Your Elephant and You

We come together in this place of connection

To know and to be known

To enter into relationship, which is our teacher, our inspiration, our shelter, and our prod toward growth

In this place, may we feel safe from the storm

And strengthened to reach beyond our sanctuary

To bring others to safety

And to calm the fearful winds of conflict

That all may know peace


Readings

Untitled by Rumi

We seem to be sitting still,
but we are actually moving,
and the fantasies of phenomena
are sliding through us,
like ideas through curtains.

They go to the well of deep love
inside each of us.

They fill their jars there
and they leave.

There is a source they come from,
and a fountain inside here.

Be generous and grateful.
Confess when you're not.

We cannot know
what the divine intelligence has in mind.

Who am I,
standing in the midst of this
thought-traffic?

 

We Are Many

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.

When everything seems to be set
to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed on my person
takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.

On other occasions, I am dozing in the midst
of people of some distinction,
and when I summon my courageous self,
a coward completely unknown to me
swaddles my poor skeleton
in a thousand tiny reservations.

When a stately home bursts into flames,
instead of the fireman I summon,
an arsonist bursts on the scene,
and he is I. There is nothing I can do.
What must I do to distinguish myself?
How can I put myself together?

All the books I read
lionize dazzling hero figures,
brimming with self-assurance.
I die with envy of them;
and, in films where bullets fly on the wind,
I am left in envy of the cowboys,
left admiring even the horses.

But when I call upon my DASHING BEING,
out comes the same OLD LAZY SELF,
and so I never know just WHO I AM,
nor how many I am, nor WHO WE WILL BE BEING.
I would like to be able to touch a bell
and call up my real self, the truly me,
because if I really need my proper self,
I must not allow myself to disappear.

While I am writing, I am far away;
and when I come back, I have already left.
I should like to see if the same thing happens
to other people as it does to me,
to see if as many people are as I am,
and if they seem the same way to themselves.
When this problem has been thoroughly explored,
I am going to school myself so well in things
that, when I try to explain my problems,
I shall speak, not of self, but of geography.

 

 


Message by Andy Pakula

Today is my first Sunday back after four weeks of leave. Thank you for letting me go and thank you for having me back!

And a huge thank you to everyone who made it possible for me to take that time off - our wonderful staff, the brave people who led gatherings and delivered messages, and all the many people who made everything work!

Four weeks is the longest break I’ve ever taken from work. I learned a lot. Part of my learning was from the five wonderful books I read, and part of it was from my experience of the world and especially my experience of myself.

At the start of the break, I set out a list of things I’d like to do. Relaxing was part of that. Ticked that box. Reading books - tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Decluttering - a substantial amount done but I probably need another four weeks for that one. A partial tick.

And I was resolute that I would take up a daily meditation practice. How did that go. Zero ticks. Not one. I didn’t even sit and meditate once in those 28 days.

I was sure I wanted to do it. I am still sure I did. I’m sure I should do it. I know it would be good for me. I know that meditation is not hard. It can even be pleasant and it always has a good effect on me.

But zero ticks. I set a goal for myself to meditate and, somehow, myself just chose to ignore myself. Why did I ignore me and my intentions?

In his poem, We Are Many, Pablo Neruda wrestles with the same inner frustration. As he describes it, we are multiple characters wrapped up as one and we don’t have particularly good control over which character will emerge at any given moment.

And Rumi - the human one who is not one of Beyonce’s children - also asks about the identify of the true self when so much else is going on in our minds. Rumi, the Sufi mystic, sounds like a Buddhist when he asks ‘Who am I, standing in the midst of this thought-traffic?’

One of the five books I read is called The Righteous Mind. The author is Jonathan Haidt and I would recommend this book extremely highly. There are some small number of books you read that strike you as an epiphany and change the way you see the world. This is one of those books.

In this, and in his previous book - The Happiness Hypothesis - Haidt works with a powerful metaphor for the mind. The rider and the elephant.

The ‘you’ and the ‘I’ that talk and plan and explain and reason and tell ourselves that we are going to meditate every day, is the rider. The rider is sitting atop a much larger, more powerful elephant. The rider often thinks that it’s in control and that the elephant does what the rider says. But the truth is very different. The elephant is emotional and smart and capable and intuitive and creative and very much has a mind of its own.

And the elephant is often completely unwilling to do what the rider says to do. So, every time our best intentions somehow fall short - we overeat or procrastinate or skip the gym or fail to quit smoking or get angry and say something we’ll regret - that’s the elephant ignoring the instructions of the puny rider on its back.

The rider likes to think it’s in control, so it often makes up stories to make it look like the rider is calling the shots. When the elephant decides it doesn’t want to meditate, the rider says ‘oh, I was just too busy to meditate and besides, the floor was dirty.’

Now, you may think that the rider is your self and the elephant is not - that the rider is we you really are and there’s just a bunch of emotional and irrational junk going on in your mind that you need somehow to ignore. It’s really tempting to cling to that kind of view of self - the one we automatically recognise from our earliest consciousness.

But despite how it feels, it’s not nearly so clear. There is no place in our brains where the I or me or self can be located. Our sense of a singular, continuous self is probably something of an illusion. The most dramatic evidence of our being very much like Neruda’s cast of characters comes from people who have had the connections between the two hemispheres of their brains separated to prevent life-threatening epileptic seizures.

When these patients recover from this drastic surgery, they seem completely normal. But, when researchers look more closely, they find that the two, now-separated, hemispheres each have quite a lot of independent action. And most astounding, they even seem to have separate consciousnesses.

It’s a bit tricky to test this because the the left hemisphere has a virtual monopoly on speech. But consider a boy who’s right hemisphere could express itself in writing.

The scientists asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ His voice - controlled exclusively by the left hemisphere - answered ‘a draftsman.’

But then, using letter cards to spell it out, his left hand - controlled entirely by the right hemisphere of his brain - spelled out ‘racing driver.’

There were two consciousnesses at work here - with very different views and dreams of the future. In a normal brain, the connections between the hemispheres would somehow coordinate the two wills so that the answer might be something more like ‘I’m not quite sure what I want to be. I like drawing a lot but I might also like to do something more exciting.’

There is more in our brains than just memory banks and primitive fight and flight responses. There may be multiple consciousness centres.

So, is a great deal more than emotion going on in the elephant. It has desires, dreams, likes and dislikes, and memories. It learns and it masters new skills.

And it is not under the control of who we think is me, myself, and I.

Haidt is far from the first person to offer metaphors and explanations for how the brain works. Freud talked about the conscious ego and the submerged id. We’ve all heard about left-brain, right-brain differences, emotional and rational divides, fast and slow thinking, system 1 and system 2. Plato talked about a rider and an unruly horse.

But the elephant and rider metaphor has so much power for me because the elephant is so clearly powerful and in charge. A horse can’t fail to notice its rider and a horse rider can pressure the horse to do what it wants. An elephant, on the other hand, is going to need persuasion…

Absorbing this metaphor made me think differently about how I and we treat ourselves. When we procrastinate or overeat or fail to quit smoking, there is a tendency to beat ourselves up. What is wrong with ‘me’? ‘I’ have no willpower! ‘I’ must force ‘myself’ to do better next time. ‘I’ am a bad person because ‘I’ didn’t do what ‘I’ didn’t do the right thing.

And that’s the rider blaming itself for the elephant disagreeing with the rider’s plans.

To get anything done at all, the rider has to work with the elephant. We - the rider ‘we’ - are not in command of the elephant. We are not the unquestioned bosses of ourselves. And so, oddly enough, doing what we really want to do can require some serious management skills. I’ve started to think about how I manage my own self as something more like volunteer management than a dictatorship. Rather than being individual, our minds are like committees with very mixed views, skills, perspectives, and strengths. Some of the committee members are emotional. Some are outspoken. Some are silent but get their way by other means.

The elephant needs management. Orders simply don’t work.

In order to work with the elephant so that - together - we can accomplish what we want to be the people we want to be - we need to start by listening and trying to understand the elephant. Unfortunately, the elephant doesn’t communicate in words. It’s desires and attitudes show up in much less obvious ways. When you have butterflies in  your stomach, that’s the elephant. When you suddenly tense up or feel anxious or sad or frightened, the elephant is speaking. The elephant speak through our dreams. We can see it in the actions that run counter to what the rider decided. When I didn’t meditate, the elephant was telling me something. It’s for me to try to understand that so I can work with the elephant for my - or our - mutual benefit.

I started taking driving lessons this summer so I can learn to drive proper British. Now, I’ve been driving for nearly 43 years, so I’ve got the idea of myself as a driver and I’ve got driving built in to me. It’s as second nature now as walking. The rider doesn’t even have to get involved much when I drive. The elephant has got it.

So, I get into the car with a driving instructor and I’m told that pretty much  everything I’m doing is wrong and has to be done differently. There is a critique every 10 seconds. The handbrake, wait until the engine bites, six-point observation, no hand over hand on steering, and on and on.  The elephant is acting, the rider is getting scolded, the rider is angry with the elephant, the elephant is getting testy. I hasten to say that my instructor is perfectly nice. She doesn’t yell at me or berate me but she’s insistent.

The rider gets it. Of course, I have ingrained habits that don’t fit what a driving test examiner will want to see. I need to change and that will only happen if my errors are pointed out. Perfectly rational.

But after two lessons, I recognised a feeling of dread as the third lesson approached. I was supposed to study too, but I procrastinated and didn’t do any of it. At the very last minute, I found myself starting to craft excuses for getting out of the lesson. The rain. My dog. Too much work. The rider was in full-on ‘make excuses for the elephant’ mode!

And then I thought of the elephant. I thought ‘this is a really unhappy elephant.’ It’s showing me that with the dread and the avoidance. The elephant knows it's a driving elephant and the elephant does not like being pushed to do things differently.

When I got in the car, I was tempted to say to my instructor ‘the elephant is unhappy.’ I realise that might not have gone over well. So I explained about dread and decreased confidence and anxiety. I explained that I needed to have a lesson that would be confidence-building - that would reassure me that not everything was wrong. We talked about that and wound up just driving - no three-point turns, no bay parking, no parallel parking, and no reversing around a corner. Just driving.

The previous lesson seemed to take days. This time, the minutes flew by and two hours was up before I knew it. The elephant feels much better about driving lessons and seems even enthusiastic to do a bit of studying before the next lesson.

It is helpful to understand that there are powerful unconscious parts of us and that we need to treat ourselves - our elephants - with kindness and compassion. We need to recognise that the elephant’s needs and desires may be very different from what we - the rider - has decided.

And as powerful as this understanding can be for ourselves, it can be even more powerful when we extend it to our relationships with one another. Whether we are with friends, strangers, or loved ones, we are talking with a rider who only imagines they have complete control over their elephant.

Elephants tend not to like people who are different from what they’re familiar with. That may seem completely unacceptable to the rider and your rider might want to call your elephant a xenophobic racist. But - not surprisingly - that’s not going to make your elephant suddenly change. You need to work gently to train your elephant to be comfortable in different situations. Working well with your elephant is a justice issue!

Extending that same challenge to others, do we really expect argument and name-calling to change other people’s deep-seated beliefs or prejudices?

Not often.  You’re arguing with the rider and the elephant is in charge. It’s like  yelling at the customer service representative of BT on the phone and thinking you can change the company.

We need to use more skillful means that take account of the power and nature of the elephant. Elephants need motivation and training. They don’t operate as much on rationality.

And, with this new-found wisdom, I told my elephant that sitting on the floor cross-legged with my eyes closed would be a fun thing to do. The elephant thought it was OK too.

May your selves learn to work well together, care for one another, and may that care extend to the relationships that sustain and nurture us all. Understand your elephant. It’s essential for your happiness, for reaching your goals, for better relationship, and for creating a better, more just, world.

May it be so.