How Simple Thinking Leads to a Brilliant Mind

“All the things that truly matter, beauty, love, creativity, joy and inner peace arise from beyond the mind.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Your beautiful mind can be your worst enemy.

I know someone who suffers from schizophrenia. He constantly hears voices, like a radio in his head. It's a constant distraction, making it nearly impossible to hold a job or do anything that requires concentration. The worst part is that the voices say negative, demeaning things to him. He's trapped by his mind and his illness.

In truth, we all suffer from voices in our head. They may not be audible, and they may not always be negative or demeaning, but there's a constant babble of information, worries, instant replays of interactions, thinking ahead, or ruminating about the past.

Our brains have a mind of their own, even when we are alone and quiet. But much of the time, the noise in our heads is compounded by everything around us — television, computers, traffic, people talking at us, the myriad of distractions and sensory input that comes at us daily.

If we were cartoon characters, our heads would spin around and explode, exposing a bunch of smoking coils and springs.

Sometimes it feels as if there are two entities living inside our heads — the one that is constantly cogitating and responding to input and the other that is underneath all of that, the real you who gets lost in the menagerie.

In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle discusses a revelation about this duality during a dark period in his life:

I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live. “I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I' and the ‘self' that ‘I' cannot live with” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.” (Tolle 3, 4)

He goes on to discuss how this revelation completely changed his life, pulling him from despair with the awareness that you can free yourself from your mind. Eckhart Tolle's journey became a spiritual one, but I believe that the awareness of our ability to control our minds has very practical, daily applications.

When you learn how to control your mind, you open a door to the vastness of creativity, inspiration, and brilliance that is just behind the clutter of your thoughts.

Awareness and belief that you can control your mind is a huge first step. Many people go through their entire lives victimized by their thinking. They believe they have no control of what thoughts take up residence in their brains, and worse, they believe that every thought they have is true. In fact, most of the time our thoughts are meaningless, untrue, or simply a portion of the truth.

Buddhists use a psychological metaphor called the “mind-monkey,” suggesting that our minds are “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.” When we learn to tame the mind-monkey and master our thinking, then we have the power and freedom to change our lives profoundly through clear, brilliant action.

Learning to tame the mind-monkey is like training a puppy or a toddler. You need persistence, patience, and a gentle hand. You have allowed your mind to run wild for most of your life, but once you learn to exert simple boundaries and control, your mind will respond brilliantly. Simplifying your thinking will expand your mind.

Here are some ways to put this into practice on a daily basis.

Be The Watcher

As I mentioned before, awareness is the first step to change. Start by becoming aware of your thoughts. Separate your “self” from your thoughts, and just observe what is going on in your mind. But try to do this impartially, without judging the thoughts. Be conscious of yourself as a witness to your thoughts. You can do this sporadically throughout the day. But also try it by sitting in a five minute meditation. Sit quietly, breath normally, and simply pay attention to the thoughts that float by in your head. If you get carried away by a thought, gently redirect yourself to be the witness.

Stop the Bad Monkeys

The most debilitating thought traps are those that reinforce negative, limiting beliefs and feelings. These are the thoughts where you replay disappointments or failures in your head, or you focus on your perceived bad qualities, or you over-think a problem or worry. Critical thinking is helpful when it leads to a solution or conclusion. But circular thinking traps us on a treadmill, draining our energy and happiness. The longer you are on the treadmill, the more ingrained that pattern becomes in your brain.

There are several “mental tricks” you can use to interrupt this pattern:

  • Simply say “stop” out loud (vocalizing reinforces the interruption), and then visualize a metal wall slamming down in front of your runaway thoughts.
  • Wear a rubber band on your wrist, and gently snap it or switch it from one arm to the other when you are aware of a negative thinking cycle.
  • Break the cycle using distraction. Do something that will occupy your mind so there's no room for the negative thoughts, like repeating the alphabet or singing a song.

Teach Your Old Mind New Tricks

Your mind abhors a vacuum, so you can't rid yourself of negative thinking without filling the void. Otherwise the same negative thinking will creep back in. There are two ways to fill the void to set the stage for mental brilliance.

First, consistently use positive thinking to contradict negative thoughts. This will feel stupid and awkward at first, but eventually you retrain your monkey mind to believe it. Secondly, take positive action. When you are in a worry spiral, do something, anything, that is productive or positive to distract you from negative thoughts.

Practice Clean, Clear Distraction-Free Focus

When you need to do something, focus on the task at hand. Remove all distractions. Turn off the phone, clear your desk, close the door, and do the thing. Sensory overload is food for the mind monkey. A distraction-free mind has more energy for brilliance and creativity. In fact, the fewer distractions you have in life in general, the more freedom your mind will have to create solutions and generate ideas.

Acknowledge the Truth (or Lack of) about Thoughts

In reality, most of our thoughts aren't true. What we think about ourselves, how we see other people, and our perceptions of situations are usually fear-based speculation or partial reality. The real truth lies in the present moment. You can worry about “what was” or “what if” all day long, but the only reality in that is the wasted energy and time you just expended. Simplify your thinking to reality-based thinking, which is grounded in the present moment.

Simplify Your Lifestyle

Support your simpler thought patterns with a simple life. Too many thoughts, too many distractions, too many things, too many choices, too many people all contribute to mental clutter, inertia, and frustration. Do less with more time. Have less but enjoy it more. Think less and have the clear space for mental brilliance.

Simplifying your thoughts is a discipline that takes regular practice. It's like exercise — awkward and painful at first, but eventually it becomes more natural as you get stronger. The rewards of a “simple mind” are life-changing. When you are free from the bondage of your thoughts, you are free to do or be anything.

Comments

  1. Maya @ Ms Buddha says:

    To be the witness is the first big step! Love Tolle -so inspirational.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Maya,
      I’m so glad it resonated with you. Thank you for commenting!

  2. Very true on all counts! The ability for each of us to change our minds, and the way we think is incredibly powerful. Each of your points hits individual nails on the head, from duality to interrupting negative thinking and all points in between, you cover the basics of handling negative thinking! I know, I personally spent some time grappling with depression myself, including a session or two with a CBT. I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed your article, and wanted to share that with you. Nice post. Thanks so much!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Dan,
      Thank you so much for your kind comments. I am so glad the points resonated with you. Less time thinking — more time living and doing! I think that’s the key to a happy life.

  3. Peppy | The PeppyWrites Chronicles says:

    Hello Barrie,

    This article really grabbed me … especially “Stop the Bad Monkeys” – it is like my brain has an instant replay button for anything I’ve said or done that is wrong, negative, stupid, hurtful, ugly …. constantly reliving anything that will reinforce my insecurities. I really liked your first suggestion – to say out loud “stop!” I plan on putting that into practice asap!

    As Dan said in his comment, “each of your points hits individual nails on the head” … so many solid and doable suggestions to help break free from the mental enslavement of negative thinking!

    Thank you!

    Peppy

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Peppy,
      How are you doing? So nice to see you here. Yes, I love that “bad monkey” idea too. It’s so descriptive– like your mind is a naughty little monkey always getting into trouble, and you have to rein it in and train it. Remember the Curious George books? I’m so glad you found useful info here!

    • Julinda says:

      I replay embarrassing or shameful moments from my childhood, and I feel it all over again – and I am 49 years old! I would love to stop those thoughts. Thanks.

  4. It’s true. It’s really, really true. The awareness that this truth exists helps immensely toward finding a way to live next to it. Changing focus – consciously stopping and saying, “No. Enough. Stop.” and walking away to do something else… becoming less frazzled, simplifying EVERYTHING…. oh there are so many ways we can walk towards mental health and away from being our own worst enemy if we only know and utilize the tools.

    You are a beacon of light, my friend.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hello dear Diana,
      When I was younger, I thought that if I pondered things long enough, I’d get the answer. Now I finally understand that pondering is only useful if it gets you somewhere positive. Action is far more productive and supports mental stability! I wish I’d had the tools 20 years ago. We all learn from each other. I was on your blog the other day looking at your beautiful ceramics and wishing I knew how to create them. 🙂

  5. I love Eckhart Tolle. His books and teachings are fabulous, especially so because he walks the talk.

    I remember being so caught up in the thoughts in my head that I couldn’t hear what people were saying to me. It is so true, it happens and we are not even aware of it until someone brings it to our attention.

    Thanks Barrie, for providing action steps to quiet the monkey-mind.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Marianne,
      When I first discovered Eckhart Tolle’s books, I was blown away. The concepts are so simple, but our minds have a hard time accepting simplicity! Our minds are like sticky spider webs. We can get caught in them, as you mention. And we don’t even know we are stuck. Isn’t it wonderful to have figured it out?

  6. Whilst I’m sympathetic to the intention of this post and Tolle’s thinking about duality, I think one must be careful of oversimplifying these dilemmas.

    Firstly who are you if not your mind? Does your mind have a mind (a little homunculus)? If it does, then does that mind have another mind, and so on…it becomes infinitely recursive.

    The other issue is interrupting negative thought patterns, or countering them with positive thoughts. Whilst this may work on the surface (i.e. the conscious mind). The negative thoughts do not miraculously disappear. If you are persistent enough with this approach they thought falls into the unconscious where it can be more destructive than on the conscious level.

    The above being said I agree with countering negative thought patterns as we counter negative behaviour patterns, but the way this is done requires some thought :-).

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Stephen,
      You bring up some excellent points. I don’t know who we are — that’s an eternal question. But I can tell you how it feels to me. It feels like I have a mind that has endless chatter and can get caught on a treadmill of negative, circular thinking. Then I feel like I have a “super mind” that has wisdom and higher intelligence that tells me from experience and intuition that negative, circular thinking gets me nowhere except further entrenched. I can use this “super mind” to discipline the monkey mind so that I can get things done and think positively. Positive thinking and action give me energy and make me feel better about life in general. The more I practice it, the stronger I get at it happening naturally. However, if we have deep-seated problems that must be untangled, then I highly recommend people working with a good therapist. I agree that shoving stuff down that hasn’t been healed or addressed isn’t a good idea. But I think it’s far more productive to do that with the safety and boundaries of a therapist rather than just “dwelling” on it alone. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but this has worked for me! 🙂

  7. I love this post! I particularly agree with the section where you talk about distracting your mind to avoid negative thinking. I a post on something like this before, the gist of which is:

    When things are hard or scary, I start cleaning something around the house. Creating that little bit of order from chaos gives me back the sense of control that I need to engage the larger problem and diverts my mind from the downward spiral it wants to fall into.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      That is a great thing to do Shadlyn! You are not only distracting yourself from the negative, but you are creating order and harmony in your home. Isn’t it interesting how easily we can be distracted from our negative thinking if we engage in something else? I love your wolf avatar!

  8. It is interesting how our mind can be a friend or a foe. It is only a friend, in my experience, when I am dwelling in the consciousness of what is always present — the stillness of my own true nature.

    Every now and again thought storms come up. But there is something that is not moved by those storms. What is more important than coming to know and love this “something” more directly?

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Christopher,
      I love that phrase “thought storms.” It’s as descriptive at “mind monkeys.” If you are at the stage where you aren’t moved by these storms, you have come far indeed. Thank you for commenting my friend.

  9. You know, this is exactly what i’ve been working on. I went through this condition called Psychosis, I put myself in that condition because of sleep-deprivation. A couple years back I went through something and I kept thinking about it for hours, I would analyze everything about the situation, eventually go to sleep once I felt like I had figured something new out and the next day I would repeat the same process over and over and over again. It sounds tedious, and in hindsight it was. I eventually ended up deteriorating my psychological self, my emotional self through the thoughts I was entertaining and physically exhausted myself through lack of sleep, lack of maintaining a proper diet, even though I’ve never drank or done drugs, I stopped exercising, and my spiritual self and social-aspects were all in a fog. I was at rock bottom in my own mind and everything I thought ballooned up and made a lot bigger than need-be. I was hurting myself and I wasn’t seeing clearly, I was too in my own head and now that i’m out of all that I feel like a butterfly that has just cracked out of its shell. I’m no longer a ‘victim’ of my own mind and this post helps to reinforce that. I know who I am and i’m strong enough in my sense of self to know what I need to do, and not only know what it is I have to do but implement all of these strategies in order to do what I truly love, and that does NOT include destroying myself internally. It’s silly really, in hindsight, but these are real things that people are going through and i’m thankful for this post for reaffirming my efforts. (: You’re a wonderful writer and i’ll keep these in mind, I like that monkey analogy, I’ll use it. I’ve only used the whole “stop” or i’ll say “just let it go” for the thoughts that arise. I’ve realized that being mindful and knowing inside of my heart, that with all the love that I have to give, anything is possible, and I’m a good person, I know what to do. So i’ll leave you with a quote I have in a little book called The Key to Love states, “Let your love move with the lightness of air and shine with the intensity of the sun” (: Have a wonderful day!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Kim,
      Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am so glad that you have “broken open” and freed yourself from your head. Yes, many people live in their heads all of their lives, never even knowing they are trapped. I am so grateful to have discovered the truth about the reality of the present moment. It may not be easy to put it in practice, but at least their is a path if you follow it.

  10. Great post about the monkey mind. I first heard about this concept in “Wild Mind” by Natalie Goldberg and the description fits perfectly. I use the tools I learned in the Lefkoe Occurring Course to dissolve my “occurrings” to see reality i.e. what the situation is. Meaning is made up by us to understand why someone did something. However, when we can see a situation for what it is, we have the clarity to understand and figure why something happened. I believe we are consciousness and our minds are what we created when we came into this body to communicate. Unfortunately, we have forgotten who we are and identify with the mind and body, thinking this is who we really are. Looking forward to more posts on this subject. Love and Light

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Lauren,
      I haven’t read Wild Mind — it sounds very interesting. Byron Katie also writes and teaches about the present reality being exactly the way it’s supposed to be, and learning to view it with clarity rather than through the distortion of our own perceptions. It is a liberating concept. Struggle ceases when you view life this way. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  11. Hi Berrie, again a good article with a great solutions.But Its not easy to stop the bad monkeys.
    waiting for your next post.

  12. I love the way Gandhi showed us about the powerfulness of simplicity that stemmed from someone who had taken full command of simple thinking….

    The practice of giving up unnecessary expenditure, embracing a simple lifestyle and washing his own clothes, Gandhi called “reducing himself to zero”. On one occasion he returned the gifts bestowed to him from the Natals for his diligent service to the community.

    Gandhi spent one day of each week in silence. He believed that abstaining from speaking brought him inner peace and made him a better listener. This influence was drawn from the Hindu principles of mauna and shanti. On such days he communicated with others by writing on paper. For three and a half years, from the age of 37, Gandhi refused to read newspapers, claiming that the tumultuous state of world affairs caused him more confusion than his own inner unrest.

    ….simplicity in its grandest form. What an example to follow.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      You know Peter, I’ve never read a biography on Gandhi, but you have just inspired me to do so! Thank you.

  13. You are so right about the thought clutter in our minds. Many of our thoughts come from social conditioning, family, media, etc.. The thoughts we thought were true—-are only our perceptions of the truth filtered by our past and our conditioning. I believe we need to be quite and listen to our spirit—that is where we will find the truth.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Cris,
      Oh, you are so right. Spirit, intuition, God — whatever you call it, that is the source. Those filters are just layers of distraction to keep us away from the source. Thank you for your insightful comments. Hope you are doing well!

  14. Cathy | Treatment Talk says:

    Good information on how to tame our mind. I love Eckhart Tolle as well and his books have really changed my outlook. When we realize we can control our thoughts, our life improves. I’m reading his book , “Stillness Speaks” and love it because it’s a short reminder of his ideas and beliefs. Thanks for your list – very helpful.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Cathy,
      Eckhart Tolle’s books were life-changing for me as well. I haven’t read Stillness Speaks. I will check it out! Thanks for sharing.

  15. I think I used to have a swarm of wild mind-monkeys in my head. Thank the heavens for guidance from people like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Yourself, Leo Babauta, Mary Jaksch…and so many others. If it were not for all of you I might as well be a schizophrenic! From a clear frame of mind I have been able to tap into my personal potential. Every morning I wake up full of gratitude and optimism. A big thank you to you and the others for your guidance.
    Much Love,
    Nicole

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Nicole,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. Wow, you have included me in some really great company! I am so glad that my words have inspired you. We all have much to be grateful for, not the least of which is the inspiration that so many people offer us. You have inspired me with you heartfelt words. 🙂

  16. I think your first item is the fundamental basis for personal growth/development — without it, change is nearly impossible. I’d take it a step further and say that it’s worthwhile to not merely observe, but to critique those thoughts. Are they really true? What’s the source of those thoughts? Are they the result of objective (as much as possible) observation? Or are they the result of one of the many “programs” that have accumulated in your mind over the years — parents, society, your shadow self, etc.?

    The Work of Byron Katie (http://TheWork.com) is a really great, simple framework for that process.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      I agree completely Scott. We have to challenge our thoughts. If we don’t, we tend to believe them! I think Byron Katie is an amazing teacher. I’d love to attend one of her workshops.

  17. It seems that it is written for me. bundle of thanks to the author for mental tricks to interrupt in negative thinking.. i have been suffering with negative thoughts for last few months. and now it has crossed the limits of negative thinking, i am so tired of this.. i could not continue to live with this type of mind.. i really want to change it.. any further suggestions would be strongly appreciated..

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      It takes regular practice Ahmar to control your thoughts. Keep working at it. And practice meditation every day to calm your mind.

  18. Thank you so much for this. I have been suffering with depression for almost a decade now, and I have done everything that could kill me, and somehow I’m still here. I’ve recently had moments of calm and clarity, and I’m just tired of it all, this life-draining illness that has plagued me for so long, and I’m tired of letting the way my brain works control me. Sometimes I’m scared I’ll never be able to break this cycle of pessimism that I’ve accustomed myself to, but reading things like this just gives me that extra push that I need to believe I can actually do this. Slowly, and very cautiously, but I can do this, if I just give it a try, I think.
    Thanks again,
    Shana

  19. Hello,
    I simply wanna say THANK YOU for the article and the starter kit.
    I love this WAY of LIFE and I wanna do/be it!

  20. Thanks a lot…: ) It can change my life:) i am very upset since 2 years.. but now i think i can change my upset mind to a very cool,happy and relaxed mind:)

  21. Thank You !

    My favorites include:

    Be The Watcher

    If you get carried away by a thought, gently redirect yourself to be the witness.

    Stop the Bad Monkeys:

    Simply say “stop” out loud (vocalizing reinforces the interruption), and then visualize a metal wall slamming down in front of your runaway thoughts.

    Wear a rubber band on your wrist, and gently snap it or switch it from one arm to the other when you are aware of a negative thinking cycle.

    Break the cycle using distraction. Do something that will occupy your mind so there’s no room for the negative thoughts, like repeating the alphabet or singing a song.

    Gary

  22. It is wonderful. very simple and practicable. God bless you.

  23. bhaktosh says:

    i am very positive that i will be able to stop my bad habits with the beautiful information u have provided. thanks