The Monkey’s Lesson

The Monkey’s Lesson

Spiritual practice begins with healthy engagement of the mind.


In 1989, my parents came to visit me in India. I took them to the popular Elephanta Caves, on an island near Mumbai. After disembarking from the ferry, we walked along a dirt footpath through a forest. Suddenly a large monkey leaped from a tree and grabbed at my mother’s purse. This was culture shock for a Chicago suburbanite, and my mother screamed. But she didn’t lose hold of her bag. A tug of war ensued. The monkey snarled and bared its fangs, then jumped at my mother with a screech, finally ripping the purse from her grasp. It then darted up a peepal tree.

The attack was distressing not only because of its suddenness but because the purse contained my parents’ passports, airline tickets, credit cards, and all their cash.

“Everything is lost,” my father sighed once the shock had worn off. “Now what?”

My mother turned to me. “You brought us here! What are you going to do about this?”

I closed my eyes and said a prayer. Anyone who’s spent as much time in India as I have knows how hard it is to “talk” monkeys into returning stolen goods.

But about fifty yards away, I saw a vendor pushing a small handcart piled high with fruit. I hurried over and pleaded for a banana. He demanded payment. I had no money and couldn’t pay, and now neither did my parents. With a hurried apology I grabbed a banana from his cart and ran. He let out a yelp and chased after me with a stick. As soon as he turned his back on his cart, though, a different monkey invaded it, and the agitated vendor rushed back to protect his goods from this second thief.

When I reached the peepal tree, I saw our monkey thief on a high branch. My mother’s purse was open, and the monkey was enthusiastically chewing on her American Express credit card. Aiming carefully, I threw the banana at the monkey. Fortunately, it wasn’t a good shot and the monkey had to leap to catch it, dropping the purse in the process. As the monkey happily peeled and ate the banana, I returned the purse to my mother.

My mother handed me ten rupees for the fruit vendor (I didn’t think of that myself), and by the end, the vendor was happy, my parents and I were happy, and the monkey, relishing its fresh banana, also seemed happy. It was a win-win situation.

The mind functions very much like that trouble-making monkey, making it hard for us to concentrate on any one thing. What is important to us at one moment is dropped as soon as something else comes along. That thing doesn’t even have to be better. But like the monkey with the banana, when we give the mind a more fulfilling and beneficial focus, we can easily overcome its distractions.

When I began to experiment with yoga and meditation, I sought an enlightened, peaceful mind. The teachings of bhakti yoga added critical insight to my understanding. I learned that because keeping the monkey-like mind quiet is extremely difficult, it’s effective to give the mind a higher engagement. When the mind is engaged in more meaningful and satisfying thought patterns through how we think, what we say, and what we do, inclinations harmful to our well-being such as envy, selfish passion, and anger are forgotten and gradually disappear. Bhakti yoga teaches us that a dynamic life of devotional service, mantra meditation, and association with uplifting people creates a foundation for our spirituality that keeps the mind steady. Time and again in my spiritual counseling work I hear how these three components of a spiritual life have provided people the means to break bad habits and overcome addictions.

Spiritual practice begins with healthy engagement of the mind. One of the definitions of yoga given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is citta vritti nirodhaha: “Yoga is the stilling of the mind’s fluctuations.” By taking practitioners through a series of “seats,” or postures (asanas), controlled breathing (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana), yoga helps them withdraw the mind from superficial distractions and focus it within. When the mind’s fluctuations have been stilled, according to the Yoga Sutra, the self becomes “situated in its own true nature.”

So the mind is something to be used by the self, not the other way around. Understanding this truth brings us closer to who we are inside, and nearer to fulfillment.

What is that fulfillment?

It is love. Love is the most satisfying way to control the mind. Love is the complete expression of the soul. When we’re in love, our thoughts are focused and our energies directed toward the beloved. We become “single-minded.” Bhakti makes us single-minded when it awakens our innate spirit of love.

So we start by cleaning the mirror of the mind, so we can see who we really are. With the help of a well-grounded intelligence, our mind can become our dearest friend.

Excerpted from The Journey Within: Exploring the Path of Bhakti by Radhanath Swami. Copyright © 2016 Radhanath Swami. Published in May 2016 by Mandala Publishing.

Radhanath Swami is a world-renowned author, philanthropist and community builder. He has been a Bhakti Yoga practitioner and spiritual teacher for more than 40 years. He is the inspiration behind a free mid-day meal for 1.2 million school kids across India and he has been instrumental in founding the Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Mumbai. He has keynoted at Apple, Starbucks, Google and House of Lords. His work has led to meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He divides his time between Mumbai and the rest of the world.

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