The South Indian Monkey Trap: How Our Values Compromise Our Freedom

2. The South Indian Monkey Trap

The South Indian Monkey Trap is an age old method for catching troublesome monkeys looking to steal food from local villagers in parts of India. This simple but ingenious trap consists of a coconut that has been carefully hollowed out at one end and chained to a pole in the ground. Some sweet rice is then placed inside the coconut through the hollowed out opening, which is big enough for the monkey to place its hand in and grab a handful of rice, but too small for it to then remove its clinched fist with the sweet rice. Eventually some monkeys would come along, discover the rice, reach inside the coconut, greedily clutch as much of the rice as possible, thus making a fist in the process, and suddenly find themselves trapped.

Oddly enough, as you may have picked up, there is no actual physical barrier preventing a monkey from escaping the trap – they could just let go of the food and they would be free. There is, however, an incredible mental barrier. Due to the scarcity of food at times, monkeys have it ingrained in them from birth that when they see food, they must hold on tight. This principle which has served them so well in the past creates in the mind of the monkey an inability to re-evaluate the rice in the context of their new found circumstances, costing them their freedom and ultimately leading to their death.

In the “bonkers-but-brilliant” philosophical novel, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values,’ Robert M. Pirsig uses the story of the South Indian Monkey Trap as a metaphor to illustrate the concept of value rigidity in human beings. Pirsig defines value rigidity as follows: “[A]n inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values.” The South Indian Monkey Trap is indeed a striking example of value rigidity at play as it shows that when you believe strongly in a value system which once served you well, that very same value system can prevent you from seeing objective reality in your present circumstances and thus lead to poor decisions.

While back at home in South Africa and during my travels, I have often come across individuals who, for some reason or the other, adhere to certain archaic ideals and place a very high value on, for example:

  • Dating someone of a certain race or gender;
  • Marrying someone of a particular religion;
  • Get married and starting a family by a certain age;
  • Earning a certain amount of money by a certain age;
  • Obtaining a particular physical appearance;
  • Following a particular career path; or
  • Acquiring certain material possessions.

But where do these values come from and why do we hold on to them so strongly in circumstances where they may hinder our growth? Like the monkeys which hold on to the sweet rice, so often our everyday thoughts and actions are influenced and constrained by mental barriers of our own design. We hold on to values and adhere to principles which we create in our own minds and then follow them religiously as if they are thrust upon us by outside forces beyond our control. What’s worse, these value systems, which may have made sense in past generations but no longer suit our current circumstances, prevent us from seeing objective reality, rob us of our freedom and deny us the opportunity to fulfill our true potential.

This is not to say that we should not adhere to any values at all as not all rigidly held values are bad ones. However, in order to achieve true freedom, we must analyze our mental barriers and constantly be aware of the value rigidity that may be seeping into our everyday thought processes before they become harmful.

For example the value placed on material possessions is in many cases keeping people locked into jobs that they do not like. Let go of the value of material possessions and you reduce your need to work, thus freeing up time to consider alternatives to the current lifestyle that is not fulfilling your true potential… In this case to remove ourselves from the trap which we have created we need to let go our value rigidity and consider objectively the value we place on material possessions.

As an attorney I valued the idea of making a lot of money. On a whole, this value is a virtue. However, it becomes problematic when attached to a business strategy centered on the recording of time and requiring the constant sacrifice of nearly all time on a daily basis throughout the year. Remaining in practice as a corporate attorney while holding on to the value of making a lot of money in circumstances which robbed me of my freedom, would have been akin to the monkey holding on to the sweet rice in circumstances which ultimately proved lethal.

We as human beings all have our own mental “sweet rice” – long held ideals and principles which have served ourselves and others before us well in the past – which we clutch to tightly in the corner of our minds. “The difficulty,” as John Maynard Keynes put it, “lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” We must, therefore, constantly re-evaluate our value systems and consciously choose our values, thoughts and actions on a daily basis. To paraphrase the words of Abraham Lincoln, where we find that the dogmas of the quiet past have become inadequate to the stormy present, we must think anew and act anew. We must be careful of the values and ideas we choose to hold dear – they might just make a monkey out of us.