At any given point during the day, we might have a million things running through our mind. Rent? Due tomorrow. Homework? Due yesterday. What's for dinner? Do I have to cook? Do I even have any food to cook? Bills. Bills. Exams. Bills. It can all be very overwhelming, and day by day, it can take a toll on your mental and physical well-being. This horrible cocktail of stressors is called the 'monkey mind.' How exactly does one combat the endless thoughts, worries, and anxieties of daily living without giving into the pressures of the monkey mind? They key is mindfulness.
Simply put, mindfulness is the concept of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without making judgement. You bring your complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis. Often used as a precursor to meditation, mindfulness will bring you to a state of awareness and relaxation. It is in this state that you'll begin to see what constitutes a majority of your monkey mind (school? work? relationships?) and consider why those issues are recurring. Mindfulness elicits the relaxation response from your body, the opposite of the "fight or flight" response that stress elicits. You'll reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, lower your blood pressure, and relieve muscle tension. According to the American Psychological Association, aside from relieving stress, mindfulness is linked to an improved working memory, decreased emotional reactivity to stressful situations, and higher immune system functioning. Benefits can be seen at all levels of human operation, including mental, physical, and emotional.
To begin a mindfulness meditation and experience many of these great benefits for yourself, you'll want to find a place that is quiet and comfortable to you. Whether this is your bedroom, your backyard, or your favorite natural hideaway, you'll want somewhere where you can close your eyes and be undisturbed for a short time. You can listen to ambient music or nature sounds if it helps you relax. I recommend sitting in a chair, as laying down might prompt you to fall asleep. Sit up straight, hands on your legs, and breathe deeply in for four counts, then hold for four counts, then release for four counts. Continue this pattern of breathing, feeling yourself relax, and allowing yourself to become aware of the present moment.
As traces of the monkey mind begin to show, do not linger on them and simply acknowledge them and brush them aside. Withholding judgement is crucial to maintaining awareness of the present! Fight with your spouse? Acknowledge and brush it aside. Grumbling stomach? Acknowledge and brush it aside. Roommate stomping around the house? You know the drill. Let everything pass you by as you focus on the moment. Continue to breathe deeply. Be aware of your presence in your meditating space. You are here, now, alive. If you start to get lost in daydreams or criticisms, focus on your breathing again and attempt to redirect your attention. There is no time limit, but even just a few minutes every day can help to clear your head of inner turmoil. When you are done, end with another cycle of four count breaths and slowly open your eyes. If you haven't fallen asleep, then hopefully you've relaxed, de-stressed, and gained some valuable insight into what feeds your monkey mind.
Another similar exercise to try is 'Hot Penning,' where you enter your state of mindfulness and write continuously for several minutes. As thoughts pop up, you write them down, expelling them from your mind. It is a form of quick journaling in which your pen or pencil does not stop moving. Do some breathing cycles and set yourself a timer for three or four minutes, then focus on the present and write like the wind. You probably won't be able to write as fast as your mind is whirling, but do your best to keep your writing instrument moving. When your time is done, end with some more breathing cycles and reflect on what you've written. Do you notice any themes? Are specific people or events mentioned? As you continue to Hot Pen, you can go back and see how your journals, and monkey mind, change from session to session.
We live in a fast-paced era, where stressors are heaped upon us at every opportunity and we feel like multitasking is our best option. Our minds become too busy and the rest of our well-being suffers. Do yourself a favor (you've earned it) and take a few minutes out of your busy day to be mindful of yourself and your presence here on earth. It is just the relaxation you need.