Using Your Monkey Mind to Redirect Negative Thoughts

Monkey Mind

“I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I grew up in what I like to call The Box of Daughter: a rigid structure of rules about values, beliefs, thinking, feeling, and behaving, set forth for me by super-religious parents who grew up in boxes of their own.

For a large part of my life, my thinking bounced around within the confines of that box—worrying the old worries, thinking the old thoughts, feeling the old pain, and acting out pretty much the same compulsions time after time—stuck in ever-repeating loops of monkey mind.

I’ve always loved reading about quantum physics and marveling at the infinite possibilities in the universe. But I couldn’t seem to get many of those wonderful possibilities to happen in my life because I was stuck in that old structure, the childhood voices bulldozing their doubts, fears, and negative mumblings right over what I was trying to create.

As I’ve endeavored over the years to deepen and expand my spirituality, I’ve connected more and more with the divine creative force, the constant, growth-oriented creative energy of life. “This is how I’m meant to live,” I would think, and then I’d go right back to monkey mind.

I’ve come to believe that there must be a purpose for monkey mind—that nature intended for us to do something with it, that it’s not simply an aberration that evolved in us as life got more complicated.

One night in the bathtub (which is where I do my best creative thinking), I noticed a correlation between the constant flow of creative energy in the Universe and monkey mind, which is a also constant flow of energy—but in my case, energy that’s ricocheting off the inside walls of the mental box I grew up in.

After my bath, a hypothesis bloomed in my mind that monkey mind might be a twisted form of what nature originally intended to be constant creative thought.

My mind turned to one of my favorite pastimes, puttering. When I’m puttering, my mind often flows from one thing to another, seemingly at random, and I usually feel like I’m smack in the now—dealing with one task, then another, in any order I choose to. It may not necessarily be truly creative, but there is a forward flow that I don’t experience with monkey mind.

When I’m in monkey mind, there are usually only a few selected thoughts going through my mind, circling around and around, bumping up against each other in their rush to be first. There’s no forward movement. I suppose it’s a form of creativity; however, I’m a little fearful of what I create when I’m in monkey mind.

I’ve been tinkering with different possibilities for manifesting what I want in my life, and that’s led me to discover a way to get out of monkey mind and into creative mind, which not only brings me right into the now, but opens my mind to more and more and more possibilities.

It’s sort of like the same type of circling thought, but it never returns to the starting place on the circle. The thoughts do not repeat themselves—they curve around from one possibility to the next, to another idea, another way, another dream….

When I’m working on a task that I hope will encourage something I want to manifest, if I let my creative mind jump from possibility to possibility (“…and then what? And then what happens? And what else?”), I’m able to keep jumping over that little doubting voice that used to create most of my reality (“…it’s not happening, it’s not going to happen, it won’t happen.”)

As long as I stay in that creative mind, jumping from one possibility to the next like the image I have of a fractal (winding out into more designs and spirals of possibility), that little doubting voice doesn’t have a chance to interject its repetitive thoughts.

As long as I don’t go back to square one, monkey mind doesn’t get me.

I’m sure the divine creative force is out there saying to itself, “And what else can I create? What does this make me think of? And what other possibilities might there be?”

That’s how I think nature intended us to use monkey mind. I can’t imagine It thinking, “Wait, I have to go back and check that flower…Whoops, that tree isn’t quite tall enough… Maybe I shouldn’t have created that volcano…”

Creative mind is similar to the way I remember thinking as a child: “Why do bumblebees buzz? What do they feel like? Ouch!!”

But once we get into school, we’re essentially trained to think in monkey mind: reciting facts over and over to commit them to memory, learning the rules of English and using them every time we write (even when we’re writing creatively), and even sometimes having our physical play at recess structured into games full of rigid rules.

It’s no wonder we learn to think in circles (or in my case, squares) instead of fractally. We learn how to do monkey mind in school, just like we learn how to do everything else.

So here are a few tips for getting out of monkey mind and learning what creative mind might feel like inside your head:

1. When doing a repetitive task like washing the dishes, try enumerating to yourself in your mind every step that you’re taking, and start inserting new thoughts.

“Putting soap on the sponge, rinsing the plate, I wonder who made this plate, rubbing the sponge in a circular motion, and could I rub it the other direction? I wonder what country this sponge was made in, and how are sponges made anyway?” Keep pushing yourself to come up with new thoughts. Don’t let old familiar ones edge their way in.

2. When you’re making efforts to manifest something in your life, don’t stop with the first picture you get. Keep expanding it.

“And then what? And what would that mean? And what could I do with that?” Draw other things into the visualization or energy output that aren’t necessarily related in order to keep expanding your vision: “And maybe a surprise would happen, and my health could be better, and I might live somewhere else…”

I find when I’m trying to manifest that if I try to hold a particular vision for very long, that little doubter elbows its way in and starts telling me how it’s not going to happen. That’s because trying to hold the vision means I’m fixating—same thing as my monkey mind going around in a circle.

I have to keep changing the vision slightly (preferably growing it) in order to stop fixating, and that prevents the doubter from getting a handhold.

3. Go for a walk and talk silently to yourself about what you see.

“That tree’s a little crooked. It’s taller than the others. I saw a bird go by—wonder what kind it is? Sure are a lot of weeds here. I wouldn’t be driving that fast on this curvy road. I can feel my knees every time I take a step…”

Keep your focus moving, so it doesn’t settle inside your mind. Getting into your body is a great way to get into the now.

4. When you’ve got the feeling, try it with creating.

“How would I change that tree so I’d like it better? Can I walk more gently so my knees don’t hurt? If I could change the color of the sky for one day, what would I change it to? What would I put there if there wasn’t a sky?”

Ever notice how, when children are creating, they say, “And then… And then… And then…”? That’s creative mind: coming up with another possibility, another idea, another option, another dream, like constant brainstorming.

It’s a little tiring the first few times you get into it, but it “uses up” that monkey mind energy so you can rest afterwards. It does take practice. But I believe from the bottom of my heart that it puts us into powerful alignment with the divine creative force.

It’s so much easier to keep the mind moving along a creative path than it is to try and shut out negative thoughts. Who knows what you’ll come up with? See if you can get into creative mind, and you won’t have to not think about that elephant that’s not in the room.

Photo by Hartwig HKD

About Katherine Mayfield

Katherine Mayfield is the award-winning author of a memoir about recovering from emotional abuse in her family, The Box of Daughter: Healing the Authentic Self. She’s also written several books on dysfunctional families, including Stand Your Ground: How to Cope with a Dysfunctional Family and Recover from Trauma. She blogs on dysfunctional families on her website, Twitter: @K_Mayfield

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  • johnnnnni

    Basically Mindfulness right? Ive been working on mindfulness for a few weeks. My anxiety has gone way up and mindfulness is one tool im using, but its way too hard.

  • venusbu03

    This is great! I typically think of mindfulness as focusing on what is occurring right now, but of course monkey mind interrupts as it always will. But shifting to a creative mind is something I have not tried. Very insightful. And don’t fixate is excellent advice 🙂

  • Beth Gallagher

    Oh my gosh, Katharine, thank you so very much for this wonderful post! As the result of a recent medical emergency with my daughter, we as a family have resorted to monkey mind. Your post was like a rolled up newspaper hitting me in the head (a good thing), and I feel empowered to stretch my thinking and encourage my family to do the same. Can’t thank you enough!!!

  • KB

    Just what I needed today! Thank You!

  • ccrgirl

    This is so original 🙂 I started doing No. 1 and 3 some time ago and it’s really working, plus it’s super funny 🙂


    Indeed there is a difference between generative thinking and ruminative fixation. One builds and expands and the other analyzes and doubts. But even a creator has to step back and “objectively” (ha) review the work now and then. The trick is how to manage the flips and not get attached. Quite a trick, that.
    Also, I’ve never figured out how Buddhism and/or mindfullness can foster creativity. If one is just being mindful, observing and still, how does creative thinking happen, except by will or it’s opposite: surrender to a mysterious force?
    “I have devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  • Meena

    Journaling has helped a lot with purging monkey mind and of course staying present yoga all of the good stuff in life. great article I enjoyed it a lot.

  • johanna

    its hard only because you are telling yourself it is hard which is that nasty little monkey on your back. tell him to hit the road

  • Katherine

    You’re welcome! My family was hugely monkey mind, too — all the time, not just during emergencies! I think that’s where most of us learn it.
    It’s what I like to call the “Drama Addiction” — wrote a lot about it in my book, “Dysfunctional Families.”
    Glad this was helpful!

  • Katherine

    Thanks for your kind words! It is funny, isn’t it?

  • Katherine

    You’re welcome! Good luck!

  • Katherine

    Thanks! Yoga does help, too….

  • Katherine

    You raise some very interesting points. In my experience, the mindful, observing, and still I become, the more the creative ideas flow — what I think of as my muse. I receive more ideas for books and other endeavors than I can possibly create. The problem for me is choosing what most wants to be said or written.
    “More books,” the Universe says. “Write more books!” And I just do my best.

  • “Keep your focus moving, so it doesn’t settle inside your mind.” I just love this article! Very helpful..

  • Beth Gallagher

    I’m off to look for your book! Thanks again. 🙂

  • that’s definitely worth trying! thanx

  • Eric Dicesare

    Just surrender to the flow.

  • Manuel Durán

    GOSH..It’s been a long time I don’t leave a comment but this is just pure gold. Congratulations for putting this together and doing it so wisely

  • Katherine

    Thank you! Glad it’s helpful.

  • Katherine

    Thanks, Manuel. I appreciate your kind words.

  • Casper

    Finally found something worth while on the internet!

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    “See if you can get into creative mind, and you won’t have to not think about that elephant that’s not in the room.” haha…funny! Love the picture you used for the blog..def caught my attention in wanting to read By the way; just ordered your book on ‘Being Bullied,’ from Amazon….

  • lv2terp

    Great post!! I love the perspective, and tips to alter from monkey to creative mind! Awesome A-HA moment for you in that bathtub, love those epiphanies! Thank you so much for sharing yours! 🙂

  • IBikeNYC

    I LOVE the dish-washing mindfulness exercise; LOL!

  • Michael Meuleman

    Thanks so much i love this i was stuggling with monkey mind the last few days and i think this wounderful i was like i need to be more creative thats why my monkey mind had gotten so bad