May 26, 2015

Happiness is a Monkey Trap.


On a recent trip through South East Asia, I met an old Buddhist monk (I know, very cliche). He taught me many things, the most useful of which was about letting go.

He began by telling me a story in broken English (I know, also very cliche):

“The men in my village catch monkey using trap. They get coconut and cut small hole. They put fruit inside coconut and tie to tree. When monkey come, it reach into coconut to grab fruit, but when it hold onto fruit, it hand too big to pull out. Monkey is stubborn, refuse to let go. Even when hunter is coming to kill monkey, monkey won’t let go. So you see, if you don’t let go, you end up in trap. This is life for many people. They are not in cage, but they are in trap.”

The story of the monkey trap is an old fable, dating back to somewhere around the 1300s (using cherry jars instead of coconuts). In any case, the lesson is a powerful one, particularly relevant in a world in which so many people are obsessed with the “pursuit of happiness.”

After chatting with the monk for a few hours, I came to an important realization: happiness isn’t a pursuit. In fact, viewing it that way practically guarantees you’ll be looking the wrong way when you stumble through it.

As Tim Minchin once said, “Happiness is like an orgasm—if you think about it too hard, it goes away.”

So while happiness is staring us right in the face, we’re looking the other way. We’re worrying, planning, stressing, predicting, hoping, urging and sometimes begging. We’re so focused on everything that’s wrong with our jobs, bank balance, frustrating work colleagues and lives that we miss the happy moments that flash by.

We worry about these things because we think they’ll make us happy. But as the old Buddhist monk told me, “Money is nice, but if you can’t be satisfied without it, you won’t be satisfied with it.”

If we refuse to let go of what we think will make us happy, we’ll forever be caught in the monkey trap of unhappiness.

Letting go doesn’t mean becoming apathetic about life, and it doesn’t mean lowering our standards either. It simply means being adaptable with our dreams, plans and visions of the future.

To quote Tim Minchin again, “If you focus too far into the future, you’re likely to miss the shiny thing in your periphery.” The shiny things are what makes life exciting.

In my potentially cliche opinion, life is like a roller coaster. If you try to battle it, you end up spending every minute of the ride in agony, staring at the bar on your lap, hoping for everything to slow down.

But if you’re willing to accept that you aren’t in control, you just may be able to let the roller coaster do its thing, to let go of the sides, to raise your arms, to open your eyes and enjoy the beauty and excitement of uncertainty.


Author: Garrick Transell

Editor: Evan Yerburgh

Image: Pixabay

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