Elephants on Strings (and Other Mind Tricks)May 25, 2011 Leave a comment
A friend recently relayed the following story about how some baby elephants are tamed, for cirucuses and other forms of work. As part of its training, the baby is tied it to a steel stake in the ground, strong enough to prevent it from breaking free when it tries to do so. Eventually, the elephant will give up and stop trying to escape. I imagine that this is not the complete story, but keeping with this trajectory . . . At a certain point, the trainer can replace the steel stake with a smaller wooden one, despite the fact that it would never hold the elephant if it tried to break free. An elephant trained to believe that the stake is strong will not try to break loose and run.
Perhaps this sounds crazy, and yet there are many situations in which we tame the wildness out of other species, one another, and ourselves, in more or less subtle ways. All in the name of what? Control, I suppose. Maintaining power and privilege. Trying to render the world more predictable and safe. This metaphor of elephant training is powerful to me, both with respect to what it suggests about conditioning in our own lives and work, and especially in situations where it could be relatively easy liberate ourselves.
Of course there are a variety of restraining forces at play in our lives and minds, of varying degrees of rootedness and resistance: how we were parented, educated, and other structural/institutional arrangements that privilege certain ways of seeing, being, and doing; our own beliefs about ourselves and others; the particular perspective we have given where we sit in different systems; our conscious or unconscious choice to access only certain parts of our individual or collective potential; the instinctual remnants of our distant pasts that no longer serve us or suit our current conditions or future trajectory . . .
So to the extent that this metaphor can serve us, I see it reminding us to:
- Acknowledge and see the stakes to which we are tied and that define our range of physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social movement.
- Try to better understand the nature of these stakes. Of what are they constituted, and how deeply rooted are they?
- Where we are so moved, push ourselves and adjust effort accordingly. Surely elephants know there is strength in numbers.
And curious hear what you see here.