Monkey Kingdom — What We Can Learn from Toque Macaques

Nature Disney's Monkey Kingdon

On a recent international night flight I watched Monkey Kingdom, a documentary about a tribe of Monkeys (toque macaques) living amongst breathtaking ancient ruins in the jungles of Sri Lanka. The photography and story alone are well worth the watch, but what struck me were the deeper takeaways hidden in the movie, about a distant cousin of theirs, crossing the Atlantic at 30 thousand feet.

Monkeys are notoriously hierarchical, and the amount of attention, respect, care, preference, and how much one can get away with, is directly related to their social status. In fact at the center of the “kingdom” lies a huge fig tree which is the picture-perfect metaphor of hierarchy: The tribe nobility eats at the very top with the freshest fruit, and the social rank of monkeys on the tree descends in lockstep with the height of branches (and apparently the quality of fruit) until, scraping whatever falls on the floor and not even allowed on the tree, is Maya, the main character of the story.

The documentary then takes us through the story and struggles (to put it lightly) of this monkey, and for the purpose of not spoiling the story that’s all I’ll reveal. But one thing immediately becomes clear: If you are a monkey, you want to be at the upper rank of society, and if you’re at the top, you want to do all it takes to stay there. You may have noticed where I’m heading here but allow me to spell it out: The similarities between monkeys and man are shocking. Its like pushing down our politically-correct good Samaritan curtain on the surface and looking in the mirror.

I’ve never heard it said better that by philosopher Alain de Button on in his Ted talk: “You encounter someone within minutes at a party, where you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21rst century: “What do you do?”, and according to how you answer that question people are either delighted to see you or look at their watch and make their excuses… Most people make strict correlations between how much time and, if you like, love… respect they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy. And that’s a lot of the reason why we care so much about our carriers, and indeed start caring about material goods”. It’s little wonder we strive so diligently to “make it” in society. We want to be respected and valued by our community; we want to be accepted on the tree, and stay there once we are in.

But here’s one small detail: Humans are not monkeys. We are gifted with an amazing intellect, consciousness, self-reflection, that is clearly more developed. So it would only make sense that, if not immediately, at least once we’ve found our place in society, we transcend our animal-level battle for survival and self-aggrandizement. The irony is, we don’t. As Michael Singer — bestselling author and CEO of a billion-dollar software public company observed on James Altucher’s podcast: “Maslow talked about the hierarchy of needs …well many of us — and this is fortunate and not true of everybody — don’t have to struggle with the basic things every day, and that allows for an opening; most people don’t take that opening, they just become neurotic about something else. Its almost like the physical needs in staying alive got shifted over to the ego; I have a self-concept about how I want people to think of me and how successful I am and so on, now I have to protect that, I have to figure out how to feed that, so its like survival got moved to the psyche”.

That’s not to say this is a rule. Our history and current world is filled with people who have completely surpassed their personal issues of security and self-esteem, and dove into self-actualization and a true mission to help the people and world around them, but these are generally exceptions. The irony is that — as if being successful wasn’t challenging enough — by and large even those who make it are still stuck in the “monkey-race.”

The levels of Maslow’s pyramid (Physiological, Safety and Security, Love and Belonging, Self-esteem, Self-actualization) follow a gradual evolution from the fundamental animal-like survival to the higher-minded stages of being; from fear-based incentive to purpose-based motivation and fulfillment. This has a surprising similarity with the 7 chakras in Yoga, which gradually raise to more “sophisticated” qualities further developed in humans than animals — starting (simplistically) at Root/Survival, then Sacral/Sex, Solar Plexus/Power, Heart/Love, to Throat/Expression, 3rd eye/Perception, and finally Crown/Spirituality. Other examples used today by life coaches, self help authors and spiritualists use a similar progression.

It seems like we have reached a new threshold of challenge. During our evolution we first had to conquer the physical realm, survival, dominance over other species; then came sociological challenges, to transact with other people and organizations and to be “successful” in society; the next challenge is to conquer our minds. As we “make it”, humans have a unique choice of releasing the primal fear-based needs and transcending into a more purposeful life, one with higher emotional intelligence, big picture thinking, spiritual intelligence, compassion and authenticity. Yet our minds and thoughts serve as gatekeepers.

So many of us have completely dominated the financial and societal realm, yet our mindset remains helplessly stuck in the primal-level “chakras”, we simply transfer these animalistic apprehensions — recognition, greed, power — to our relationships, to our goals and expectations, where they follow us into our lives even well after we are financially successful. In fact it seems that with success and power comes an even greater risk of getting stuck in this egocentric mindset, in this battle in defense of our self-image, net-worth and domination over our surroundings. Meanwhile our inherited stress mechanism — developed during millennia for fight-or-flight purposes — is now chronically switched on, and our thoughts, energy and health, constantly consumed.

During which while the torque macaques, even after actual life and death challenges of hunting, escaping predators and battling rival tribes, now lay in the branches of their fig tree, dancing in the wind, and I can’t help but wonder who enjoys life the most.

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