I remember standing with Jet Li in some mountainous part of China nine years ago when he transformed, before my eyes, into a monkey. As he moved about uncannily, shape-shifting and demonstrating monkey style kung fu, I tried to get a fix on the bewildering system. “No system,” he said. “With monkey, the heart leads you.”
I think back on that now as we head into the Year of the Monkey and all the promise it holds. A Monkey Year is an exciting one. According to the ancients, it’s a year when absolutely anything and everything is possible. A year for curiosity, wild creativity, spontaneity, innovation, and getting back in touch with the creative core of childhood. But that’s not all. This happens to be the Year of the Fire Monkey in which all of this wild and mischievous energy can hit new heights, rock new worlds, and sometimes — if that fire element burns too hot — flame out of control.
The Old Sifu once cautioned me that the Fire Monkey is the most active and aggressive of the signs. All of the unbridled passion and creativity needs to be channeled wisely; it’s a fine line. Rein it in too hard and get too cautious, you lose the mojo. Let it run too wild, you can get lost in the jungle.
Anyone who has studied Buddhism and Zen meditation is familiar with the concept of ‘Monkey Mind.’ Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, chattering with anxiety, fear, restlessness and over-thinking. Fear, they say, is among the worst of those mind monkeys. Add the fire element to that and things could get crazy. Old Sifu said there’s no drunken monkey like a drunken fire monkey. That’s why Buddha taught his students meditation: To tame the restless monkey mind. Steve Jobs recognized this early on and credits much of his innovative thinking to it. I read somewhere that he practiced meditation specifically to quiet the restless mind so that he could create at his highest potential. Here’s an interesting piece on Jobs and the monkey mind: http://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/how-steve-jobs-trained-his-own-brain.html
Such metaphors and parables are personified in the character of The Monkey King aka Sun Wukong in the classic Chinese novel ‘Journey to the West.’ In fact, it was the Monkey King that Jet Li was conjuring back when he put on a transformative, almost shamanic, martial arts display for me, capturing all of these Fire Monkey traits in a wild, improvised form. “Monkey frees himself from the system and the styles,” he said. “it’s all about the pure creative.” He laughed wildly and with genuine childlike joy as we discussed this (and even as his left hand kept scoring points on me). An hour later, when looking for Jet, I found him sitting off alone, in deep and peaceful meditation while the movie crew and busy set hummed loudly all around him. That just about summed up the balance that lies at the heart of the monkey teachings. It is, I believe, possible to go forth with unbridled passion and creative risk while keeping centered and at peace. This is something I try to apply in my practice of music, martial arts, and writing. And that’s something I’ll be thinking more about in this new year.
Mostly, I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone an exciting, creative, fun, healthy and successful 2016. As the old king once said, “if you want something badly enough, the entire universe will conspire to make it come true.” And in the Year of the Monkey, anything and everything is possible.