By Wayne “Dr. B” Benenson, Ph.D.
If the mindfulness movement had a mascot, it would probably be a chattering monkey. Imagine a jabbering monkey jumping from tree to tree. Now imagine a mind that jumps from thought to thought. The term “monkey mind” is an uncanny metaphor for the human mind as a distracted, constantly moving and flustered monkey. This metaphor is especially relevant in an era of smartphones and hyper-connectivity. Monkey mind is obsequious – who hasn’t felt the cascading numbness of rampant thoughts? Yet monkey mind can be tamed. How? Here’s the secret: monkey mind cannot exist in the present moment.
Monkey mind gains its power by fueling on mind-states where we have no control. It dreads something that may occur in the future or fixates on something that has happened in the past. It hops from one distracting thought to another leaving agitated emotions in its wake. Mindfulness practices can give us an alternative to this frenetic activity. Learning to recognize this tendency and disengage from it helps us be calmer, less stressed and more productive.
Consider these two prompts to rein in mental hopscotching:
First, become aware of what your mind is doing. This is called “meta-awareness,” or monitoring conscious thought. Try this simple experiment. Give yourself a three-minute meditation where you just watch what is coming from your mind. Say out loud whatever comes up. However, you are only allowed one of three words: “thought,” “emotion” or “sensation” (ex: hunger, thirst, tired). Try it now. Simply relax and consciously focus on your breath. Whenever monkey mind shows up, just return to conscious breathing: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It looks easy but it’s harder than you think. The tendency to check out and indulge on a juicy distraction can be quite overpowering.
Second, engage in reflective practices. Become focused on what your body is doing. For example, give yourself a body scan: gently bring awareness to each part of your body from your nose to your toes. Ask yourself where tightness or discomfort is present. This exercise can consume your attention in such a way that you realize (only later) that several minutes have passed in which you haven’t engaged in thought. Follow this same process as conscious breathing. When all of your attention is focused on your breath or being aware of your body, there is no room for background chatter. This noticing can lead to meditation (while standing, sitting, or walking) in which we learn to sustain this state of mental tranquility.
Calm your inner critic
Monkey mind, left unchecked, can lead to a condition most vile – the inner critic. You know the symptoms: an inner voice that is stuck on attack mode, coloring your reactions to people, places or things as bad, wrong or inadequate. The inner critic can damage self-confidence and your ability to trust yourself and your instincts, creating a vicious cycle of self-blame. It also allows self-doubt to fester. At the individual level, these repeated negative self-thoughts can produce feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and diminished motivation. At the society level, these negative messages about one’s gender, color, or religion can be internalized. Such messages can make people feel unequal or ridiculed.
You can overcome your inner critic. The inner guide is a more positive voice. It is the wise inner chatter that tries to be objective and makes the best of any situation. The reality is that the voice of the inner critic does not disappear, but there are steps you can take to teach your inner voice self-compassion and kindness. With greater understanding, you can distance yourself from the inner critical voice. Eastern practices like Qigong and Taichi and Yoga provide integrative methods that connect the body’s instincts with one’s mental capacities.
Remember the secret to taming monkey mind and calming your inner critic: gently move your awareness to the present moment. So take a deep breath, and get yourself back to now … even if you’re only there for a quick moment. Know that you’ll probably blank out again. ‘Tis OK, the brain is designed to do that. Simply refocus and return to your awareness of what is happening right here, right now in front of you. That’s the mindfulness practice. Finally, whenever your attention wavers, be kind to yourself with some pre-loaded affirmations.
Homework: Inner-guide affirmations
A key part of calming your inner critic is having some compassionate phrases handy. Repeat these phrases to sidestep the toxic power of monkey mind:
- “This is a difficult moment.”
- “Many people experience this. I am not alone.”
- “May I be kind to myself. May I give myself what I need. May I be strong.”
And, as always, enjoy the moment.
Dr. B, aka Wayne Benenson, Ph.D., has had lots of career opportunities to be mindful: as an elementary and early childhood teacher, a college professor and a researcher on peer mediation. He currently offers mindfulness tutorials, short and sweet (20 minutes), via Zoom. For more information check out his Facebook page at or contact him here.