Help tame The Monkey Mind!
December 16, 2010 1:00 PM   Subscribe

I've come to the conclusion that the root of unhappiness/strife, etc. is what goes on inside my own noodle. In addition to meditation (and, with apologies, excluding western religion) how to tame The Monkey Mind? How to better control the quality of one's thoughts?
posted by gb77 to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Might want to take a look at this active Mefi thread.
posted by BurntHombre at 1:02 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Increase your ratio of direct experience over processed simulations of experience. Movies, television, much of the internet, yes even books, are about simulating aspects of experience through abstractions like language, symbols and images. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this but it is essentially consuming the thoughts of others as a substitute for existing in the flow of firsthand experience. Eventually you have nothing to think about other than thoughts, and then thoughts about thoughts... There comes to be no balanced ground to return to. It is a lot easier to get out of the snare of ungovernable thought when you're inside the stream of unmediated experience.
posted by nanojath at 1:11 PM on December 16, 2010 [19 favorites]

Changing how you look at things (usually from negative to positive) is what cognitive behavioural therapy is about. In fact, the hot thing these days is a combination of mindfulness and CBT. There is a free UK course on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). You could check it out at The British medical system seems to like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, since it gets results. Australia also has a freebie program.

If you prefer books, I think you would find Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by D M Burns to be very helpful. Once again it is about CBT. Here is the thread about CBT:
posted by PickeringPete at 1:23 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, if Toltec (the wisdom-mind of the ancient americas) is excluded from the exclusion of western stuff, you could try The Four Agreements:

1. Be Impeccable With Your Word.
2. Don't Take Anything Personally.
3. Don't Make Assumptions.
4. Always Do Your Best.
— Don Miguel Ángel Ruiz

I find them fabulous for taking out whatever mental/emotional garbage my monkey might be getting into.

They are completely pragmatic: while I encourage you to read up more, the above is all you need to know to put them into action.

They play well with any other belief systems you hold.

Thanks for asking, and best of luck on your path. The internets are routin' for you!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 1:32 PM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I first I watched this ted talk by Matthieu Ricard I had just asked my (now ex) husband for a divorce and was dealing with a lot of emotional backlash from him, it was very hard. I learned to not let his anger shake me to my core. I keep returning to this talk to remind myself how to find my own inner peace and weather the rough times.

"By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it" - Matthieu Ricard
posted by lizbunny at 2:10 PM on December 16, 2010

Whenever I have an unworthy thought or a nonproductive emotion that I no longer want, I imagine doing something destructive with it, and the more creative I get the faster it is gone. Even at the best though it takes a long time and many imaginings to get rid of the worst.

Some of the ones I use:

burning it in a candle
tying it to a balloon and letting it go
shatter it with a sledge hammer
making a paper airplane with it and throwing it out a window
black holes!
and so on

after a while the though really does go away and it longer troubles me and I find my overall thought patterns stronger and more resilient and more in line with what I desire it to be.
posted by bartonlong at 3:04 PM on December 16, 2010

I'd suggest that "controlling the quality of one's thoughts" is a counterproductive way to change -- trying to actively control, repress or block them just doesn't work. Thoughts will happen, but it's the judging and controlling that makes us get attached to them and stuck; easier to just let them happen but not get actively involved. (Easier said than done!)

On the CBT front, you may also find it interesting to read about the next wave, ACT. Here's a good introduction (PDF). I like Dr. Harris's book The Happiness Trap -- it's not nearly as cheesy as the cover appears.
posted by xil at 3:04 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the revelations of Buddhism: You alone are capable of, and responsible for, your own mood, attitude, and path.

May I suggest some (secular) Buddhist writings, such as Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor?

Seconding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, if you have insurance and/or funds to cover therapy. Therapy isn't just for the deeply sick; it's for anyone who wants to work on their mental health and happiness. (Make no mistake: it is work, and the work will be all yours; otherwise you're just paying for the equivalent of "workout tapes" you aren't following.)
posted by IAmBroom at 3:05 PM on December 16, 2010

I'd suggest that "controlling the quality of one's thoughts" is a counterproductive way to change -- trying to actively control, repress or block them just doesn't work. Thoughts will happen, but it's the judging and controlling that makes us get attached to them and stuck; easier to just let them happen but not get actively involved. (Easier said than done!)

The point of CBT is that thoughts are the product of beliefs. If you actively change your beliefs, the thoughts no longer happen. It works.
posted by gjc at 3:50 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

This doesn't at all discount the other approaches recommended, but you could try an SSRI, if you're willing to see a psychiatrist.

Since it's an anti-anxiety medication, it can 'bootstrap' your attempts to get a clear head.

YMMV, but in my case it let me know what it feels like not to obsess. That was a valuable time for me (~11 months).
posted by edguardo at 6:23 PM on December 16, 2010

I've tried out Moodgym, and had great results. It's a really well laid out interactive CBT program from Australia (Probably the one PickeringPete was referring to).

Nanojath: Wow!! Where'd you get that nugget of wisdom from? So concise and clear and... true!
posted by pablocake at 5:14 AM on December 17, 2010

Nth-ing the CBT suggestions, but I also want to share a perspective one of my instructors gave me a while back that's been very helpful to me over the past few months. It seems a little hokey, but bear with me here.

Imagine you're standing on one side of a busy street, and across the street from you is an old friend (your breath, your work, whatever you're concentrating on). You make and hold eye contact with them. Cars and trucks (your stray thoughts, distracted mind) go by between you -- it's a busy street, that's what happens, right? But in the gaps between the cars, you're still holding eye contact with your friend; you still know where they are, despite the traffic. It doesn't have to interrupt you, even though it's between the two of you.

CBT work helps me make sure the traffic flow stays calm and no one parks a big lorry in the middle of the street and lays on the horn for hours; in the meanwhile this perspective helps me not get so anxious about taming/controlling/managing anything. Traffic is there. That's what it does. That's ok.
posted by dorque at 6:58 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your responses so far. I knew this was the right place to come for some wisdom on this subject.
posted by gb77 at 6:59 AM on December 17, 2010

Some tools that I use to change negative thinking are gratitude lists. When I first started using them, I would literally write them down when I was in a bad mood. Now when I am feeling unhappy I can do them in my head. It sounds simple but it really does wonders for turning around my thinking. I don't do them too quick, I really try to focus on each thing and on why I am grateful for it. Something else I learned to do is to challenge myself when I am being negative. I used to be very impulsive and thought that my feelings were so strong and real that they were facts. Today I challenge myself by asking is this really true or is it a feeling? I am definitely not perfect at this but I get better with practice.

Something else that for me was huge was learning forgiveness. You don't mention much about yourself, but I had a couple of people I needed to forgive and also a few that I needed forgiveness from. Accomplishing this gave me a lot of peace.
posted by heatherly at 9:32 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The root of your struggle is found in your question. You are trying to "control the monkey mind" and improve the "quality" of your thoughts.

Consider that the desire to control you mind is as futile as trying to control the weather. The harder you try to control you mind the worse it will get. There is a Koan that states something to the effect that "change equals persistence" If you want to quiet your mind you have to give up controlling it and just observe it. The more you judge and evaluate the quality of your thoughts the worse they will get. There are no good thoughts or bad thoughts, just the thoughts that you are having at any moment.

Instead of controlling your mind just work on getting skillful with noticing your thoughts and letting them go. Give up your evaluations of your thoughts and just have them be your thought.

You might want to check out Pema Chodren, she is a Buddhist nun and author. Her writing is very practical.
posted by empty vessel at 9:57 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The point of CBT is that thoughts are the product of beliefs. If you actively change your beliefs, the thoughts no longer happen. It works.

gjc, it's somewhat more complicated than that - I have compulsive habits like nailbiting that did not simply go away when my belief structures changed, but CBT still has mechanisms for dealing with that. So: that's part of it, but not all.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:49 AM on December 19, 2010

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