The Cigarette Monkey

Get off my back!

“Got a monkey on my back, M-m-m-m-monkey on my back back back back” –Led Zeppelin – Nobody’s fault but mine

The monkey riding our back is a powerful metaphor for our animal side taking control of our rational human side. The monkey wants that cigarette and will not get off our back until it gets it. Another metaphor for this phenomena of the fight with our animal side is the Sindbad story of “the old man of the sea” from “One Thousand and One Nights” story collection. The story starts with Sindbad being shipwrecked on an island where he encounters the old man of the sea, who is portrayed as a small old man, who asks Sindbad for help in crossing a river, Sindbad agrees and the old man climbs on top of Sindbad’s shoulders wrapping his legs around Sindbad’s neck. Once across the river, the old man refuses to let go and tightens his grip around Sindbad’s neck so that there is no escape for Sindbad. It becomes evident to Sindbad that this old man, has tricked many sailors before and has a habit of riding those unlucky sailors to their deaths. Sinbad eventually outsmarts the old man and gains his freedom. In some versions of the translation the old man is actually an orangutan or other type of monkey. The monkey is cunning like an old man that has lived long and has a lot of knowledge, yet it is weak like an old man, the monkey can’t handle adversity such as a river. The river in this story is a metaphor for change. The water keeps moving, while the river doesn’t appear to be changing. The monkey needs assistance and guidance. The sea is a metaphor for the subconscious mind and how it is death to get lost at sea, lost in the mind. Being stranded at a deserted island is a metaphor for being alone with our thoughts in our dark moments. The island is a metaphor for a safe haven from the subconscious mind. The neck is a metaphor for our freewill and it is lost once the monkey is in control. Sindbad encounters his animal “monkey” self while in deep meditation and needs to confront and tame it. The monkey here is not supposed to be taken literally. We use the metaphor here because it makes it easier for us to communicate an abstract concept in a concrete way. There is no physical monkey, it is just a metaphorical concept describing that part of us that is out of our control and prone to irrational behavior, such as smoking cigarettes.