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Monkey-Mind to Mindfulness

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Busy mind? Preoccupied with future planning? A ‘bit of a worrier’? For twenty-seven years, this was my life. My brain was often a classic example of what Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’. I was usually slightly on edge, beginning during my unsettled childhood. I prided myself on my active mind and ability to ‘multi-task’. I saw worry as a protection mechanism and lived in the future, conjuring up scenarios and worrying until I solved these imaginary problems. For twenty-seven years, I accepted this as normal, hiding my worries within my seemingly care-free, people-pleasing personality. According to Eckhart Tolle, the vast majority of us feel the same.

“Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don't realise this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness….” Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

It took the stress of my mother’s cancer diagnosis when she was fifty-four and her subsequent death at fifty-six to finally help me realise that there must be another way. This way of living was exhausting and unsustainable, even without a life-crisis and bereavement to deal with. Work stress and insomnia were also taking their toll and I had reached breaking point. So I embarked on a journey of healing and self-discovery.

I started yoga, initially just due to a vague idea that it was relaxing. Of course, I soon realised that it is so much more than that. Through my teacher, I discovered mindfulness meditation. The world changed in the blink of an eye. We are not our thoughts?! I had always been fused with my thoughts; I perceived them as reality. The fact that there are techniques to bring us back to the present moment and diffuse from our thoughts was a complete eye-opener. I’m not sure that I had ever been fully in the present moment and this was a complete epiphany for me. I had previously tried to resist and push away unpleasant thoughts and emotions but this revelation gave me a new perspective. These thoughts and feelings were NOT ME and they would pass. The principles of mindfulness shifted my whole perspective overnight.

However, practicing mindfulness is easier said than done, particularly for those among us with busy minds. The changes to my everyday life have been gradual; two steps forward and one step back. There are definitely days and weeks where I've ‘fallen off the wagon’ and suffered the consequences of ‘monkey mind’. I initially struggled to commit to a regular practice. As I sat quietly for the first time in my life, I was confronted by a barrage of thoughts which ranged from trivial to very anxiety provoking. I found it frustrating that I could not clear my mind for more than a couple of seconds (although I now understand that I don’t have to fight to ‘clear my mind’ but just to acknowledge all that comes up). But gradually I learned to accept that this can be a long journey and that frustrations and setbacks are all a natural part of the process. I finally began to treat myself with kindness and compassion. I committed to practice an aspect of mindfulness daily, whether that meant sitting for a short meditation, or simply going for a walk and becoming aware of the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around me. The glimpses of intense presence, clarity and aliveness that I experienced were enough to keep me on my path, even though they were fleeting at times.

I have now been on this path for twelve years and the principles of mindfulness are becoming embedded in my life. I make it a priority to meditate - even if only for a short time - every day. I also practice asana (yoga postures) daily. I’m no longer constantly in a rush, trapped by the belief that somehow being busy makes us more valuable. I no longer see multi-tasking as something to be proud of. I still struggle with distractions such as social media but I know that I’m heading in the right direction. I have two small children who teach me mindfulness (and patience!) every day and I’m able to see the beauty in the ‘ordinary’ moments of motherhood. Motherhood is rewarding but also hugely challenging and we need all the skills we can get to ride the waves. Despite teething, tummy bugs and tantrums, I’m (usually) a calmer, kinder mum than I would have otherwise been.

Developing compassionate mindful awareness has been the beginning of a healing journey. I’m more in touch with my emotions, and I'm increasingly able to sit with the "bad" ones as I don’t identify with them as deeply and I understand they will pass. I have more compassion for myself and others, and if I ‘fall off the wagon’, I try not to judge myself as I understand that I am on a lifelong journey and there is no hurry. I'm gradually befriending and taming my monkeys! I'm more responsive to my mental, emotional and behavioural patterns - and I'm therefore (usually) less reactive. Befriending my experience has also helped me to begin the process of grieving for my mother.

As I've begun to connect more deeply with feelings and sensations that I'd previously pushed away, I also feel an increased sense of joy, aliveness and of connection to the world around me. I am more in tune with my surroundings and actively crave stillness and time in nature. I practice meditation anywhere and everywhere; whether it is in a sunlit woodland, or in a crowded train station. I’ve learned that the conditions do not have to be perfect (cue melodic Tibetan bells and gently flowing streams) and that all the sounds and sensations of life can become part of a meditation once I open to them.

Many years later, this continues to be a fascinating journey. I trained to become a yoga teacher in 2010 and a mindfulness teacher in 2015. Yoga and mindfulness complement each other beautifully; they both teach us the skills to calm and open the mind, and reconnect with the body and breath. Both take us on a path of self-discovery and lead us home to ourselves.

Mindfulness can begin with commitment to just a short daily meditation practice or informal mindfulness techniques (such as brushing your teeth or washing your hair, fully present to the sensations). Using chores such as washing up or unloading the dishwasher to practice mindfulness can turn the most arduous and mundane experiences into an opportunity to develop life-enhancing skills. There are any number of online meditations and helpful apps to start you off and point you in the right direction. I have some guided tracks available for free on the Insight Timer app. Patience and compassionate curiosity for yourself are vital; this is a long but wonderful journey that can enhance every area of life.

Mindfulness is for everybody, regardless of religion, ethnicity, age or gender. It’s not a quick fix, but with dedication, it can even help people with minds as busy as mine! It’s never too late to start befriending your monkey mind and there’s no time like the present....

Also published by Everyday Mindfulness in 2015. Updated in 2019

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Amy McMillan is a mindfulness & yoga teacher. She has first hand experience of the power of these transformational practices to calm anxiety & enhance wellbeing. She loves guiding others to reduce stress & restore ease & vitality. She is an eternal student & is committed to deepening her well-established meditation practice. She has two small children & lives in Surrey, UK.

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