What Chimpanzees Can Teach Us About Ego & Taming Our 'Monkey Mind'

originally featured on HerAfter.com

Bonobos isn’t just a men’s clothing store in LA. It’s also an endangered great ape and a species of chimpanzee, though not the type that most people refer when they say ‘chimpanzee’. Both the common chimpanzee and the bonobos are the closest extant relative of us humans. Here’s the interesting part: though related and strikingly similar in features: bonobos and chimps couldn’t be more different.

Two major factors separate bonobos from chimpanzees. The first is location; bonobos live south of the Congo river, while chimpanzees live north of the river. The second is their way of life: chimpanzees are infamous for violence and aggression. Chimps are highly aggressive, even known to kill each other in combat over territorial issues (via), and haze new adolescent male chimps intending to join their tribes. The hierarchy of their societies revolves around an alpha male, whom may not be the strongest of the tribe but instead is the “most manipulative and political” of the community. (via)

Bonobos, on the other hand, are one of the most peaceful – and sexually active, after humans – species on the planet. Bonobos use sex to solve or celebrate just about everything. They are even known to get so excited over finding new food sources, members of the community might break out into sexual activity on the spot. Bonobos are not territorial over supplies nor each other, and often share partners. They use sex as a way to solve conflict and engage in same-sex relations. They even tongue kiss, meaning they, like humans, make out. Their love of sexual stimulation and nonviolent lifestyle is why some say that bonobos: “Make Love Not War” (via). Their societies are often dominated by the females (yay for feminism!), and males maintain a close relationship with their own mothers and offspring throughout their lives.

That means that our two closest relatives live nearly opposite lifestyles, divided by a literal and metaphorical river. One uses combat to decide conflict, the other uses affection to resolve conflict. In the middle stands humans, ironically, being that we are so closely related to both species, are the greatest cause of decline in chimpanzee populations, and because of our capacity to learn from our two closest relatives.

While the bonobos and chimps are simply acting by the evolutionary and societal laws of their species, we humans have an advantage in that we are sentient: we have the ability to both use feeling and reason. But do we use reason often enough?

Chimps, Humans, and Consciousness

Looking at these two close relatives of ours is almost like looking at the yin and yang in our own minds. On one shoulder, one side of our mind’s river, is the peaceful, loving, nurturing and inclusive mindset, born of celebration and sharing. On the other shoulder and side is the violent, dominating, power-driven and ferocious hunter, ruthless and jealous and uses fear to control.

Buddhism has a term, The ‘Monkey Mind’, which refers to the mind’s fervent activity, jumping like a monkey moves about tree branches from thought to thought, constantly preoccupied by worry or wonder so much so that we are not present and aware in this moment. In other words, the monkey mind is the ego-mind using up all of our mental energy to swing around our brain, focusing our attention on whatever non-reality based idea comes up (fearing for the future, stressing about the past, imagining what-ifs). It has to stay busy enough to keep us from focusing on this moment, which the ego cannot exist in. It has to keep us busy swinging around and not get down, on the ground, to be grounded.

The reason those branches way up high are so enticing to the monkey mind is because they are exciting; they are high up, with high risks. If you were to articulate the worries that go through your mind on a daily basis, many of them wouldn’t be realistic. But in the silence of your mind when you think no one is listening, the worry can run rampant, making the impossible (and worst) outcome seem just around the corner.

Training the “Monkey Mind” to Choose Peace Over Power

Buddhists and many other traditions of ideology use a variety of tactics to combat the monkey mind, the simplest of which is to focus on the breath. This gives the monkey mind a ‘job’, so that it’s busy, while the rest of the mind can center itself and become present in the moment.

But we can do even better: we can use focused meditations both brief and prolonged to reground ourselves out from the branches of worry, fear doubt and imagining what might or might not happen.

In small moments: a fight with our partner, a stressful day at work, stuck in traffic on the 101, we take take a short time to focus the monkey-mind on the breath, or on a mantra (as you can learn from my online class here) and reground ourselves. It means stepping out of your imagination, out of the branches, and back into the present moment to assess what is happening, and what your true options for your next step are.

In big moments, it means building a sustainable and reliable practice of strengthening your mind to be more powerful than your monkey mind. It means setting aside time each day to quiet the monkey mind, and focus deeply inward at the center, in the river of your own conscious, so that when conflict does come up, you can use your sentience to chose which side of the river is best for you: the peaceful side toward resolution like the bonobos, of the power-driven side like the chimpanzee. It means:

Focusing on what is actually happening in the moment, rather than your fears or insecurities about possible and imagined outcomes

Acting and speaking from a place of centeredness, so that you can choose peace and resolution rather than acting brashly or erupting emotionally

Tuning in to your inner source of peace, so that you may celebrate, enjoy and encourage other people without feeling insecure or making judgments upon yourself or others

The mind is truly a powerful thing, and so is knowledge. The more we learn about our ancestors, and ourselves, the more we can equip ourselves to build happier, more sustainable and peaceful futures. If you’d like a psychologist’s take on what we can learn from the bonobos way of life, check out this article on7 Things Bonobos Can Teach Us About Love And Sex.

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