Welcome to week 3 of How To Beat The Winter Blues!
How did you get on with last week’s strategies, for keeping your energy levels feeling great this winter? I’d love to hear how you’re getting on, over at the forum.
This week we’re moving on to your Monkey Mind and the vital role it plays in the winter blues.
It’s not winter that’s the problem – it’s the stories we tell ourselves about it.
When it comes to dealing with the winter blues, your Monkey Mind (the chattering bit that runs a commentary on every aspect of your life) can be your worst enemy. It can take a cold breeze and turn it into a gale. It can take a few spots of rain and turn them into a downpour. It can take a few flakes of snow and turn them into a blizzard.
But your Monkey Mind can also be your best friend, when you know how to handle it.
Want to find out how?
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Have you ever noticed how much we all love telling stories? I’m not talking Jackanory here – we’re much more subtle.
Our ‘monkey mind’ (the part of us that does the running commentary, whatever we’re doing) is rarely off-duty and relishes a little drama. It believes that life without our own personal soap opera would be about as exciting as Christmas without the cranberry sauce.
And the thing is that the monkey mind is far from being a neutral observer. It much prefers to pass comment on everything that’s going on, feeding the currently-favoured emotion like bellows on an open fire.
And I had a lovely reminder of this a little while ago.
I was feeling particularly grumpy and glum (yes, running a blog on happiness and stuff doesn’t mean I’m Pollyanna all the time!). I was in the middle of a major melt-down of some renovation work at home, but grumpy & glum really weren’t called-for. And, curiously, the more I put my “fix it” hat on and tried to rationalise myself out of the emotion, the worse I felt.
Then the words of a Buddhist meditation teacher I once knew came to mind.
He used to tell me that:
“The mind can only hold a thought for 60 seconds, then it will disappear, unless you feed it with another thought.“
Of course, back then,my rational brain used to object and point out that I was perfectly capable of holding a thought or emotion for as long as I chose. But deep down, I secretly knew that it was only because I kept feeding it. And now, as a meditation teacher, I know the truth of the fact that:
Any thought or emotion, left to its own devices, will eventually complete its cycle and go.
But if you resist it and fight it, you are feeding it and it is going to grow. As Carl Jung told us:
“What you resist persists.“
And that’s exactly what I was doing that time, when I was feeling down. By trying to analyse and understand why I was feeling the way I was, my monkey mind got to stoke those fires way before each 60 second segment was through. And, before I knew it, it was 2 a.m. and my frustration was growing into full-blown anger.
Yet had I just accepted the emotion of frustration when it was tiny, it would have quickly moved on and I’d have felt better within minutes.
Instead, I kept telling myself more and more stories that wound me up further, constantly trying to paddle upstream, against the flow.
I wasn’t just thinking one grumpy and annoyed thought – I was feeding an army of thousands of them. Feeling happier and at least ‘ok’ about things didn’t stand a chance, while I was actively inviting grumpy thoughts into my mind.
Have you noticed how your Monkey Mind likes to tell stories about what’s going wrong? Even when you’re not feeling particularly down, if it spots a trigger, it uses it as an excuse to start up the story machine again.
And it likes labels. It likes to put things in boxes: “That’s a stressful thing. That’s a difficult thing. That’s a happy thing.” When the stuff is in boxes, it makes life easier for your Monkey Mind, because then it knows which auto-pilot scripts and old habitual behaviours to run.
But there’s a problem with all of this.
The problem is that we believe the stories our Monkey Mind tells us.
If it tells us something is a happy thing, we believe it. If it tells us that something is a difficult thing, we believe it. And we feed the thoughts that support those beliefs.
Life is an objective, sensory experience, until you label it and attach the event to a story. As soon as we use a label or put an experience into a particular box, we lose our flexibility and choice over how to respond.
The experience is automatically connected to your body’s chemistry set, triggering the hormones and chemical reactions that impact your physiology and emotions. The label – the story – impacts every cell in your body, without you consciously doing a single thing about it. But it’s all a fib, because:
‘Life’ isn’t ‘bad’. The stories we tell ourselves about life create the stress. It is believing your thoughts that causes the pain.
Much (though not quite all – as we’ll come to in future weeks) of our experience of the winter blues comes from believing the stories your mind is telling you about it. Yes, some events have the power to trigger more stress than others, but ultimately it’s up to us to choose how to experience life.
Do I really have the winter blues? Or am I just telling myself that I do?
You are the author of your own story. So you can choose which story to write.
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”
The quality and ‘tone’ of our thoughts has a profound impact on our experience of life.
BUT: Telling your Monkey Mind to stop thinking thoughts that make you feel miserable doesn’t work.
Your mind can’t process a ‘negative’.
What do I mean?
I mean that if you shout at a child, “Don’t run!” it first has to imagine ‘running’ and then the ‘not’, by which time the accident has probably happened. If you tell them, “Don’t fall over!” then it first has to imagine falling over, and you can guess the rest. Instead of shouting, “Don’t run!” you could try “Walk!” Instead of “Don’t fall!” how about “Stay safe!”? Can you sense the difference it makes?
Tell your Monkey Mind, “Don’t think negative thoughts!” and it first has to imagine the “negative thoughts” bit and… you guessed it… it never gets round to processing the “don’t“!
How To Turn Things Around?
Choose Which Thoughts To Feed
You’re not trying to ‘banish’ the sad or angry thoughts.
In fact, that would just make them stronger, as we beat ourselves up for ‘daring’ to think an unhappy or unkind thought.
As Carl Jung reminds us: “What you resist persists.”
Give your energy – your attention – to a thought that you don’t ‘want’ and you are feeding that thought, allowing it to grow and continue.
Instead, we’re simply looking to tip the balance in favour of the happy and more empowering ones, one day at a time; one thought at a time; no ‘forcing’; no ‘have to’; no ‘getting rid’; simply choosing to play with feeding the thoughts that lift our spirits, one at a time.
How to get your Monkey Mind to tell the truth – and reclaim your choice – a 60 second mindfulness technique.
- Start with 3 Mindful Breaths, breathing in through your nose and breathing out with a tension-releasing ‘ahhh’ sound. This brings you back into the present moment and into your body.
- Say to yourself: “I choose to press ‘pause’ on the story.” And mean it. Wait for the gap to arrive.
- Ask yourself: “What is real in this situation?”
- Be firm with yourself. If stories and drama surface, press pause on them and ask yourself again what’s real.
- If you get stuck, go back to describing the physical sensory experience, e.g. “When my boss said I have to do a presentation next week, I noticed the pit of my stomach tensing up and I clenched my jaw.”
- Sensory descriptions bring you back to what’s real and helps you to drop the label-addiction.
- When you distil the situation back to the essence of the sensory experience, and let go of the labels and the stories, it always feels better.
- If you want to try out solutions to the problem, imagine them and ask yourself how they feel. Your body will tell you whether the solution creates physical sensations that feel worse or whether it brings genuine relief. It’s easier to make decisions, when you work with your body’s internal barometer.
How did that feel?
I hope you find today’s strategies helpful. I’d love to hear how you’re getting on – over at the forum.
Week 3 Affirmation:
I enjoy choosing which thoughts to feed.
Next week I’ll be back with insider secrets for how you get moving – discovering the power of simple stretches to unlock your energy and set you free from winter lethargy.
I hope you have a great week!