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? Thoughts are very powerful indeed… And with thoughts, in comes the monkey mind.
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”.
The problem here is that we can only observe the world around us conceptualized 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.
“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 about 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 objectivityDavid 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.
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, it’s cozy and more durable than gas. Trees grow in forests, I like forests. When was the last time I went 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 seriously. 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? 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.)
“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 by being 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 itMark Manson
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. 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. 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 🙂