Mastering Our Monkeys

Let me back up. I was watching Planet Earth, a movie revealing the planet’s stunning landscape and wildlife in high-definition. While watching the daily lives of a troop of monkeys, I was struck by how much of their behaviour was like human behaviour: eating, grooming, socializing, chattering, mating, napping, playing.

Then I remember… our animal instincts are perhaps hundreds of millions of years old. Civilization has only been around for tens of thousands of years. Seriously, what instincts are going to be stronger… that of “civilized” man or that of “animal” man?

Our animal nature, our reptilian mind, our primate instincts or as I call them, our monkeys… they literally run our society. Left uncontrolled, they create huge problems in our individual lives and disasters in society.

Here are three out of many monkeys we should be aware of and control.

Monkey #1: Fear

One of our oldest monkeys is our instinct for self-preservation. It’s older than our higher-level brain. It’s older than humanity. A bush rustles and immediately we perk up because it could be a predator. Fear is a full-bodied emotion designed to keep us alive when potential threats are perceived. Our bodies instantly responds by increasing heart rates and flooding our body with chemicals to prepare us to flee or fight (see Deep Survival).

Unfortunately, fear unchecked ruins our ability to think well. I should know. I’ve lashed out at people under stress, choked on an easy goal in soccer, and panicked in an emergency situation.

On a societal level, terrorist threats, serial killers, and rare diseases create waves of fear that far outstrip the actual danger involved. Is it worth giving up our civil rights or refusing to leave the house at night? Driving kills more people than terrorism ever has. Should we have an unnatural fear of driving too?

For our sake, we must learn to turn fear into fearlessness. Arianna Huffington reminds us that “Fearlessness is the mastery of fear” and not the absence of fear. Nor is fearlessness a kind of unthinking bravado. Climbing a mountain without preparation is idiotic.

Instead, there is a space between the triggering of the emotion and being totally engulfed by fear. This is the place where we can pause to look around, to look inside ourselves, and to choose how to respond to the emotion.

It takes a lifetime of effort and practice to be the best of ourselves under stress. Mastering fear is like wrestling with a team of wild horses. But if the prize of stepping through that fire is an energizing life, a new opportunity, or greater learning… wouldn’t it be worth it?

Monkey #2: Need for Approval

I see it in people’s pets. I see it in children. I see it in myself. As social animals, we crave approval from our parents or our peers. For growing as a child as well as bonding with the human community, this natural desire to bond is good. Heck, it even feels good to be acknowledged and supported. If it feels good, it must be good right?

There is no doubt that being genuinely supported by others in our life journey to become better, more capable individuals is positive. However when the need becomes a dependency on people that may or may not have your best interests at heart… well, the risk is living a life guided by peer pressure or by fear of rejection by others.

For example, how many of us have been in relationships where preserving the relationship was more important than doing the right thing? I think that in every relationship you have to have room to risk disapproval… otherwise how else would it grow?

On a broader level, we live in a system of approvals. We need to get good grades from our teachers. We need to follow the law. We need approval from this or that institution. The rules may serve a purpose, but the danger is that it teaches us the need to be approved. Who will approve the institutions? Schools are slow learners. Laws must be updated. Institutions become stagnant. Somebody must step beyond the system.

So how do we deal with this monkey? We turn our need for approval into a need for principles. We hold ourselves to a higher standard that helps us determine what approval is useful or not useful.

Building these standards also takes time and practice. Other people can’t supply them. Other institutions can’t tell you them. But they might provide hints that you can learn from.

Monkey #3: US versus THEM

As human beings we may have started as small troops of people, but the benefits of being a group soon grew to living as tribes, then chiefdoms, then states, and now nations (Science of Good & Evil). Despite the modern-day belief in selfishness and independence, we actually have a stronger desire to cooperate and share as part of a group. Animals have it. We have it. And it has helped us survive and do things on a large scale.

The cost is a strong urge to divide the world into “us” versus “them”. Everyone has felt this. Have you ever been a part of a group where an attack on your family, your political institution, your organization felt like an attack on you? Have you felt your emotions bubble up and eclipse any potential of hearing the “other” side?

I have! Having been a part of a number of volunteer and work organizations, it still takes conscious effort on my part to be objective about criticism or insult directed at “my” organizations.

The underlying belief is that anyone in the “us” group is good, smart, and noble while anyone in the “other” group is evil and therefore must be dismissed or destroyed.

In the larger world, this gargantuan monkey reveals itself in gang warfare among street youth, religious wars resulting in the deaths of millions, and ideological battles in the media. The result is often propaganda about the other side and inability to listen to the other side.

An experiment was done where Israelis were given a peace proposal written by Israelis but labeled as being from Palestinians. The opposite was done with a group of Palestinians. Each group rejected the proposal (actually written by their own people) and instead preferred the other proposal (actually written by their presumed enemies)! The monkey cares only about who writes it rather than what is written.

This is likely the hardest monkey to transform. Ultimately we must go from “us versus them” to “we are them!” The group that we belong to is humanity and life, not this group or that group.

This is not to say we should all get along and be happy. Far from it! What it means is that we should fight our tendency to blindly “belong”. Our group is not always right. The “other” group is not always wrong. Being able to see the other group as human beings trying to make their way is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing today’s six billion people.

There are many more monkeys in us. Don’t underestimate them! People throughout the ages have warned against our natural instincts preaching self-awareness, self-control, and self-mastery. For any person on a life journey, paying attention to our thoughts and feelings is a necessity.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture
uventure.net

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in significant life challenges.

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