Monkey Trap

Every once in a while you come across a fact that is so sumptuous it begs to be considered a metaphor. And then, there are other facts that are so perfectly just-so that they need to be viewed as apocryphal.

I have read about the monkey trap in multiple places, from Tolstoy to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to your run-of-the-mill self-help books. Some say it’s from South India, others assign it African origins, possibly Namibia, some don’t even bother with origins. Regardless, the details of the trap are the same: take a hollow gourd or coconut and drill a small hole in it. Size matters. The hole should be just barely big enough for a monkey to get a hand inside. Place a treat—bananas, rice, etc.—in the gourd and tie it to a tree. Then wait.

Eventually a hungry monkey will come by, stick in their hand, grab the food, and become trapped. The monkey’s hand fits through the hole, but his fist doesn’t fit back out. They will scream and struggle, clinging tightly to their reward, until someone comes to collect them. The irony, of course, is that the monkey could have escaped at any time. All they had to do was let go.

Preconceptions can blind us from doing things in better ways. Sometimes expertise gets in the way. Buddhists push against this situation by seeking “beginner’s mind.” Over-devotion to the possibility of specific rewards can trap us in precarious situations. Poker players call it being “pot-committed.” All are forms of cognitive biases, but perhaps labelling it as “mental rigidity” is a more immediate and helpful way to think about all of this.

Stay loose. Let go. There are other bananas.