M is for...

M is for…

“Monkey Business”

this is a phrase meaning mischief, or impropernaughty, or annoying activity related to the earlier phrase monkey shines. Interestingly the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — the arbiter of such things in the English language — apparently says it derives from the Bengali bā̃drāmi i.e. mischievousness, literally, a monkey-trick (What linguists or translators might call a claque, i.e. a literal translation from one language to another).
It’s also the name of at least 4 different movies, the most significant one for me is the Marx brother’s film with none other than our friend Groucho.

Too Much Monkey Business is also the title of a song written by Chuck Berry and covered by Elvis, The Beatles and the Yardbirds, among others.

However, for me the phrase points to something else. It refers to and recalls all the “mechanical” behaviours that are our biological inheritance from our pre-human ancestors, almost everything given by our biology and our culture.

Some people are deeply offended by the idea that there are few aspects of our personalities, behaviour or cultures that is not an elaborated version of some very primitive, literally and figuratively, evolutionarily mandated reality. The examples are as endless as human behaviour but let’s see an example or two or three…

It’s easy to see that social status is important for people. A type of car, a certain address, a particular label, a beautiful spouse, children or the absence there of, In every culture the indicators of status are obvious to insiders, though of course they vary from generation to generation, group to group, sub-culture to sub-culture, culture to culture, etc. I have heard it said (and I will for the moment assume that it is true) that as in many places, the rigidly hierarchal traditional Chinese culture used differences in clothing as a key signifier of rank or caste. So it is not surprising that when the Communists came to power they used fashion to send signals regarding the elimination of differences, for example getting rid of rank insignia in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army .

When the cadres (i.e. the ruling class, or higher echelon party members) and the wore for the most part the same style clothing they made slight modifications in the stitching etc to indicate their fashionable status. Certainly, officially an officer and regular soldier in the People’s Army could be distinguished by whether their tunic had four pockets or two. People it seems will always find a way. You can dismiss that as superficial or vanity but there’s clearly much more to it than that. And whatever else it may be shallow it’s not it has deep, deep roots.

The desire to “tart” ourselves up is only superficial from a very superficial (ideologically over-determined) point of view. Consider that the oldest examples we have found so far of the use of coloured pigments indicate these may not have been used primarily for cave painting or for decorating manufactured objects but as “makeup” for that most peculiar object the human body. And even that example relies on relatively recent innovations.

Taking a somewhat longer term perspective we can point to so called biological ornamentation first noted by Darwin in his Descent of Man.
and overstated and naively utilized as has been pointed out more than once.

The deep, primordial importance of status, and the showing off of status is made evident, not only in human history, preoccupations, literature, discussion and behaviour but also in other primates, mammals, and just about wherever else you want to look.

As is illustrated for example by any number of recent studies (big caveat here), where it has been demonstrated that if peoples’ status is diminished, their social standing lowered, or their social networks diminished, their health problems will increase. This is true even where there is socialized medicine and the standard of living is such that even the poorest have decent nutrition, clean water, etc.

What’s more – wait for it – the degree of increased death is related to a lack of social relationships is similar to that for the highly publicized health impacts of smoking. That’s a huge thing. Want to improve public health, the most important health measure you can take is too improve social status (including reducing the gap/chasm/abyss) between rich and poor). Poverty correlates with low social status and both seem strong determinates of physical/mental well being.

Some pretty robust studies seem to show that the less you have, the greater the tax you pay on nervous system. That is, just the social reality of being poor (independent of diet or biological stress stress) hurts your brain.

Of course there are all kinds of monkey business, but in no way does pointing to the importance or ubiquity of those realities in any way imply that human existence is circumscribed within the so-called nature, nurture debate.

However, fortunately, or unfortunately, sustained and careful observation makes it abundantly clear that we deeply determined both by biological and historical (i.e. cultural) forces – much more deeply than is easily comprehended.

As Silo tells us on the second day of the journey outlined in the Inner Look, not only do my thoughts, feelings and actions not depend on me, but even “I” and my desire to change are all dependant on external forces.

Continued Next Time

M is for…


If you look it up the etymology seems pretty straight forward. It is thought that the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root is “med” which also gives us words like measure (e.g. measured thought). Hence words like the ancient Greek medesthai “to think about”, the Latin modus “measure” but also mederi “to heal’ and medicus “physician”.

Not only do most religions have related practices of their own but the scholars tell us that so did philosophical schools (like the Stoics).

Sticking with mindfulness you will find that most people familiar with the definitions or related practices are in fact talking about a particular variant of Vipassanā meditation with an emphasis on “bare attention” directed towards breathing, thoughts, feelings or actions”. This approach (rooted in ancient practices but developed in the 1950s) is very different from the understanding of Vipassanā-meditation (insight meditation, mindfulness) in, for example, the Tibetan tradition. Each of those traditions also teaches other exercises (meditations) very different from what’s known as mindfulness.