Just Let Go of the Peanuts!

Sedona Jan 2105

My sib called me the other day with a odd question ‘Do you know how they catch monkeys in India?’ I gave some thought and replied in the negative. Here is what he said…

To catch a monkey, the locals set up a very simple trap.

They take a  hollowed-out coconut shell with a small hole on each side. Through one hole is a knotted rope which the monkey-catcher can pull on from a distance.  Through the other hole they place nuts within the hollow of the coconut shell. This hole is sized small enough that an adult monkey can put his hand to get hold of the peanuts inside. However, the moment the monkey grabs the nuts in its clenched fist it is trapped! 

The fist is too big to come out of the hole. The monkey catcher simply starts to tug and pull on the rope and easily catches the monkey.The monkey could, of course, let go of the nuts by simply opening his fist. But  most just cannot let go of the peanuts!! 

The South Indian monkey Trap, it is called.

I was all smiles when someone from South Africa  added the African twist to this story! 

…The Bushmen living in the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa take this a step further. Once they trap a monkey they hand the monkey salt. The monkey devours the salt and soon becomes extremely thirsty. At that point, the parched monkey is unleashed  which runs to drink from its stored water source, which is typically an underground pond or lake. The Bushmen follow the monkey and now have water.

The Monkey Trap aptly applies to us humans as well.

From an Eastern philosophical viewpoint, attachment it appears is pure monkey-business. Metaphorically the mind is a monkey, the peanuts are the desires. That clenched fist is the attachment. Unclenching of the fist represents detachment. The prison of mind is built using the bricks of desires that are cemented in attachment. Awareness is the only door, mindfulness the only window. Detachment, is the only vehicle to raze this prison. For the monkey in this story to let go of the peanuts, it must exercise conscious detachment from the object of desire.

Yoda in his eternal wisdom also said ‘train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.’

Another way to look at this story is in terms of value rigidity. Value rigidity is what happens when you believe in the value of something so strongly that you can no longer objectively question it. Robert M Prisig in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance uses this story to illustrate this very concept among human beings. The barrier preventing the monkey from escaping this trap is nothing physical but a mental one. The monkeys valued the peanuts so highly that it was unable to reevaluate the situation. It could not see that letting go of the peanuts  was the right thing to do at the time. We also call it the ‘golden handcuff’ when we get stuck in a high-profile job in which we are miserable but continue to stay on due to the fear of the unknown, or the security it provides.

A different spin to this story is something called the Einstellung Effect which indicates how preconceptions blind us to better ways of doing things (1). Einstellung literally means “attitude” in German and may be thought of as a mindset. When chess masters were presented with a board arranged to offer them two paths to victory: a well-known five-move option, and a more obscure one, requiring three moves. Even these superb players often couldn’t see the best way to win, because the one they knew better prevented them from thinking about other alternatives. It represents the negative value of experience. When new solutions become available we want to continue to rigidly believe that we already know the best solution and do not want to evaluate the new ways. This tendency to rigidity in human thinking affect both people facing novel problems and experts within their area of expertise. It is thus important to realize that the value of experience has its limits and its limitations. It’s as if there were two kinds of expertise: one in which people are simply guided by experience, and a superior kind in which they’re hyper-aware of the limits of expertise itself.

The difficulty, truly lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones. We live in a society which places a high value on success and a negative connotation on failure.When this happens people will not even try to achieve something which matters to them given the downside risks.  The fear paralyzes our minds and then we try rationalizing these fears. Until we learn to reevaluate their idea of failure, perhaps seeing it as a learning experience, we may not even try to succeed.

To achieve true freedom, we must recognize our mental barriers, be fully aware of value rigidity that underlies our thought process, and consciously choose our values, thoughts, words, and actions everyday and always ask if we are fulfilling your true potential and true calling.


1. Bilalić M, McLeod P, Gobet F. Why good thoughts block better ones: the mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung (set) effect. Cognition. 2008 Sep;108(3):652-61.

One thought on “Just Let Go of the Peanuts!

  1. Very perceptive and invaluable pearls! I would add that the famous experiments of Adriaan DeGroot (Netherlands) in the 1940s highlighted the attributes of memory, cognitive skills and in particular “experience” with regards to the differences between masters and amateurs in chess. The new era of computers has essientially vanquished the older grandmasters from competitive play (both in opening preparation and tactical training); perhaps stuck in “rigid experience?”. Notable exceptions are Viswanathan (“Vishy”) Anand and Veselin Topalov.


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