I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’ — the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

My first experience of being truly aware of my monkey mind at work almost ended my marriage.

Let me begin by saying that my husband is the one man on this planet that I trust completely. We have been together for over twenty years. No one knows me better than he does. He has been there through my cancer diagnosis and carried me through eighteen months of therapy to deal with my experiences of childhood sexual abuse. He is gentle and kind. He is there for me no matter what.

In the overall scheme, this was an insignificant argument. I don’t even remember what it was about. But something triggered me. I don’t know if it was words, a look or an odor. But something took me to that dark place. That place in my soul that is black with fear and resentment. The words popped out before I knew what they were. I said, “I now needed to protect myself from you.”

I said those hurtful words to the one man on this planet who has always been there for me. He has been my constant, my safe space. Hearing these words come out of my mouth stopped me in my tracks. I knew I was on automatic pilot.

I understood in that moment that my monkey mind had taken over, whether to protect me or not, was irrelevant. I know in my soul that I do not need protection from my husband. I also knew it was time to let go. I had to deal with the stories I created when I was a child.

Zen Buddhist’s define the monkey mind as the ego. That voice in your head that provides the running commentary on your every movement. You are not worthy, you are not good enough, you need protection, it’ll never work out. The voice goes on and on. These thoughts are created by events throughout our lives. You get caught cheating on a test in grade school, the monkey mind comments “you are not trust worthy.” You are abused as a child, the monkey mind kicks in with “you are not lovable.” Your wife cheats on you, the monkey mind responds “women are not to be trusted.”

Once the monkey mind starts this commentary, we start living life by looking out of the rearview mirror.

An example of the monkey mind:

You walk into work, your boss is sitting in your office and he/she says “sit down, I need to talk to you.”  What’s your first thought?  Oh shit, what did I do? 

That immediate thought of “oh shit, what did I do?” is your monkey mind at work. Before you get to sit down to hear what your boss even has to say, your are picturing how you will tell your family that you lost your job. You are canceling vacations that haven’t been planned.

It’s these automatic thoughts that seemingly “pop” into our consciousness that are running the show. Based on my childhood experiences of sexual abuse, then in my adult life being diagnosed with cancer, I built up many stories.

I’m fine (all one word)

I need to protect myself from this person

I’m not worthy of being loved

Do not trust anyone

As soon as these stories “popped” into my thoughts, I went on automatic pilot. I cut people out of my life (I didn’t speak to my mother for twenty four years). I sabotaged huge career opportunities (I was fired from nine companies in three years) and in general shut down any chance of experiencing vulnerability or trust.

Don’t get me wrong, I had great life experiences, I married a wonderful man, had two amazing children and created a job that I love.

It was only when I began practicing yoga and making the mind/body connection that I began to feel inhibited by these walls, then strangled. I knew that if I wanted ever have the opportunity to experience vulnerability or trust, I would have to learn to observe my monkey mind and learn how to keep it in check.

It took a while and a lot of practice. Sometimes I catch it, thank it for sharing and choose a different response.  And sometimes I’m so hooked I wouldn’t hear my monkey mind if it was standing next to me screaming. In those moments, I celebrate my perfect imperfections (thank you John Legend), recommit and move on.

Taming the monkey mind is not for the weak. It takes some time to create clarity around the monkey mind. @lockeym (Click to Tweet!)

I challenge you to practice these five tips to tame your monkey mind:

Clarity – Write out your story, all of it. What happened? What stories did you create about it? How do stories hold you back? Be as specific as possible.

Become an Observer – Your job is to become an observer of your life. Watch your actions/reactions. Without judgement, notice how you react to any situation, good or bad. What are the words you use? What is your tone of voice? Then consider why you chose the words you used? Were you on automatic pilot or did you consciously consider and choose those words?

Breathe – Focusing on your breath is the gateway to transformation. Your breath is the best, most accurate barometer of your emotional state. In any given situation whether positive or negative, take a moment to connect to your breath. In the beginning, put your hand on your heart to connect with your breath. Learn what situations/words/people trigger you in to that automatic pilot. Then consciously choose how you want to interact.

Be kind – Sometimes you will be a master of taming your monkey mind. And sometimes it will be an epic fail. Failure is a good thing because it means you are aware enough to know those moments where the monkey mind completely takes over. When those moments happen, don’t beat yourself up, figure out who you need to apologize to (include yourself in that apology list), recommit and move on.

Practice Gratitude – It may sound corny, but truthfully, without taking a moment to acknowledge the good things in your life, no amount of work you do on yourself will produce results like gratitude will.

Leave me a note in the comments. Let me know what opens up for you as a result of being aware of your monkey mind.

In 2006, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Lockey Maisonneuve underwent chemotherapy, bi-lateral mastectomies with saline implant reconstruction, and radiation. During this time, she saw a real need for recovering cancer patients to exercise—not just for the physical rehabilitation, but also the mental aspect of regaining control over their bodies. After completing specialized training through the Cancer Exercise Training Institute, Lockey created MovingOn, a rehabilitative exercise program for cancer patients. Lockey and the MovingOn program have been featured on WABC, WCBS, News 12, WKTU, Overlook View, Shape, Origin, Yoga, Mantra and Health Park Place, and The Patch. For more on Lockey, visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Brocco.