The monkey trap of selfishness

What attachment has you behaving like a selfish monkey? Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

Human beings have a tendency, biologically, to be selfish. They have evolved to seek resources, and to gather them into a place close to their body’s physical location. That’s why people accumulate material possessions such as houses, clothes, cars, and bank accounts. The idea, unconsciously, is that the body is afraid of being defenceless, so it builds walls of defence around it.

Within reason, this facilitates an orderly society. To have a roof over your head, on a basic level, keeps weather extremes away. Clothing provides some protection and modesty of display. Other resources provide sustenance, and some excess, when saved, provides protection in emergencies.

But what happens when this selfish tendency gets out of hand? We have a financial system that uses selfishness as a selling tool. Loans and credit cards are advertised as ways to gain early access to a desired lifestyle.


There is an anecdotal story that expresses the dangers quite well. The story goes that one way of catching a monkey is to offer a container of nuts, with a hole for hand access. The trick is that the hole is big enough to allow the entry of the monkey’s hand… but, once the monkey’s hand is full of nuts, the hand is too big to withdraw. The monkey, unwilling to let go of the nuts, stays attached to the monkey trap by their own greed.

The analogy is hopefully obvious. Debt providers make it easy for borrowers to access funds in the short term. But the longer term obligations of the deal mean that many people get trapped in a never-ending cycle of debt they cannot get out of. What seemed, at first, a blessing, eventually becomes a trap, a kind of hell.


Individuals caught with too much debt become stuck trying to feed the monster, and unable to pay for their own day-to-day needs. ‘It would be better never to have started with the debt,’ they think, ‘but now I am in the cycle, there seems no escape.’

Unfortunately, this cycle causes a lot of unhappiness. It causes anxiety and depression. What started as an attempt to give humans earlier access to resources, eventually becomes a trap for the greedy and desperate.


Money is a big one, but there are other monkey traps. For example, there are relationship monkey traps. Many people enter into relationships on the basis of an easy win – their partner removes their fear of being alone. But, once that basic fear is assuaged, a whole host of new problems arise. This person whom they have got together with seems to have a mind of their own! They live, breathe and think in a different way, and are often annoying. The early benefit of fear-assuagement is forgotten in the later burden of negotiating with another human being who is not oneself.

There is the monkey trap of well-paid work, where humans are encouraged to accept conditions they would not otherwise accept, in order to have resources coming into the bank account. Their material wealth swells, but needs maintenance. Like the monkey’s hand in the trap, their monthly budget grows, so that now they need the well-paying job just to survive. Depression sometimes ensues, as the individual realises that they are stuck in a cycle they cannot easily get out of.


By this time, we are wondering if there is an alternative to this cycle of monkey traps. Certainly, for many people, the trap is very real, and seems inescapable. They could list for you a series of basic ‘needs’ which they need to fulfil, and therefore can explain to you why they ‘need’ to keep doing what they’re doing.

I have certainly had counselling clients who have been stuck in that cycle for many years, and have become increasingly unhappy as a result. Often they do not consider that they have any alternative except to run on the same unpleasant treadmill.

‘Let go’ is easy to say, but hard to do. The art of letting go comes to many people late, and to some people never. Let go of the need for financial wealth? Let go of the need for a relationship partner? It seems an unreasonable thought. The number of arguments, as to why the financial merry-go-round needs feeding, are too many. The number of arguments, as to why the relationship problems are intractable, are too many.

Letting go begins within. It begins in small ways, with moments when the self isn’t cherished quite so much, and other people begin to be more of a focus. The art of letting go develops when someone learns to spend more time giving to others than grabbing for themselves. The space needed to let go arrives when an individual stops blaming others for their predicament, and starts taking accountability for their own next steps.

Letting go can be surprisingly simple. You let go of everything you are holding, and you take your hand out of the monkey trap.

Many people believe that this ‘letting go’ will lead to more poverty, that it is letting others take advantage of you. But the kind of letting go we are talking about here, is nothing to do with practical concerns. You still have the same situations and resources at your disposal. You are just stopping your emotional dependence and desperation. Once you are freed from emotional desperation, your mind can become more spacious, and more free to consider your alternatives for action.


Humans have evolved with a basic biological tendency to gather resources to themselves. In modern society, this tendency is used by financial companies as an advertising hook. In particular, debt companies use the promise of assets to lure in customers, who then become trapped in debt.

The debt trap can cause a lot of anxiety and depression. And debt is not the only trap that works this way. Relationships, and jobs, can work the same way. Individuals can begin by using them to avoid insecurity; and can end up unhealthily dependent on them for survival.

The analogy is that of a ‘monkey trap’, a container with access small enough for an empty hand to get through, but too small for a full hand to withdraw. Full of debt, difficult relationship issues, and jobs they hate, individuals suffer.

One way of becoming free of these, is to learn to let go of the emotional dependence that led to the trap in the first place. First and foremost, this is an inner contemplation. We first learn to reduce our emotional dependence on money, people and jobs. Then, freed to be more spacious in our thinking, we can consider, with a sense of liberation, what comes next in our life story.

It’s not easy, but it is possible.