Allow me to introduce my monkey.
This loveable rascal assumed residence in my cerebrum around the time I hit puberty and has been my traveling companion ever since. She’s a mischievous little scamp, always chattering away and frequently up to no good. Over the years I have found ways to tame her, but it’s not exactly been plain sailing.
The monkey mind is a Buddhist idea that refers to the endless inner chatter we all experience to some degree; the mental commentary that can often prevent us from simply enjoying life. The Buddha is said to have described the mind as being full of drunken monkeys, which is a rather wonderful three-thousand-year-old image. Drunk, caffeinated or otherwise, my resident primate is certainly a tricksy one. I have to keep her well trained and on a strict diet, otherwise she can turn on me with those sharp little teeth.
We all have a specialist subject. Something that, upon sensing a whiff of interest from an unfortunate fellow human, we will talk about non-stop, barely pausing for breath until said fellow human walks away out of sheer desperation. Politics. Veganism. Trains (you know who you are). Harry Potter. That obscure indie-folk band that apparently no-one except you has heard of. Poodles. Parenting philosophies. We all have one: a subject that ignites little fires behind our eyes when it comes up in conversation (usually because we bring it up). Mine is mental health. I will talk about mental health with anyone who sits still long enough to listen.
I meet SO many people who struggle with mental health problems. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I know more people who have struggled with mental health issues than people who haven’t. It’s a hideous, rampant beast of a problem in our society. And how could it not be? Most of us in the West grew up knowing virtually nothing about how to keep our minds healthy and are now bombarded daily with mental incendiaries, the sheer volume of which has likely never been experienced before in human history. It’s the perfect storm.
Although my fascination with mental health has its roots in some horrendous experiences during my early twenties and a need to implement survival strategies ever since, my interest in mental health feels like a hugely positive one. I have devoured book after book on mental health out of a basic need to stay afloat, yes, but also because the same concepts and techniques that prevent me from deteriorating into serious mental illness can make everything better. Seriously. What could be more game-changing than learning to tame your own mind?Over the years I have collected gem after shiny gem of advice, ideas and techniques, so that I now have a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of wisdom which I draw from daily. (See also: toolkit, weapons arsenal; the metaphor will switch depending on my mood). In future #TravelswithMyMonkey posts I will share as many of these nuggets as I can with you, whilst being as scandalously honest as I dare about the not-so-pretty aspects of my experience.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you how bathing twice daily in fermented goat’s milk whilst listening to Iron Maiden and chewing raw coffee beans has changed my life. I’m mostly talking about well-known and fluffy-sounding things like living in the present and learning to relate differently to your own thoughts. Mindfulness. Ideas that sound so obvious and insubstantial, it’s easy to underestimate how counterintuitive and utterly transformative they can be.
I have a natural tendency to overthink, worry, ruminate and become caught up in obsessive, circular, dysfunctional thought patterns. I learnt the hard way how this tendency can very easily lead to debilitating mental illness, but now I know what to look out for and how to respond, it rarely gets to the point where it feels unmanageable or inescapable. I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been, quite frankly. I still get beaten up regularly by my own brain, but the resulting lows don’t tend to last long. Better still, I have learnt that an overthinking mind in itself is not necessarily a disadvantage. Managed well, it can become something of a superpower.
P.S. I need to make one thing very clear: if you are struggling with a mental health issue of any kind, find someone to talk to. Seek help, even if you don’t feel it’s worth making a fuss about. There’s almost definitely something you can do about it. You are not alone, and there are qualified professionals who are used to dealing with precisely the sort of thing you are experiencing. I am a massive believer in the benefits of education and self-help when it comes to mental health. (Note: Of course, any muppet can write a self-help book/article. Discretion required.) But this should never replace professional, medical help when it’s needed. Think of it this way: we can learn how to stay healthy by vacating the sofa once in a while and easing off the Dunkin’ Donuts, but we still go to the doctor when we think something’s not right. Same thing with mental health. Learning to help ourselves is crucial, but so is being unashamed to seek outside help when we need it.
Emma Higgs is a music teacher from the UK, currently living in The Bahamas with her husband and two young children. When she’s not singing silly songs, she enjoys writing about spirituality and mental health, which she sees as intimately connected (along with music, of course).
Images via Pixabay