Shutting Down the Monkey Brain
Life is busy. We all know and feel that. Even with all the technology that’s supposed to make life easier and more efficient, it’s more complicated and full than ever.
Without outside interference, the human brain has 60-80,000 thoughts per day. That’s roughly 55 thoughts per minute for every hour of the day! Now, throw in some outside interference such as a smart phone sending notifications to you from your social media apps, your work email, your personal email, a group text from your family, a call from a telemarketer, an alarm going off to remind you of your grocery list, and it’s no wonder our lives feel so busy and stressful. Not to mention interaction with other human beings, albeit, this is happening less and less these days. That doesn’t leave much room for space between your thoughts.
Do you ever just stop? Like, stop everything. Turn off your cell phone (yes, most do have that feature). Shut yourself off from the world entirely. And just sit alone with your thoughts? If you haven’t, I suggest you do it now. Just try it for five minutes. Put down whatever device you’re reading this on, find a quiet place in your house, your office, or your car,. Wherever you are, try to sit quietly for five minutes.
Did you try it? Were you able to do it? How many times did you check the time on your phone? Where did your brain go? Were you thinking about your to-do list or what needs to be done when you get up? Did the five minutes seem like an eternity? Did you even make it the entire five minutes before you told yourself this is a stupid exercise and you don’t have the time for it?
Being alone with my thoughts was super scary. In fact, I couldn’t even do it until the last few years! It’s weird to think about. I’ve been with myself my whole life, but I wasn’t able to feel comfortable when I was left alone with my thoughts.
If I was alone, I would always be doing something to distract my brain. Looking at my phone, reading a book, exercising, cleaning the house, eating, whatever I had to do to avoid actually avoid sitting and listening to my inner self. I didn’t event realize what I was avoiding, I just knew that the silence was uncomfortable. I can even remember seeing people who seemed so carefree and calm, and thinking to myself, how can I learn to be like that? How can I learn to just BE?
Work and jobs are one of the heavy hitters in the distraction list. Our jobs are important to the way we live, and many give a feeling of purpose in the world. Since my experience is in healthcare, and my passion is helping others in this field find their true health and happiness, I’ve done a lot of observation around this particular area, but I’m sure there are many others with the same experiences.
Healthcare is 24/7 in most respects. People never stop breathing and living, providers never stop providing, facilities never close for the weekend or even holidays. But, at some point the actual humans who are working at the hospitals, and nursing homes, and physicians offices have to rest and take a step back, and cut the proverbial cord, if only for the weekend or a vacation to re-set. This is something a lot of people struggle with, including me.
If you take your attention off of something that you feel “in control” of, you feel like you’re not living up to your responsibilities, or that you’re actually losing control, and it all might fall apart. And, it’s a easy and seemingly important distraction from actually looking at yourself and your own life. Trust me, I used this easy excuse for several years. After all, society tells us our jobs are important and that in order to be happy, we must be successful in them. We spend a lot of time doing our jobs, sometimes more than we spend with our families, so it’s obviously something that we think about a lot.
But, thinking about work all the time eventually becomes tiresome and not that fun anymore. So, we develop habits to take our minds off of that for a while as well. I, like many, started exercising as a way to free myself from the constraints of work think. Running seemed to release all the worry and stress from my body and mind, at least for a while. After a few months though, I would find myself thinking about work on my runs. Although I usually had my best ideas when running, I was still unable to completely clear my brain and relax.
I also read a ton of self-help books to try to find peace and serenity. Anyone have a few of those bad boys on the shelf? I tried it all: yoga, Buddhism, therapy, journaling, dating…you name it or wrote a self-help book about it, and I tried it.
Then, I found something that cleared ALL the thoughts in my head and made me not have a care in the world! Alcohol. A couple of glasses of wine or a few beers, and I turned into a spiritual guru. I was carefree, happy, and felt like I had truly found the key to relaxation. One sip of wine after a long day at work, and instant relaxation. And, it didn’t matter if I was alone or not when I had alcohol. And, it was socially acceptable and sometimes encouraged to deal with the stress of work and life. It worked! Until it didn’t.
Drinking was the ultimate distraction, although an almost deadly one for me. In the moment, or hours I was drinking it seemed to work. It made me physically feel relaxed, cleared my head, even made me happier. But, the next day my brain would be in overdrive. Or foggy. Depending on how much I had. And eventually, I was drinking so much I couldn’t even remember what happened. But at least I didn’t have to be stuck with the mess that was going on in my head.
I know that this specific experience is not relatable to all, but certainly some. My point is that whatever we are using to take our thoughts off of truly living in the present moment is just distracting us from truly living. Whether it’s shopping, knitting, exercise, online gaming, work, social media, etc. I’m not saying that any of these things are “bad” all the time, but at some point it’s important to put it all aside and truly acknowledge and understand what’s going on inside us. We are human beings, not human doings.
So, how did I learn to stop the monkey brain and just be? Meditation. And practice. Practice. Practice. I know that’s probably not the quick fix answer you were hoping for, but it’s the truth. There’s a lot of pre-conceived notions and stigmas around the word “meditation”, but it’s been around since the 19th century, and it works.
Wikipedia defines meditation as this: “a practice where an individual focuses their mind on a particular object, thought or activity to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. Meditation may be used to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. It may be done while sitting, repeating a mantra, and closing the eyes in a quiet environment.”
There are many different schools of thought on meditation, so you may have to try a few before you find the one that works best for you. There are also a ton of apps out there now dedicated to meditation. Personally, I try to meditate at least 15 minutes a day. The key word here is TRY because some days it doesn’t happen. But, on the days I do, I feel more centered, and connected, and at peace. I promise I was as skeptical as you at first, but I’m telling you, if you give it a chance it works. I was barely able to sit still for one minute when I started. It gets easier. Start with one minute and add a minute every day. It gets easier. And when the timer goes off, you can return to the world of chaos that you were at one time afraid to leave behind.
So, my challenge to you is to stop. Take a moment and check-in with yourself today. Feel what’s actually going on inside you. Observe your thoughts. And for a few minutes, just be.