It can sometimes be really hard to stop thinking, however hard you try. Of course you can’t get a PhD without some thinking. And there is certainly a lot to think about – whether it’s the ‘big idea’ or the logistics of everything that needs doing. While having some thoughts are essential, they can also get in the way. Perhaps you’ve experienced trying to focus on something and your mind keeps wandering off? Or maybe you’ve laid awake at night with thoughts about this that and the other racing through your head desperate for your attention?
At it’s worst the ‘monkey mind’ in which we jump from one thought to another can make us feel anxious, it can drain us, and at it’s best it can make it really hard to find our focus. And when it’s doing it’s monkeying around, it can be so hard to quieten it down. Especially at night when the harder you to try to sleep, the harder it seems to become.
So what can you do when your monkey mind is alive and kicking?
I want to suggest something here a little different to the many tips and tricks you’ll find for managing your thoughts. Those tips and tricks are great and can be really effective – you’ll find some in our book around being distracted, managing Gremlins and self-doubt, goal setting. Sometimes though doing less rather than more, can be the answer.
The following is inspired by mindfulness writing of Jon Kabat-Zinn, yoga of Esther Ekhart and meditations of Esther Teule. While it may be that meditation and mindfulness and are not really your thing, this is something simple that you may find useful …
When you’re in a ‘monkey mind’ mood, find a quiet place, alone if possible. Notice how you feel in this monkey mind state. Then, start to imagine for a moment your thoughts are not your thoughts. Instead of owning them, engaging in them or doing anything at all, retreat into yourself, close your eyes if that helps, and notice your breath.
As you become aware of your breath, start noticing your thoughts. Don’t do anything with them. There is no need to engage in them. The good ones will stick around, they’ll be there when you need them. Instead of engaging, imagine them like little clouds floating past as you look down from a high mountain. Or, if they are really fast, imagine them as flowing streams in a waterfall, one after the other. Keep your distance. If you find yourself engaging don’t be harsh on yourself, it’s great you noticed. Let go. Bring your awareness back to observing the thoughts from a distance.
You can play a little game here, a sort of ‘thought spotting game’. As you notice one thought, let it go and, instead of engaging with it, ask yourself, ‘what’s the next thought going to be?’. Observe that next thought, let it float past and ask the same question again, to see if you can spot the next as it emerges.
Try this for about 15 minutes – more if you want – and see how what you notice about your monkey mind. What did you experience?
The point of all this? Well sometimes just observing and being aware of the thoughts and our relationship to them can make all the difference. It can free us up to focus on what we want to focus on in the present moment. Try it out, see if it works …. It might be something you practice each day.