Mischief and Wisdom – Finding Your Way in the Year of the Monkey
We are well on our way into the New Year according to the solar Western calendar, but the lunar New Year, which includes both the Chinese and Tibetan New Years, don’t begin until February 8th. We are heading into the Year of the Red Fire Monkey, and as has become tradition, I’m offering my own look at the symbology of the monkey throughout history in different cultures, along with an intuitive read of how to navigate the year’s energies. We are most certainly already seeing monkey-like energies in world events (think stock market and U.S. elections!) There’s one thing for sure – on both a personal and societal level, it won’t be boring.
Throughout the world, monkeys are known for their high energy, playfulness, agility, and intelligence, and that is reflected in the energies associated with a Monkey year. This is a year for taking chances, shaking things up, and getting out of your comfort zone. Risk is often rewarded in monkey years, but (and this is a big but) it has to be considered risk, wise risk, not blind or wholly wishful. That is a hard line to discern sometimes, because we are all filled with projections, hopes, and dreams. Finding the balance between taking a chance and being foolhardy is the key to navigating monkey energies.
Creativity is linked to the monkey in several different cultures, including the ancient Mayans, who depicted twin Howler Monkey gods as linked to the arts and music. The creativity of the monkey is linked to the ‘how’ rather than to inspiration – the technical challenge of how to create a particular vision, or manifest a dream. This is a year to act, and to experiment with different approaches until you find what works. Give yourself time to tinker, to learn as you go, and to modify your plans as you proceed. This is not the time for waiting to act until you have the perfect plan in place – no matter what you do, things are unlikely to go as planned. But you can learn in the middle of it all – monkey energy is nimble and adaptable.
This is also a year for innovation, in technology and science. The Ancient Egyptian god Thoth, who ruled both, had two depictions – one as an Ibis and one as a baboon. It may well be a turning point year in terms of technological innovations to address some of the world’s problems, and in your own life, innovation will also be rewarded. However, monkey energy is known for something else too – mischievousness. Innovation just for its own sake, with no larger purpose, can cause more harm than good. And on the personal level, upheaval just for the sake of it is often a means of escape, and can cause much damage. Don’t make changes just to do it – try to discern if they are aligned with your own, and others’, highest good.
Thoth is also linked to balance and equilibrium, and in fact throughout Africa, the baboon is linked to wisdom. Symbolically throughout the world, we see this paradox of monkeys representing both mischief and wisdom – a lower and higher self, you might say. Inner equilibrium is key to finding your high expression of the monkey energies – one in which agility, playfulness, intelligence and creativity are used to manifest a reality in alignment with Source. In the midst of all the fast-moving activity and change, make sure you are continually turning inward, to check in and assess. Otherwise, you may fall prey to the more opportunistic sides of yourself and/or others.
Stories featuring monkeys are prevalent in Buddhism, and one of my favorites highlights another key monkey energy – the ability to learn. In a well-known Thai story, an elephant is said to roll a favorite boulder of the Buddha’s daily to the river to wash and cool it, and then roll it back to the Buddha’s favorite sitting spot to warm in the sun in time for him to use it in the afternoon. Seeing this, a monkey who also wishes to show his devotion to the Buddha decides to break off a piece of honeycomb from a local hive, and offer it to the Buddha. The Buddha recognizes the monkey is well-intentioned, but explains to him that removing the honeycomb will harm the bees, and asks him to place it back near the hive. The monkey is moved to a new compassion for the bees, and finds other ways to express his devotion to Buddha.
Like the monkey in this story, we are capable of learning from our mistakes, and of rising into a higher expression of ourselves when we are open to doing so. Whenever you take risks there will be some mistakes, and the key to navigating mistakes this year is to learn from them. Embrace each seeming setback as feedback, and come at your goal another way, based on what you have learned.
Another defining monkey trait is that of their sociability. Monkeys, like humans, are communal creatures. Both the negative and positive power of human sociability, especially as expressed through social media, will no doubt be on full display this year. Again, a popular Buddhist story featuring a monkey provides some guidance on how to manifest the positive side of community. In this story, an elephant, monkey, hare, and bird are all required to work together in order to harvest a fruit tree for their own survival. Each animal uses a physical ability unique to them to accomplish a key task related to the tree’s care and harvesting. Without any one of them, the tree would not survive.
True cooperation – the highest expression of our social nature – involves a mutual recognition and respect of others’ differences and strengths. When we are able to work in this way, nothing can stop us. When we can’t, we are our own worst enemy, mired in jealousy, fear, and conflict.
Another key aspect of monkeys’ social nature is reflected in monkey mothers – they are among the most nurturing and protective in the animal kingdom. They spend hours grooming, cuddling, teaching, and protecting their young, and are devastated at their loss. This maternal energy is something that lies within all of us, and is also a powerful counterbalance to the less savory aspects of monkey energy. Love is the best compass. When in doubt, ask yourself ‘which is the most loving choice?’ in relation to others, and you can rarely go wrong.
These themes of monkey love and wisdom come together in one final Buddhist monkey story that I’d like to share, the Jataka tale The Monkey King. In this story, a monkey king stretches himself into a bridge that his monkey subjects use to escape an attacking human king. In doing so, the monkey king exhausts himself, and is captured by the invading king. However, the human king is so moved by the monkey king’s selflessness that he spares the monkey king, and a new alliance is formed.
A main risk of fast-paced, smart, alluring monkey energy is self-absorption. We see this all the time in how social media is often used in our culture – a perfect expression of unenlightened monkey energy. But when we tap into selflessness – based in caring, not martyrdom or self-immolation – there’s no telling what this passionate, creative energy can accomplish.
This aspect of monkey symbology perhaps reaches its highest expression in that of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. The most well-known portrayal of Hanuman is in the Ramayana, an epic Sanskrit poem telling the story of the Indian God Rama. The Ramayana is viewed as depicting the ideals in Hindu relationship – the ideal brother, wife, husband etc. Hanuman is Rama’s devoted friend, protector, and warrior. His devotion to Rama is unmatched.
What does it truly mean to be devoted, in a spiritual sense? To give ourselves over to love to such an extent that we are moved beyond our normal limitations. This kind of devotion is a powerful force, and we have to choose wisely where we place it. What in your life is worthy of your devotion? Do you have something? If so, are you all in? Or is your devotion misplaced? If that’s the case, now is the time to pull back, before harm is done.
Hanuman is also known for his bravery in battle. The boundary-pushing nature of monkey energy is bound to generate resistance, and we will no doubt see that on both a social and personal level this year. Humans naturally resist change. Sometimes we even resist it when we’ve set it in motion ourselves! What gets us through is courage, and often what is most needed is the courage to face the parts of ourselves holding us back, or keeping us mired in our less desirable attributes. In some Hindu sects, Hanuman is said to be the only god one may pray to when faced with evil or obscuring energies. His courage and faithfulness can withstand dark forces.
In the same way, let bravery and devotion guide you through any obscuring forces you encounter – inside or outside yourself.
Another famous depiction of monkeys linking them to cutting through dark forces is found carved on a temple in Nikko – ‘Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil’. This piece isn’t meant to advocate repression or sticking our head in the sand. Instead it’s meant to represent our power of choice. We can choose what we put out into the world, and what in the world we connect with and propagate. Monkey years are intense and energetic times, full of possibility and potential. Most likely, whether you feel ready for it or not, change is coming. You won’t be able to control all of it, but you can control your response. Will you respond from the lower monkey expressions of fear, self-absorption, opportunism, or mischievousness? Or will you come from a place of wisdom, selflessness, devotion, and bravery? The choice is yours. And on a social level, ours.
Wishing you much joy, wisdom, equanimity and love as you traverse your Monkey Year!