‘Monkey Mind’ is the term used to describe the background chatter that happens in our mind, giving voice to the things that stress or worry or otherwise weigh on our minds. For many, going out for a run or working out in the gym is a time to think about everything – groceries, schedules, priorities, stuff going on at work, school, home and so on. In fact, having ‘monkey mind’ is a part of being human – but it can be counter-productive to getting things done. In fact, while it might seem like the perfect time to let your mind run wild, you really need to banish ‘Monkey Mind’ for a better run.
There is a point at which ‘monkey mind’ becomes a very serious anxiety disorder in which a person simply cannot quiet the negative voices anymore to address their daily lives. This is NOT that – if your internal dialogue becomes so deafening and overwhelming that it is removing you from daily life, that is a serious thing you need to address with your doctor.
I remember the day I ran my first half-marathon. It was the first time I had my whole family there for a race, and I was concerned about them sitting around for two hours, and ended up forgetting my GPS watch! I didn’t realize this until we were almost there, and there was no time to go home again, so I was stuck. Stuck without the watch, yes, but perhaps more importantly I was stuck in my own head, worrying about my family, the route, and the watch … everything, but actually running the race. I went out too fast, and as I’ve discussed — I died towards the end. While nutrition was the biggest issue, had I managed my mind I would have been in a much better place when I ran out of fuel — and likely not thinking about it so much all these months later!
But the ‘big race’ chatter is not typical – it is when you get out for a daily routine run that you need to work to fight Monkey Mind. When you go out for your daily run, do you worry about what music to play, if you remembered to turn off the lights, to feed the cat, are you wondering the last time you charged the battery in your headlamp, and so on? What about once you are into your run? Are you using that time to get your best possible workout, or to think about meetings at work, stuff going on with your marriage or with the kids? Are you making lists and solving issues in your life? THAT is where your problems are.
Monkey Mind for runners means you are not focused on the very reason you are running — to get the best possible workout.
Years ago I developed a basic system for managing myself during runs, and I was surprised to find out that I had stumbled upon a very ‘zen’ approach inadvertently! First off, no music. Why? It is a distraction – you cannot easily focus on safety, and your rhythms come from the outside rather than the inside. Also, there are few things as gorgeous as the sounds of the morning waking up before the dawn.
Second, make sure you are ready to run when you leave the house. Nature has a great way of helping you — it is called ‘stretching’. There is no better time to do an inventory and be sure you are physically ready, and to quiet your mind before starting the run. Because if your primary focus as your feet leave your driveway is NOT your run, you’ll never meet your goal. Speaking of which …
Next, every workout needs a goal and a purpose. For years I ran basically the exact same course every day without any real purpose other than to run. Well, I also knew I could think well once I quieted my mind — there were several times where major work innovations came to me on a run: it was a simply matter of taking what I had already done and applying focus and clarity. The problem was when I started trying to force the issue and turn my run into a ‘working session’. No longer was I getting the mental focus benefits or the cleansing before work — I was tired mentally before I started work, and my mood wasn’t good.
But also in terms of purpose and goals, I am referring to exercise goals. Runners need (among other things) speed, endurance and flexibility. If you are fortunate like me and have a bunch of ready-made courses from your doorstep that vary in distance, flatness and challenge, it is easy to build up a routine that changes by the day. You can also mix in fartleks and intervals and stride work and so on.
Sometimes you just need to get the workout done — this morning after an exhausting weekend with a couple of great runs and a tough week ahead what I really needed was to go on a course of medium length and challenge, and spend the entire time quiet in my mind listening to the sounds of my feet hitting the pavement and my breaths in and out. It took a very average run and made it glorious, providing the foundation to deal with some stuff at work this morning.
And the most important part was that I was of a quiet mind before I left the door to finish stretching as my Garmin found the GPS signal. Does this mean I empty my mind? Not at all! I don’t even think that is possible. But rather than trying to work through everything in my head as I ran, I allowed the tap-tap-tap of my feet and the heh-heh-heh-huh-huh of my breathing to help my mind get sorted and ready for the day.
The impact of my ‘zen running’ is clear to myself and everyone around me; there have been more than a couple of times when one of my kids has asked ‘are you going for a run’ in a way that is more a suggestion than a question. The impact on my mood and state of mind is immediate and tremendous.
How do you clear your mind? What is your approach to ‘banish your monkey mind’?