#FocusFriday: Taming Your Monkey Mind

by Jennifer Wasmer, Head of International Communications, Xerox

If you’re breathing (and I believe you are), you have something to learn from ancient Yogic wisdom about how to better focus on your work and all aspects of your life.

For the Yogic sages, the equivalent of a busy, multi-tasking, memo-scribing, tweeting, dashing-to-meetings, late-to-pick-up-the-kids, where-are-my-car-keys, 21st-century-knowledge-worker brain (sound familiar?) was known as a monkey mind.

Here’s what I mean: Imagine a tree. That’s your mind. Imagine 1,000 monkeys. Those beasts are all your thoughts and distractions. Imagine the 1,000 monkeys are in the tree doing all their monkey stuff (like jumping and swinging, screeching and eating). That’s your monkey mind. Or mine. Or your neighbor’s (unless your neighbor is fully enlightened). We all have monkeys in our tree.

So, now that you have an image of all your mind’s distracting thoughts, take a nice, deep breath.

Then, check back with your mind. Are the monkeys still there?

I’m sure the answer is “yes” – but do they seem even a teeny bit less active? If so, it’s because your breath has triggered the calming effect of your parasympathetic nervous system and has opened a doorway to a clearer mind.

The parasympathetic nervous system serves to slow the heart rate and allows the blood vessels to widen, improving blood flow (1). Basically, it relieves stress. And, guess what. You can use your breath to call on the parasympathetic nervous system to do its stuff. Ancient yogis may not have had the anatomy figured out, but they knew this phenomenal power of the breath.

Consciously breathing in the midst of your frantic work day can slow your heart rate, get your blood flowing better, and deliver a dose of calm that frees you to focus* on the task at hand. Becoming more aware of your breath through practices like meditation, hatha yoga or pranayama will give you even more ways to cultivate a calmer, more focused mind. For example, breaths with a longer exhale than inhale are particularly soothing, and certain breathing practices (like kalabati) can be very energizing. But a regular, old breath can be enough, if you remember to take one. I have a sign at my desk that says ‘breathe.’ Any time I see it, I do just that, and it feels great.

I saw a graph today about the rate at which information creation will continue to increase over time – and it’s not slowing down. If you think your monkey mind is busy now, wait a few years. Learning to draw on the ubiquitous and ever-powerful gift of your breath will be a tremendous asset as you seek to tame the increasing number of monkeys in your tree.

Now, take another deep breath, and go get ’em.


(1) The parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system together make up the automatic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” responses and increases the heart rate to prepare the body for action. Overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system is a cause of stress.


#FocusFriday is a weekly conversation helping people with productivity in the office.  Posts can be at the same time fun and serious, in the spirit of the company’s Business of Your Brain app, yet always focused on what matters most, Real Business.

*Updated on November 21, 2017)

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  1. Pedro Wasmer June 28, 2011 - Reply

    Exremely useful advise with a very appropriate simile to our daily struggle to comlete all tasks: Our monkey brain.
    I just tried my first breathing exercise and it helped!

  2. Ann Wasmer June 28, 2011 - Reply

    An amazing metaphor!!! Very powerful and effective … I know the “breathe thing” works! WOW!!!

  3. Rob Groves June 29, 2011 - Reply

    I like this. I’m a believer in the power of yoga but have never invested the time to really explore it. A very simple, and easy to comprehend, concept. And the best thing – it works! I have just taken a deep controlled breath and whilst the monkeys are definitely still there, they do seem slightly more tranquil. Good stuff.

  4. Mark Israel June 29, 2011 - Reply

    Love this. Congrats!!

  5. Wallace J. Nichols September 21, 2012 - Reply

    There’s nothing better than water or the sound of water to trigger the parasympathic nervous system!

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