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Mindfulness, Monkey Mind, and the Monkey Trap

Mindfulness hike on mindful economy at the European Forum Alpbach. Image courtesy of the author
Mindfulness hike on mindful economy at the European Forum Alpbach. Image courtesy of the author

No doubt we are living in a VUCA world where the level of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity continues to escalate. The Buddhist teachings warn us of impermanence as a matter of fact, but it is also illuminating how humans can be simultaneously influencing and being influenced by the external world. Particularly for those in influential positions, such as leaders in business, religion, politics, academia, key opinion leaders (KOL), and so forth, should be vigilant of how their thoughts, emotions, and actions impact the well-being of many humans, living species, and the entire ecosystem.

That is why mindfulness is an important training. I had the privilege of hosting a workshop in Munich recently to explore how mindfulness can be relevant to the finance sector. Following the workshop, I joined the European Forum Alpbach and led one of the three Mindfulness Hikes. Together with another two speakers from Europe and the United States, we shared with participants from around the world how mindfulness can be applied in politics, education, and the economy. Indeed, given how much people with power, knowledge, and capital can affect the well-being of so many, these leaders and influencers ought to be more mindful. In turn, they could also encourage those under their circle of influence to be more mindful. If they are not mindful of their own emotions and thoughts, let alone the emotions and thoughts of others, they cannot possibly understand the causes and consequences of their decisions.

So how should we understand and practice mindfulness? For a modern secular definition, mindfulness means “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally . . . in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.” (Kabat-Zinn) However, Buddhism and other traditional wisdoms (from the cultural and religious contexts) offer a deeper and more complex meaning. Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn defines mindfulness as:

The energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present, and at one with those around you and with what you are doing.

Based on this understanding, mindfulness trainings comprise not only contemplative practices through sitting or walking meditation, but are also embedded in every moment of our lives. It is both a code of living and decision-making, making reflective and wise decisions with deep compassion and wisdom on what to pay attention to and how to respond.

In order to live in a mindful economy, I propose that we need to transform our understanding of the notion “i” through a six “i”s strategy. The first and second “i”s are the transformation from individual to integral. In the market economy, we are indoctrinated to uphold self-interests and individual ideas, yet we misunderstand the true meaning of our own self-identity. Our identity in the market economy is built upon a false fabrication of self—as if our consumption and our work is our “self.” Of course, our consumption and work are manifestation of our minds and decision-making philosophies, but there is no homogenous impermanent self.

Nonetheless, we should fully comprehend the full ramifications of our decisions in the market economy. The Buddhist teachings advise us to be mindful of our consumption and how we make our living because these daily choices define who we are. Humans are not task-oriented robots—work is supposed to allow us to deliver our best potential. If we enjoy what we are doing, we can be productive without worrying about the so-called work-life balance. Similarly, we should treat capital in a consistent manner so that our value proposition for earning money should be consistent with how we deploy and donate it. As author and thought leader Jed Emerson advocates, any foundation, trust, and organization should consider capital as a continuum. It is schizophrenic if an entity exploits child labor on the one hand and donates to protect children on the other. Even though we may have different roles from time to time, we should be able to act consistently, integrating our values and behaviors.

The third and fourth “i”s are the transformation from independence to interdependence. An important insight to be developed through mindfulness is that our egos separate us from understanding that our notion of self is inseparable from others in the community and the environment. We need to understand that we are interdependent with the market and the environment. To make sustainable change possible, it takes time to change not only the policies or structures on the surface, but also the fundamental root causes and necessary conditions. Depending how we define sustainability, it may mean sustainability for future generations over the next few decades in a particular region; it may mean sustainability for all humans, other living species, and the entire ecosystem. Sustainable decision-making can be understood from three aspects: (1) the decision-makers need to be sustainable, manage to cope with the physical and mental stresses required to make decisions; (2) the strategic framework needs to be sustainable, based on consistent values, visions, and missions; and (3) the outcomes also need to be sustainable.

The fifth and sixth “i”s are the transformation from ignorance to insights. Insights comprise the information and wisdom to understand the karmic causes and consequences of our actions, as well as the profound meaning of interconnectedness and selflessness. Insights are also the wisdom required to deeply understand the significance of time, the patience demanded to change thoughts and behaviors, and the wisdom to know the difference between what can and cannot be changed in the short term. Finally, insights should also include a deep understanding of the enormous potential of human minds. When we are in delusion, our mind is driven by circumstances; when we are enlightened, our minds can change the circumstances.

Without mindfulness, our minds are like a dancing monkey that keeps jumping up and down, out of control. We are definitely not free but instead being driven by our thoughts and emotions. In Southeast Asia, there is an old technique for capturing monkeys using a coconut. The hunter makes a hole in the coconut big enough for the monkey to put its hand in but not big enough for the monkey to pull its fist out. Inside the coconut shell, the hunter places the monkey’s favorite treats with an attractive smell. The monkey climbs the tree and pushes its hand inside the coconut to grab the treat, but it is unable to withdraw its hand as long as it is holding onto the prize. Unable to free its fist, but unwilling to give up the treat, the monkey is thus ensnared by the hunter.

The Buddha taught that we are similarly held hostage by our own attachments. Not only do our minds operate like monkeys that fail to calm down, they also like to hold onto external phenomena and becomes trapped. In the market economy, we should be even more cautious against invisible traps. While advertising attempts to brainwash us into believing that we can buy happiness through consumption, we may even be convinced that we have limitless choices. The paradox of choice means that not only is it impossible to exhaust all choices, we may feel regret over the choices we have made and blame ourselves for making poor choices. More choices do not necessarily mean more control or happiness. (Schwartz, et al. 2002)

If we truly aspire to freedom, how could we possibly subject ourselves to the manipulation of the market and technology? I was recently invited by the US-based education and research organization East-West Center to join a symposium with a group of international ethicists, engineers, philosophers, educators, and social entrepreneurs. While the development of artificial intelligence (AI) seems inevitable, we attempted to explore how we could work together to build a humane and equitable AI. In short, AI should be adopted to make us better humans and it should serve to deliver the best potential for all humans equally. We need to be very mindful of how we engage with the AI system as users and consumers because there is no such thing as free lunch—if we are not paying for the service, we are paying with our time, personal data, attention, and consciousness in lieu of money.

Like any collective system, we should beware of our interaction with AI so that we know how not to be attached, manipulated, or even enslaved by it. The monkey trapped by the coconut at least sees the coconut and has the “choice” of letting go if it chooses. AI networks can become so integrated with every part of our lives that it is as if it is invisible. If it always stays a step ahead by anticipating our desires, making sure that our wishes are always fulfilled even when they are nudged by the system, are we still free and not being ensnared? Does happiness simply mean an all-you-can-eat buffet? What makes us “human” and how do we stop feeding the technology beast that we cannot control?


Schwartz, Barry, Andrew Ward, Sonja Lyubomirsky, John Monterosso, Katherine White, and Darrin R. Lehman. 2002. “Maximizing Versus Satisficing: Happiness is a Matter of Choice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (5):1,178–97.

See more

Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness (Mindful)
Awakening the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh (Mindfulness Exercises)

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