The nature of thoughts
How do we tame the mind? Our mind is filled with thoughts that continue without us having any control over them.
Have you ever wondered how many thoughts go through your brain each day? Scientists estimate that an average human thinks between 2500-3300 thoughts each hour and an approximate of 50,000 thoughts per day.
Often about the same things. This is what Gautam Buddha 2500 years ago called the monkey mind and he had a few insights as to how to tame it.
Who was Buddha?
Buddha was not a god. In-fact the Buddhist spiritual leader Dalai Lama says that Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life.
He defines Buddhism as spiritual guidance to the person that practices it. Buddha in his time tried to understand the nature of his mind and through meditation and isolation gained key insights that hit hard even to this day.
Buddhism, in essence, is the teachings that Buddha shared with the world.
What is the monkey mind?
Monkey mind or (Xinyuan in Chinese) is a Buddhist term describing someone being unsettled, restless and whimsical.
Say each branch is a thought and your mind is a monkey. Buddha described the monkey mind as monkeys that are chattering and jumping from one branch to the next inside our minds.
This was his way of explaining the compulsive chain of thought each of us has. Fear is one of the major factors among many others that cause this compulsive thinking.
That fear-based thinking of the internal critic keeps expecting the worst out of each situation. You can read our blog on internal critic here.
What causes the monkey mind?
With awareness comes ego. The ego gives rise to the monologue in our minds. Due to this internal monologue, it becomes easy to stay on the chain of continuous thoughts where one leads to the next and so on.
We do not focus on one and finish it. Our mind is occupied with many things at once. This way there is no initiative to solve one problem. We just keep our focus on one thing and then the next.
This prevents us from acting on anything. Can we make friends with that monkey and eventually tame the mind? Buddha thinks so.
Making friends with the monkey mind
At the start of this post, we mentioned how many thoughts an average person thinks. Imagine how much time and energy you could have saved if you could focus more and reduce the number of thoughts.
You might still be in disbelief on the number of thoughts an average human thinks in a day but anyone that has ever tried to meditate has experienced that mental noise first hand.
To make friends with the monkey mind we need to train it. The best way to do that is by slowing down your thoughts and meditating.
An exercise to know your state of mind
Stress and anxiety start gripping our minds when we are thinking compulsively and we do not even realize when it is happening. How do you know when you are in stress?
Let us do an exercise I learned from Wim Hof. For the next minute, what I want you to do is count the number of breaths that you take. Take a stopwatch or a simple clock and count your breaths. Go on I will wait.
So how many breaths did you take? Was it 10, 15? Maybe 20. If the number of breaths was between 15 -20 or 25 breaths then you are presently in a state of stress. So let us try again but this time take in a deep breath each time and exhale slowly and if you want you can hum anything you want as you exhale.
If you do it right, you might finish the minute with just 3-4 breaths and you will feel the stress going down. So take deep breaths and exhale slowly for a minute.
Did it work? Leave a comment below and let me know. If you suffer from stress each day you can check out our blog that talks about it in much detail here.
Tame the monkey mind
The moment you calm down and begin to understand the nature of your mind, it calms down as well. There is no more escalation in stress and anxiety.
Irrational fears slowly diminish once you are aware of them. However, this is not possible without consistent effort and practice. There is a powerful quote by Archilochus that goes as follows
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”― Archilochus
Here are the following steps that you should take to reduce your compulsive thinking and to tame the mind-
- Try being open and accepting
- Living under your means sometimes
- Count rice
As explained before Meditation will be the most powerful thing you can do to get over compulsive thinking. Find a silent place and sit down any way you find comfortable.
Close your eyes and just let your thoughts come to you as they please. Instead of trying to engage with them just observe them. As if, you are watching the rustling of leaves on a big tree.
By being a silent observer, you are not giving those thoughts any energy. Imagine your mind like water in a bucket that is swirling the more you shake it.
When you stop engaging the water starts to calm down and settle still. In the beginning, it is easier to focus on the breath. Slow it down. Breathe deeply and slowly.
Some people mistake mindfulness for meditation. Mindfulness is more related to having a high presence of mind. It is a sort of moving meditation if you will.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed just try to concentrate on the present moment. What this means is every moment you pay attention to the task be it driving, reading, eating.
Just by bringing your attention, back to the present moment from your thoughts that might be more often than not unrelated to the task at hand will enable you to free yourself from the monkey mind.
You might have experienced it a lot of times when you were playing a game or giving an exam and you did not even realize how quickly the time passed by.
You can always trigger that state just by taking deep breaths and bringing your focus back on the task instead of the thoughts of the gone past or speculated future.
Verbalize and write down
The moment you start to verbalize your thought you begin to see them much more clearly. By verbalizing, you can often conclude some meaning to otherwise random thoughts.
If you call a friend and talk about your day you might have realized that you bring up insights you knew but weren’t as clear.
If you cannot do that then try writing down about what you are thinking. Markus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world during the time of his reign and yet he lived a life that was rooted in stoic beliefs and principles.
His book Meditations was his personal diary where he verbalized his thoughts. A must-read.
Being open and accepting to tame the mind
Often times the root cause of our compulsive thinking is grounded in a judgemental perspective we have of the situation. By being close-minded and thinking in terms of judgments and labels, we limit our reality to our narrow way of thinking.
Instead, what we should do is be more open to the situation and our external circumstances. Accept them and act on the things that lie within our control.
By peacefully accepting the situations and acting on things within our control, we start to use the present circumstances to our advantage. Taoists call this Wu-Wei. You can read more about it here. It goes over the flow state and how that can help us tame the mind.
Act on your thoughts to tame the mind
The thing you are worried about, start acting on it. Pick the easiest and smallest thing that is in your control and start working. You will notice a tremendous change in your mind-set when you do that.
The moment you start acting the mind begins to use its mental capacity to facilitate the work you are doing. That is why swimming instructors push students in the pool because otherwise the students stay paralyzed by fear.
However, once they jump in they begin to start swimming or at least try to swim.
If you are anxious about upcoming exams, start reading a chapter you find difficult. Worried about your position in your job, start learning a new skill. Anxious over a presentation you have to give in front of a crowd, read our blog on conquering stage fright here.
No matter what that chain of thought worries you about. Just start acting on the smallest thing that might help that predicament. A habit of acting instead of being anxious in inaction will help you tame the mind over time.
Living Under your means to tame the mind
Ancient Stoics used to fast or dress up ridiculously to face the ridicule of others and experience life without privileges. This made them realize what truly mattered to them.
By fasting or wearing worn-out clothes they experienced what a day in the life of an underprivileged might have been like. This kept them grounded in the way they lived their life. It made them contemplate: Is that the life they were really so afraid of.
There is a fascinating story about Marcus Aurelius who hired an assistant once to follow him around while he walking through the Roman town square to keep reminding him he was only a man whenever he was praised.
Try fasting for a day or do things that knock you out of your comfort zone. Take a long way home, go and talk to a stranger. Things like these will pull you into the present and are helpful to tame the mind.
Count Rice, to tame the mind?
Do I literally mean counting rice? Well, yes and no. It can be anything. Count-starts in the night or count beads. Spiritual practitioners in the Hindu religion count beads on a string while reciting a sentence repeatedly each time.
Buddhist monks go even further and make great Mandala art with sand in painstaking detail by rubbing a stick over a metal funnel.
All that work is later destroyed which teaches them not to get too emotionally attached to things.
This teaches us to accept the fundamental reality of the universe that is change. When we can accept that we stop trying to control our surroundings and instead embrace things as they are.
Which is being in the present moment. One step closer to taming the mind.
A critique on need for awareness to tame the mind
In his famous speech, David Foster Wallace phrases this in an Esoteric way. I recommend that you watch that speech here. It will explain things that I might not have the ability to convey. If you can’t right now though I’ll try my best to do so.
He talks about the default setting of self contentedness that is the ego. The feeling that we are all at the center of the universe. Something we all have.
This is because the way we look at everything around us there is no experience we have ever had where we are not at the center. Other people’s needs and feelings have to be communicated to us but our own are urgent and somehow more real.
Hypnotizing constant monologue
The uneducated are more unaware and the educated usually give in to the tendency to over-analyze stuff with constant abstract arguments in their heads instead of paying attention to what is simply going on in front of them or inside their minds.
This makes it extremely difficult to stay attentive and not give in to the constant monologue. The monkey mind.
Learning how to think really means?
He continues to say that what learning how to think really means, is not more about the way we think, but more about learning how to pay attention to the things we choose to focus on and pay attention to.
This is what he relates to the old cliché that mind is a good servant and a terrible master. He says that if we give in to default settings in our life then we aren’t exercising our will to choose and are living our lives being dead, unable to tame the mind.
Letting the narrative inside our heads control our choices in life.
Choosing to be self-aware to tame the mind
In the daily grind of repeating and monotonous routines is where the work of choosing comes in. He conveys that if we can’t choose what we pay attention to then we will have a miserable time living in those routines.
Since the default setting and the ego will have you believe that everything happening is about you and the world is standing in your way. This separates you from the world and makes it impossible to think in terms of what other people are going through.
When you learn to choose what you pay attention to is when you can understand the different perspectives people come from and how the same things can mean different things to two completely different people.
Avoiding echo chambers and confirmation bias
Choosing to be self-aware is the only way to avoid confirmation bias. To learn how to slowly and gradually come out of the default setting that has over time solidified itself in unconscious beliefs and thought patterns.
I still recommend that you take some time and listen to his speech yourself. It will demonstrate the points I made above and need to tame the mind in a much more eloquent way.
In Conclusion, how to tame the mind
This week try to apply the steps that you learned today. Take some time out of your day and meditate. Even 5-mins will be exponentially better than zero, and you will start feeling the results immediately.
Try writing down your thoughts when you feel anxious and do the exercise by breathing slowly for a minute.
We urge you to find more about what true callings are, you can read our free guide called The Perfect Beginning to find them.
I hope you have a good day and a good life.