Q&A with Ralph De La Rosa | Author of The Monkey Is the Messenger
Ralph De La Rosa Answers the Top 5 Questions About The Monkey Is the Messenger
Could you give us a brief summary of The Monkey is the Messenger?
It’s a book that, at the onset, is about the nature of repetitive thoughts and rumination—why we have them, the evolutionary purpose they serve, and some evidence-based techniques on how to effectively calm them. The book covers a lot of ground, though, and gets into how our emotions work and the nature of trauma. Toward the end, it becomes about bringing psychotherapeutic techniques into our meditation practice to go beyond mere coping and affect deep healing and transformation. There are 15 guided meditations for doing so, which can be streamed online.
What inspired you to write this book?
So much has been said in the wellness world about accepting ourselves fully, self-love, and the like. And yet I kept noticing—both within myself and in other meditators—this tendency to shame oneself for experiencing repetitive thoughts, ruminations, and distractions, both in meditation and in daily life. The more I noticed it, the more incongruent it felt. So, I began to ask myself the question, “If we were to apply a growth mindset—that is, take this universal human experience of overthinking (what the Buddha called, ‘monkey mind,’) as a teacher—would it have anything to show us?” As I sat with this question over weeks and months, a wealth of insights began to arise for me—so much so that I managed to fill a book with them.
Can you say more about these insights on overthinking?
First of all, repetitive thoughts are far from being the only repetitive patterns we experience in life. We tend to go ‘round and ‘round with cycles of emotions, patterns of habitual behaviors, repeat episodes in relationships (especially the intimate and familial), all the way up to sociopolitical arenas. And yet, one of the key things I realized along the way is that the self is an ecosystem—that we are not so much a solid entity as we are a dynamic system of moving parts that have a primary organizing principle of survival and wellbeing. In the literal ecosystems of the natural world, all parts and events serve some sort of purpose in service of the whole. One example of that would be the way that forest fires ultimately replenish nutrients in the soil; it may seem terrible that forest fires happen, but they actually promote the longevity of the entire forest at the end of the day. And our lives are not unlike that. The repetitive patterns we experience are very meaningful and aren’t at all random or happening because life is unfair. Just like the how out of control wildfires on the West coast are a sign that climate change is real, and something needs to change (and soon), the repetitive patterns in our lives are actually our unconscious body-mind’s way of grabbing us by our shirt collars. We are being alerted to the fact that something in our life is calling for our attention and our care. Repetitive patterns in our lives are messengers, and there’s research to back this idea up. It’s present in psychodynamic theory as well as Vedic philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. The problem is, most people don’t know how to decode the message. This book teaches one how to do exactly that.
So, what is the take-away here?
The message is manifold, but it all comes down to disconnection. One example from the book is regarding the way in which we’ve become disconnected from our bodies. To paraphrase comedian John Mulaney, we tend to treat our bodies as if they’re these things that carry our head from room to room. Our conscious awareness tends to reside above the neck, and this actually accounts for much of our overthinking. There’s neuroscience that suggests that when our awareness descends into the torso and limbs, we switch to an entirely different neural network: one that is pre-language, quieter, and more directly attuned to our sensual experience of life (where the good stuff is). So, we can logically posit that one of the main reasons our minds are so out of control is that our connection to the body has been compromised. That said, the discomfort of having these overactive minds that stress us out and keep us up at night is actually a calling to resolve that matter. Hence, we see droves are flocking to meditation in an unprecedented manner. It gets much deeper than this, but this is one example.
Your book focuses a lot on Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. What is IFS therapy?
Just about every therapist I know lights up whenever I mention it these days. IFS is a newer modality of therapy that’s just 20-ish years old but very much evidence-based. It’s a really accessible way to access the deeper aspects of our emotional minds, gain insight and clarity, and affect radical change in our lives. Therapists love it because it’s very direct and efficient; one doesn’t need to spend years unpacking their entire life saga with this modality. Clients love it because it teaches a process called “parts work” that one can do on one’s own, without a therapist present, and with astonishing outcomes. It's actually quite aligned with this view I've developed of self-as-ecosystem. It gives people a direct experience of how there's truly nothing wrong with any of us—we're just lacking in clarity and compassion. “Parts work” helps us develop that clarity and compassion so that we can love from our most authentic selves more and more often. So, I've adapted “parts work” for meditation practice and have been teaching it for years now in NYC, and the response has consistently been very powerful. And now I have the great fortune of presenting these methods to a wider audience.