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Monkey - Taming the Chimp

Updated: Jan 29

In my last blog (Martial Arts - Ancient Wisdom of the East) I mentioned my childhood love for the cult TV series Monkey and how the show's electrifying combat sequences were one of the first things to awaken my interest in martial arts and the ancient wisdom teachings of the East. This might seem like a rather unusual theme to be returning to again but bear with me here because what I'm about to discuss has a direct bearing on the therapeutic and coaching work we do here at Phoenix. Monkey, which ran from 1978 to 1980, retold the classic Chinese myth of a monkey-god tasked with assisting a young Buddhist priest on a pilgrimage to collect the holy scriptures from India. The show, which still commands a huge cult fan base 40 years on, is remembered fondly for its catchy theme tune and entertainingly over-the-top English dubbing as well as for the peculiarity of a woman playing the part of the boy-priest. The legend of the Monkey King, sometimes known by the name Sun Wukong, is an integral part of Chinese mythology and was first made famous by the classic 16th century novel Journey to the West, though the story is likely based on even earlier legends. According to the story, the Monkey King was made of stone and hatched from an egg as old as creation. After acquiring supernatural powers, including superhuman strength, he rebelled against heaven and was subsequently imprisoned under a mountain by Buddha as punishment for his wayward behaviour. He was eventually released by the monk Tan Sanzang (known as Tripitaka in the TV show) in order to accompany the monk on a lengthy mission to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India. Understanding that the mischievous Monkey would be difficult to control, the monk gave him a gift from the Buddha - a magical circlet which, once Sun Wukong was tricked into putting it on, could never be removed. When Tang Sanzang chanted a certain sutra, the band tightened, causing an unbearable headache. Despite a rocky start to their relationship, Monkey served as the young priest's faithful bodyguard, protecting him against repeated threats from demons, and was subsequently redeemed and attained Buddhahood upon the successful completion of their mission.

The TV series Monkey acquired a cult status 40 years ago and remains one of the most popular screen adaptations of the Monkey King legend.

Now, I hear you ask, why am I telling you all this? Well, I've spoken at some length previously about the psychological importance of mythology. The legend of the Monkey King is yet another example of how profound spiritual and psychological truths can be found encoded within the allegories of ancient folktales across the world. Myths and legends are designed to stir the inner knowing buried deep within our subconscious. These stories can mean different things to different people. There's no right or wrong interpretation. As with tools such as Tarot cards and Qabalah, your unconscious will find the interpretation that's right for you and produce the realisations most beneficial to you in that moment. In a previous blog Superhero - Living Your Myth, I spoke about the writer Joseph Campbell's theory of the monomyth or Hero's Journey - the essential template to which all stories conform. The story of the Monkey King is yet another prime example of this template in action. Many of the classic monomyth ingredients are in place, including the concept of a long-running quest which provides the spine of the story. In this case the quest takes the form of the pilgrimage to India to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures, but the mission can be seen to have many parallels with King Arthur's search for the Holy Grail. The psychological significance of "the quest" is emphasised in the song Gandhara by Japanese rock band Godiego, which was used as the closing theme of the Monkey TV series. The song lyrics describe man's eternal quest to reach Utopia (the Gandhara of the title) - a fabled land of fantasy, dreams and untouched wealth where love and light abide - an emphatic metaphor for the search for enlightenment within ourselves. The song emphasises the importance of the "striving and the seeking", for it is that which gives meaning and purpose to our lives, rather than the final goal itself which so often remains elusive and just tantalisingly out of reach. The message here is clear - the journey is more important than the destination. There are many other classic monomyth elements to be found in the Monkey legend. As a super-powered demi-god, Monkey is very much the archetypal superhero and can therefore be likened to everything from Hindu deity Krishna to modern day man-of-steel Superman. His wishing staff is consistent with the longstanding mythological tradition of magical weaponry, such as Arthur's sword Excalibur, Thor's hammer, Harry Potter's wand and the great bows of the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, while the boy-priest effectively fills the classic role of the wise mentor figure who guides the hero towards redemption through a series of challenges and escapades, each with its own moral, spiritual and philosophical lessons. As a lovable but rebellious character, the Monkey King symbolises the concept of cocking a snook at authority. He is a trickster who allows the underdog to feel he isn’t powerless in the face of oppression. This insurrectionist streak is doubtless what made the character so appealing to the Chinese population at a time when many of them were being subjugated by the Ming emperors. Just as Robin Hood provided a symbol of hope and rebellion for oppressed Saxons in medieval England, so too was Monkey the archetypal anti-establishment outlaw for the downtrodden elements of Chinese society.

The legend of the Monkey King is considered a tale of great importance in Chinese culture and is celebrated in the Monkey King Festival on the 16th day of the eighth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (corresponding to September). The celebration typically involves burning incense and paper offerings as well as acrobatic performances. At the Monkey King Temple in Sau Mau Ping, Kowloon, a shaman recreates Monkey's battle with the other gods in heaven and then runs barefoot across a bed of hot coals before climbing a treacherous ladder made of knives. Because the Monkey King is said to have had a bronze head and iron shoulders, the shamanic medium - who is believed to be possessed by Monkey's spirit throughout the ceremony - is somehow unharmed after performing these remarkable feats. While there is one chief medium, others also become possessed and cut their tongues with broken glass and perform other magical acts, such as handling boiling oil. The ordeals of the Monkey King Festival are not for the faint-hearted. The sights and sounds of the celebration are said to be entrancing, even for witnesses. Lions and dragons dance to the sound of shamanic drums and local mediums, carried by their bearers, arrive to cut their tongues and wipe their blood on the Monkey King as a sign of devotion. Throughout the festival, the streets around Sau Mau Ping are decorated with colourful flags. A procession of god statues visiting from their respective temples are carried in sedan chairs towards the temporary bamboo shelter constructed for the occasion. At night a large vegetarian banquet is held, followed by traditional Cantonese opera performances that recreate the stories of the Monkey King. Prior to operatic performances, actors traditionally conduct rituals to channel the gods they will be portraying on stage, much like mediums do before possession, linking the sacred to the theatrical. As the celebration comes to a close, the god leaves the bodies of both mediums and actors, and returns to his image in the temple for another year – until he is once again released to play havoc and spread mischief on his birthday.

The entire story of the Monkey King is basically a parable designed to illustrate the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. Anyone with even a passing interest in psychology will be familiar with the concept of the "monkey mind", which is actually translated from a Chinese term meaning "unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; and uncontrollable". The term has been adopted by western psychology to describe restless thoughts, the tendency to overthink things and to let the imagination run riot. However, the term originates in Chinese Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist beliefs and the character of the Monkey King is essentially a metaphor and personification of this character trait from which all of us have, at some point or other in our lives, been afflicted. The term has become widely recognised in recent years thanks to its use by acclaimed psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters who has achieved global renown through his work with a number of high-profile celebrity clients such as snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan and Olympic cyclists Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. The monkey mind is so-called because it flits from one thing to another like a chimp swinging between trees, constantly worrying, fretting, ruminating, over-analysing and imagining hypothetical and unsubstantiated worst-case scenarios, never standing still for long enough to subject its wild and rambling thoughts to any kind of critical analysis. The monkey mind's sneakiest trick is always wanting more. No matter how much you have, the monkey mind will always be chasing that next car, a new job, the next drink, more money, a larger house, more Twitter followers or Facebook friends. It's the force behind addiction and always seeking new forms of instant gratification to keep you enchained to material pleasures. Mindfulness teaches that the secret of true and lasting happiness lies not in material pursuits but rather through finding our natural bliss within. To do so we must free ourselves from “attachments” - the anchors by which the ego makes us feel secure. We may be attached to our habits, our emotions, to material possessions, to pleasures, to the past, or to the status quo. It could be to alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, social media or our Smartphones. But true independence of spirit involves releasing ourselves from all these ties, which are not anchors but shackles.

To fully understand just how the concept of the monkey mind is symbolised by the Monkey King legend, it's worth taking a look at the words of the preface to the main theme tune of the cult Monkey TV show in which a dramatic voice-over intoned the following introduction:

In the Worlds before Monkey, Primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order, But the Phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, As endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of Heaven, The moistures of the Earth, And the powers of the Sun and the Moon All worked upon a certain rock - old as Creation, And it magically became fertile. That first egg was named Thought. Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha, Said, 'With our thoughts we make the world.' Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone Monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!

Several things jump out here as being of significant symbolic importance. Let's start with the statement "That first egg was named Thought". In most branches of esoteric spirituality, thought is considered to have been the first definable action or event. If you believe in the concept of a god or force of creation, then the creative process effectively began with the moment that the creative force first became aware of its own existence. That primal event of self-realization or self-awareness on the part of the creator constituted the first thought as we understand it. And even if you don't believe in the concept of a god or creator, you can still derive benefit from the metaphor by viewing it on a more microcosmic level as a process which takes place within ourselves - we as humans effectively become alive and sentient in the moment that we emerge from our mother's womb and start to think for ourselves. Next we come to the quote from Father Buddha: "With our thoughts we make the world". Well, never were a truer word spoke. The whole of our reality stems from thought. This blog you're reading wouldn't have existed had I not thought of it. Every novel ever written began its life as a thought in the imagination of the author. The house you're living in started out as a plan in the mind of the architect who designed it. The motor car wouldn't have existed had Karl Benz not thought of the original three-wheeled Motorwagen in the 19th century. The same can be said of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, or John Logie Baird who devised the television. Everything on this planet, including all the appliances we use in our everyday lives and the buildings we live in, all began as a thought inside somebody's head. So it is quite literally true to state that "With our thoughts we make the world".

The "first egg", Thought, gives birth to the monkey mind, which can swiftly become an uncontrollable menace unless we learn how to tame it.

The next lines of the text state that "Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!" This can be seen as a thinly-veiled reference to the fact that thought gives birth to the monkey-mind. Once we start to think for ourselves, the irrepressible nature of our thoughts causes them to run wild and rampant, taking us to all sorts of places we neither want nor need to go. We ruminate on the past and worry about the future, losing endless amounts of sleep over old mistakes which we can't change or imaginary futures which might never happen. The self-destructive nature of these wandering thoughts is symbolised in the myth by the Monkey King's battle with the other gods of heaven. Monkey was considered by the other gods to be such a disruptive influence that he was ultimately cast out of heaven and imprisoned under a rock as punishment. What we see here is a very clear allusion to the fact that unbridled thoughts are a disruptive influence and an impediment to the potentially superhuman capabilities of the subconscious. In the story, Monkey's redemption and restoration to a god-like status, or Buddhahood, comes as a result of being recruited to assist the boy-priest in a quest to retrieve the holy scriptures. As I mentioned previously, the priest knew that Monkey would be difficult to control so gave him a magical coronet to wear on his head which could never be removed. When the priest chanted a certain sutra, the band tightened, causing an unbearable headache and thereby keeping Monkey in line. This, right here, is the Buddhist concept of mindfulness in a nutshell. Like the magical circlet, the practice of mindfulness restricts and limits the thought processes and brings them under tight control, like a wayward stallion being reined in by its rider. This can be difficult, even painful, at first because we're asking the mind to go against years of deeply-ingrained patterns of thinking. But with perseverance, the mind can gradually be brought under control and when the thoughts are harnessed in this way, their power becomes focused like the rays of the sun through a convex lens, bringing highly concentrated power to bear on a specific aim, goal or objective (the quest), where previously those thoughts were dissipated, scattered and robbed of any effectiveness by the chaotic thinking of the monkey mind.

Mindfulness is one of the key tools we deploy as part of the Phoenix arsenal. The fast-paced nature of today’s world has made it increasingly difficult for us to switch off, with the result that our monkey minds are running riot. Smartphones, the internet and social media have created a culture in which we’re always on the go and where people have multiple ways of getting in contact with us at any time of the day or night. Consequently our brains have become overstimulated, over-anxious and over-reliant on other people’s feedback and approval. Agitated beyond endurance, our minds and thoughts are running loose and out of control, just like the Monkey King when he rebelled against the other gods of heaven. Fortunately there's a magic circlet available which we can use to rein in the Monkey and it consists of grounding ourselves in the present moment. By bringing our focus into the present, rather than constantly stressing about the past and future, we bring the mind to a state of stillness and equilibrium in which we're far better equipped to cope with life's challenges. The roots of the practice lie in ancient religious and philosophical traditions from around the world but in recent years mindfulness has increasingly been recognised as an invaluable stress management tool, particularly when used alongside meditation.

It's no exaggeration to say that mindfulness, in tandem with meditation, saved my life after I was left completely burnt out by years of sustained work-related stress. I've spoken previously about how I was introduced to these practices through the stress-management and wellbeing classes run by Caroline Miller of Homeopathy Fife. It was Caroline who first taught me how to fully appreciate the Now. The past is done. We can't change it and we gain nothing by expending vital mental and emotional energy reliving it. Similarly, the future hasn't happened yet and we don't benefit ourselves one bit by envisaging worst-case scenarios which might never come to pass. It's true that we can't stop thoughts from popping into our head but we can choose whether or not to indulge them. When we indulge thoughts, they grow arms and legs and frequently snowball into something much bigger which bears very little, if any, relation to reality - that's the monkey mind at work. A terrific analogy which Caroline used was to view one's thoughts as if they were a train sitting at a station platform. It's fine to stand on the platform and observe the train but if it isn't heading for where we want to go then we don't want to actually get on board. It's the same with our thoughts. It's fine to observe them but you don't need to follow them to their ultimate destination and let them take you to dark places you don't want to go.

English psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters is a master of helping people to tame their monkey minds through a method which he calls the Chimp Model. Peters, who has worked in the clinical field of psychiatry for over 20 years and specialises in optimising the functioning of the mind, uses analogy to explain the interactions and behaviour of the two competing forces in the brain. He describes our prefrontal cortex as the human part of the brain and our limbic system as our inner chimp. The human acts rationally, based on facts, but the chimp only decides using emotions, gut instincts and snap judgements. This leads to problems whenever the two clash or the wrong one ends up in charge. The chimp is an important part of our survival instincts but if it isn't managed properly the results can be catastrophic. Remember, in the ancient Chinese legends the Monkey King is immortal - he couldn't be killed but he could be controlled. It's the same with the monkey mind. The key to Peters' system is to start observing your own state of mind. When you start stressing out, ask yourself if the chimp is taking over. Learning to observe this is the first major step in mastering your inner monkey. Dr Peters shot to prominence working with sports stars including the Olympic gold medallists Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, the five-times world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, former England football captain Steven Gerrard and the Liverpool team. By teaching these athletes how to tame their chimp, stop wayward thoughts and focus their narrowed concentration like a laser on their sporting goals, he was able to elevate them to supernal heights of competitive achievement. Dr Peters brings the same mindest to bear in working with CEOs, senior executives, students, hospital staff and patients, helping them to understand why they think and act as they do and how to manage their minds to optimise their performance at work and in their personal lives. He has written three best-selling books on the subject The Chimp Paradox (2012), My Hidden Chimp (2018) and The Silent Guides (2018).

Mindfulness, or present moment awareness, is something anyone can practise and benefit from, regardless of age, gender, state of health or religious belief. There's no better way of taming the rebellious monkey mind.

At Phoenix we use similar approaches to Steve Peters to help clients tame their monkey minds so that they can learn to focus their concentration on specific goals, whether that be in their work, sport, performing arts or any other area of their lives. Living in the Now enables us to slow down and to find a state of internal stillness and quiet. It is the practice of being aware in every possible moment, while keeping a non-judgemental outlook and, at the same time, observing your own bodily and emotional responses. By practising mindfulness we cease to be a slave to our own thoughts and the emotions that they generate. At Phoenix we can teach you a wide range of mindfulness-based techniques and practises which you can incorporate into your everyday lives to help you become more grounded in the present. We'll also soon be launching a range of classroom-based and online courses to demonstrate how you can use these practices to reduce stress, achieve your goals and start living the life of your dreams. Contact us now at or visit to find out more about how we can help you tame your monkey mind and unleash the phoenix within.

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