Mindfulness for too much thinking

Portrait of Jake by Wendy Ann GreenhalghCreative minds are amazing, they’re always assessing, viewing, processing and problem solving. Creative and imaginative, they have an extraordinary capacity for lateral thinking too, for wild intuitive leaps that defy logic. But those same creative minds also have a tendency to go into overdrive. Fueled by creative inspiration, their neural networks and synaptic relays keep on firing even when they haven’t got a painting, poem or film to work on. Often the hard thing isn’t getting them going, but getting them to stop.

There’s a name and a metaphor for this which comes from some of the ancient Buddhist texts about mindfulness practice – it’s called monkey-mind. Imagine a monkey that keeps on jumping from branch to branch, i.e. from thought to thought, on and on in a perpetual cycle. Got one of those? I have. Sometimes (especially after an intense writing session) it can feel like I don’t just have one monkey in my mind-tree, but a whole troop of them jumping and chattering. Sometimes I have had so many creative ideas, that I literally couldn’t see the wood for the trees. And every damn tree had a monkey in it.

And here’s the thing, monkey-mind isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a mind thing. Thinking is what minds do. They’re good at it. And writing minds are particularly good at it. You’ve got a rare simian in there, so be proud of it. But like all pets – it does need some training. And mindfulness is the key.

One of the most common misconceptions about mindfulness practice, is the idea that when we start meditating we’ll stop thinking. In fact this longing to escape the endless cycle of thought is why many people start a meditation practice. But you can’t stop a mind from thinking, anymore than you can stop a heart from beating or a writer from writing – or at least not without killing it, or numbing it into unconsciousness. Instead, mindfulness introduces you to a new way of relating to your mind and the thoughts in it, and gives you a new way of handling them. Mindfulness makes you a monkey wrangler. But you do not kill the monkey, you tame it.

One of the most common experiences when people first come to meditation or a mindfulness practice is the sudden realisation that they are thinking all the time, even when they thought they weren’t, and that they seem to have very little control over what they think or when they think it. This realisation can be a bit depressing, but it shouldn’t be – this moment of awareness is the beginning of the transformative journey of mindfulness. If this is where you’ve got to – take heart, and give yourself a massive pat on the back. It’s an awakening.

In my last blog I wrote about the importance of a grounded, embodied mindfulness practice for writers, but this is necessary for all of us – artists, dancers, filmmakers, photographers and dabblers alike. If you tried any of the meditative exercises, you may have found, as many countless meditators have before, that determinedly bringing your awareness to the body, and the sensations in the body has a definite effect on your monkey-mind.

This is so important, I feel I have to reiterate it – when we come into direct experience with the sensations in our body (including the breath), when we come into the present moment with our experiences, we begin to loosen the habitual patterns of thinking in the mind. After getting over the surprise at how prone their mind is to wander, what most people find is that their monkey is still jumping and chattering but it starts to get a little slower. They start to experience moments of stillness or silence, and as this happens their awareness becomes more spacious; they are able to sense the monkey, but at the same time the tree – or maybe even the forest in which it lives.

Now this may all sound a little mystical to you, or a little too conceptual, and the best way of discovering the territory, is of course to go exploring for yourself. (In which case try the mindfulness exercise below and in my last blog). However, if it helps, if it encourages you to do so, I can honestly say that mindfulness practice has radically and positively transformed the way I relate to my mind, the way I think and the way I create.

For a start I no longer beat myself up for being too up in my head, or for lying awake with the ideas rolling out for my novel at 4am. I just pet the monkey, practice a little mindfulness and go back to sleep. And now I know every tree in the wood – it’s much harder to distract me. Since I’ve had a daily mindfulness meditation practice, I’m more focused when I’m creating. I’m more aware too of my shifting moods as I create something; inspiration, enthusiasm, doubt, boredom, criticism – as the monkey lopes from branch to branch, I’m able to note them for what they are and keep on creating rather than getting derailed or burned out. Most of all there is space in my head; space to breathe, space to create, space to rest, space to be excited about the thing I love to do most. And these benefits are just the tip of the mindfulness iceberg.

Curious? Convinced? Then why not try this short mindfulness exercise below:

  • Settle yourself in a chair and take a few slow, conscious breaths.
  • Gradually tune in to the feeling of sitting in the chair. Notice where your body makes contact with it and how it feels to sit. Are there any areas that feel energised or comfortable, or any of discomfort or tension?
  • Keep your awareness focused on the body, taking in the different sensations of just sitting there (this may include the feel of the breath).
  • Your mind will wander off at some point – this is the monkey-mind in action. As soon as you notice it, bring your awareness back to the general sensations in the body.
  • When your mind wanders off again (which it will, possibly quite quickly), bring your attention gently back to this broad awareness of your body in the chair.
  • Continue to bring your mind back to the sensations in the body. Try not to do any of this harshly or critically, because, after all, your monkey-mind’s just doing what monkeys do.
  • See if you can do this for 5-10 minutes on a regular basis – so that you begin to see and recognise your monkey-mind. Perhaps, after a while, you’ll even begin to see which branches it regularly swings on.
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