Achieving optimal weight and health is both a mental and physical process. To improve our physical health through exercise and diet, we must also slim down our minds, so to speak. As much as we may overeat, we may also over think everything as well. I call this Monkey Mind.
Monkey Mind is a state of being. Monkey Mind is discord. Scattered thoughts, multi-taking to the point of losing all focus, confusion, multiple and often conflicting thoughts pulling us in different directions… these are all symptoms of Monkey Mind.
Monkey Mind is cognitive chaos. We need only observe a monkey for five minutes to know exactly what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, we can also observe the average person today and witness the very same phenomenon, for Monkey Mind has reached epidemic proportions. Yes, monkeys are everywhere nowadays. In fact, Monkey Mind is so prevalent, we hardly even notice it. Monkey Mind has become the norm.
While the increasing pace of our lives may appear to have benefits in increased efficiency and productivity, I wonder whether this really improves our lives. To the contrary, I think Monkey Mind erodes our health and overall wellbeing in many ways. I am not saying that there is no room for streamlining our lives in order to focus on what’s really important. But it’s determining what’s really important that is the crux of the matter. Monkey Mind infects interpersonal connection. For example, we often lament how busy our lives have become and how much less quality time we have to spend with our friends and loved ones. Yet how many times have we been sitting at the dinner table with people who are busy on their cell phones texting, or Tweeting, or checking email? I am reminded of that line by George Michael, “Do you love the monkey, or do you love me?”
We may even find ourselves visiting a friend’s house where both the stereo and the T.V. are on while our friend is busy surfing the web and talking on their cell at one and the same time. Then, of course, there are al those people busy talking, Tweeting, texting, and e-mailing while also trying to drive. Talk about brain overload….The discord is everywhere, and everywhere the discord is subverting our physical, emotional, and spiritual growth.
We cannot fully attend to the really important matters in our lives when we suffer from Monkey Mind. So how can we focus on dieting and phsysical health and wellness? We can’t. And so we cannot overlook the physical effects of Monkey Mind. When we are overloaded with stimuli, we become desensitized. We rob ourselves of critical serotonin release during any pleasurable activity when we don’t get involved deeply enough in any one activity for the hormone release to occur. Also, when we add more stress to our lives, we subvert of dieting regimen by binge eating and eating foods that throw our body out of hormonal balance (see Marlene Tara-Watson’s piece “Dieting is Out, Healthy Eating is In” included in this month’s dieting focus). Thus, we may live our lives with far fewer peaks of pleasure that can lead to spiritual bliss.
I recently saw a woman walking her beautiful Golden Retriever. At the same time, she was also engaged in a long phone conversation. As a result, she was depriving herself of the beauty of the moment… a beautiful sunny day, blue skies and high clouds, green grass and trees gently swaying in the breeze. Of course, her dog was trying unsuccessfully to get her attention and have some fun with her. Ironically, I probably got far more enjoyment out of it than she did. Thinking back, it makes me wonder… why did she have a dog in the first place? Would the situation be the same if she had children? If so, what sort of comment does this make about the state of the family?
I was engaged in the present moment; she was not. Being present in the moment-- being open to the spontaneous beauty of life -- is what I call mindfulness. Mindfulness involves being present in the moment in order to fully appreciate everything around us that we might otherwise miss when our brains are overloaded. Being mindful means engaging the world around us not escaping it by taking a call or sending a text. When we practice mindfulness (and it is a skill we can develop), we practice living well.
When we practice mindfulness, we provide our minds with much-needed rest and relaxation. This is just as important as sleep. We also provide our bodies with the necessary mental solace needed to support our dieting efforts. Suffering from Monkey Mind is exhausting and adds unnecessary stress that can have long-term health ramifications. In addition to throwing our bodies into hormonal imbalance, Monkey Mind plays havoc with our sympathetic nervous systems and slowly but surely raises our level of desensitization. Not only do we then require more stimuli to elicit a pleasure response, we also require an equal amount of relaxation in order to tune back down. Unfortunately, Monkey Mind does not allow for tuning down. It is a constant winding up.
Winding up, then, becomes our “sympathetic dominance.” We may even find ourselves turning to stimulants like caffeine to maintain those levels. Our health and wellbeing will suffer as a result of Monkey Mind. Blood pressure and muscle tension increase. Physiological symptoms such as headaches, muscle pain, hypertension, and a host of digestive ailments can also follow. Perhaps worst of all, Monkey Brain produces stress which, in turn, produces cortisol, a steroid hormone released from the adrenal gland. Known as “the stress hormone,” cortisol has been linked to insulin imbalance, excessive weight gain, diabetes, osteoporosis, digestive disorders, cancer growth, and repression of the immune system. In fact, cortisol not only inhibits white blood cell production and function, it also signals immune cells to shut down. Thus, Monkey Mind can trigger chronic stress response that may eventually lead to auto-immune deficiencies like Lupus, MS, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Sympathetic dominance, chronic low-grade stress, reduced immune capabilities, generally poor health, missing the countless little moments of beauty life offers us daily… this is the real price we pay for living with Monkey Mind. So if Monkey Mind is the norm today, let’s dare to live differently. You will have yourself to thank in the long run. We can choose to live differently, meaningfully. We can choose to live mindfully instead of allowing ourselves to be endlessly distracted by the beeps, bells, and bings that the monkey puts in our head.
This is not to say we should live like Luddites and completely shun technology or “the modern.” Nor should we be dominated by it. Why let Monkey Mind lead us down the road to poor health and diminished self fulfillment? Monkey Mind is insidious and works slowly. But it is not irreversible. We can all engage in activities to promote physical and spiritual wellness, eradicating Monkey Mind in the process. And it is truly a process. Reading a book, writing poetry, practicing yoga, even sitting down to dinner with our families without commercial interruption… these are some of the ways we can inoculate ourselves from Monkey Mind and be better for it.
As we create more mental solace in our lives, we allow our bodies to reap the benefits of our dieting as well. Let us be mindful and choose our own paths towards greater health and happiness.