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The Monkey’s Fist: An Ancient Parable for Modern Times

Native tribes used to catch monkeys by hollowing out a coconut and filling it with rice or other delicacies, then leaving it tethered to a tree for a monkey to find. A monkey would reach in and grab the desired delicacy and be trapped because the hole had been deliberately made just big enough for a flexible hand to enter but not for a closed fist to leave. In short order, the monkey went from getting his dinner to being someone else’s dinner.

Clearly it was not the coconut that was the trapping the monkey. Rather the true trap was in the monkey’s own mind, the monkey’s greed, the monkey’s attachment to his physical possessions, the monkey’s unwillingness to “Let Go.”

From that perspective, how are we trapping ourselves? Where are we creating our own boxes? Our own predicaments? Where would an outside perspective, one free of our emotional attachments, one unencumbered by our cultural norms, see a way out that we do not let ourselves see?

How could we see the world differently?


Monkey’s Fist is also a name for a sailor’s knot, frequently tied with a weight on the end and used as a throwing line or, one hopes only in days past, as a melee weapon. Here is an interesting link from a hobo site giving even more back story: (http://worldpath.net/~minstrel/hoboart.htm) .

In the days of piracy, when there was only wind power, sailors had to somehow get the ships together in times of distress. This is almost impossible on the high seas. Someone got the idea to throw a rope to the other ship to pull them together. This didn’t work. Then it was decided to tie a rope around a cannonball and sling it to the other ship. The problem was that they needed a knot that would stay secure on a round object, so this “Monkey’s Fist” knot was devised. It is the only knot that will stay secure on a round object.

The knot became known as a “Monkey’s Fist” because, as with a monkey, it won’t let loose of an object. Since this knot has long leads, it can be thrown to another ship and became known as a life line. It was used to rescue people when ships were in distress.

The “Monkey’s Fist” knot has been adopted by the hobo community as a symbol of sorority and fraternity, a life line between hoboes.

One Comment

  • Rob Myers
    Posted November 30, 2007 at 2:42 PM | Permalink

    Nearly every moment our lives are being acted upon by a myriad of different interests and usually they are conflicting. Often times in the face of 3 or more seemingly contradictory orders we have a tendency to declare the situation FUBAR and settle on one of the orders only, with no real weight or significance given to the other orders, or competing interests.

    I think this is what is really happening when we fail. We are forgetting to ignore or put down our desire for an easy reality, where there is only one clear objective, or path. Like the monkey, we forget that “food” is not the only desire we have, or even the most important.

    I think that the ability to cultivate an internal balance between all of the forces in our life and at any given moment, be able to see which choice would work in harmony with the most is vital to our success.

    p.s. The monkey should have let go and once free, tipped the coconut upside down and let the rice fall out. Maybe a few did!

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