surprises that life will throw at me.

The combination of a consistent meditation practice with daily journaling has really proven itself to be steroids for my mental well-being. Combined these practices don’t need to take more than 30 minutes of your day. I really can’t stress enough how much I would invite anybody to try this for a month. And let’s be honest: if you would be too busy to take 30 minutes out of your day, you wouldn’t be reading my blog 🙂

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