Dancing with Elephants


This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on February 27, 2014 at the Greater Boston Zen Center.  It’s a reflection on a passage written by Barry Magid about the Bodhisattva precepts in the Zen tradition that we’ve chosen to focus on in our mini, nonresidential version of an Ango retreat.


I’ve tracked the work of a very creative social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt for nearly 20 years.  His work strongly influenced my own when I was in graduate school and, later, teaching about transformation of conflicts involving identity dynamics and deeply-held values.


Much of Haidt’s early work was on moral psychology.  He’s since contributed to the research and literature on happiness and so-called “positive psychology.”


In one strand of Haidt’s research on the psychology of human morals, he created a series of hypotheticals like this.  Fasten your seat-belts:


Julie and Mark are brother and sister.  They are traveling together in France one summer vacation from college.  One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach.  They decided that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love.  At very least it would be a new experience for each of them.  Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe.  They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again.  They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them fell closer to each other. 


After study participants read this hypothetical, Haidt asks them to respond to two questions:


Is this wrong?


If so, why?


Almost all study participants feel the conduct is wrong.  When asked why, they first say things like:


The siblings might conceive, and the child might even have birth defects. 


One might pass an STD to the other.


Their parents might learn what they’ve done, and they would be crushed.


They are too young.


There is some element of coercion.


This will contort their relationship, altering it for the worse.


As you can see, however, Haidt’s hypotheticals are carefully crafted to negate all possible negative consequences.  When Haidt points out to respondents that the consequences they fear cannot occur, many respond in exasperation, “I don’t know why it’s wrong; it just is.”


Haidt concludes from this line of his research and others that our morals, and so our perspectives and conduct, are strongly influenced by pre-cognitive reactions – here, disgust – and that we often construct rationales to justify these primary – and primal – reactions after-the-fact.  Our “lower” (or ancient) brain functions decide what is right and wrong, and then our “higher” (newer) brain functions, which enable functions like rational thought and language, “pretty up” the decisions, making them presentable to ourselves and other rational minds.


To be sure, Haidt is not trying to justify incest (nor am I), but he is exposing something about how our minds work, and the unseen problems that can flow from this (like discrimination against people who are different than us based upon pre-cognitive reactions).  The problem is that, for many of us, much of the time, our rational minds don’t quite grasp how things are working.


Haidt likens the situation to a rider on an elephant.  The elephant lumbers along, going where it will at its own pace, while the rider tugs busily on the reins, believing he is in control.  The rider is a bit like R2D2, constantly jabbering away as his CPU churns, having little influence on what’s happening.


Haidt grants that the rider does have an influence, but he believes the default balance of power between elephant and rider is roughly 90% elephant and 10% rider.


Haidt’s work on happiness and advice about how to find it draws upon his research on moral psychology and centers around two themes:  recognizing that there is an elephant; and helping rider and elephant get along and work well together.


Haidt maintains that the rider can increase its influence appreciably, to the mutual benefit of both rider and elephant.  Much of the trick here is helping the rider understand the elephant.


Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and rider reminds me of the koan about an ox trying to pass through an open window (Case 38 in The Gateless Gate):


Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like an Ox that passes through a latticed window.  Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. So, why can’t its tail also pass through?”


What is this tail that can’t pass through?  What are we to make of and do with this stuckness?


Interestingly, Haidt – who, so far as I know, is not a Buddhist – sees meditation as one of the most valuable ways to improve the relationship between rider and elephant.


Our lovely Ango reading from Barry Magid draws our attention to the fact that we are both rider and elephant.  We tend to experience our elephant-ness and rider-ness as oppositional forces.  Rider and elephant engaged in a constant wrestling match.  The rider trying desperately to bring the elephant down, to subdue it.  The better angels of our nature fighting the good fight against our demons.


There is something to be said for that perspective on the human condition, and human moral evolution.  I believe there is an arc of human progress – that, despite the atrocities, big and small, that still are occurring everywhere, humanity is more or less continually evolving the capacity to be kinder and gentler, and the world is being transformed for the better as we do.  (Read Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, for 1,000 pages of insightful commentary on an elephantine body of quantitative data that supports this viewpoint.)  I believe that is ultimately what our Zen project is about.


Some of this progress no doubt has been achieved by wrestling a few elephants to the ground and restraining them there.  And, yet, we need to honor and thank the elephant for helping us survive to the point that it can be ridden, and for all it contributes to our lives today.


Star Trek’s Dr. Spock is all rider, no elephant.  Is that the life we desire?


Most of all, we need to see and understand the elephant as best we can.  There is wisdom in our elephant-ness.  The elephant can look clueless and heartless from the rider’s perspective, but that is not the whole story.  As riders, we must straddle our elephants securely as we reach for the stars.


The ride can be most gratifying for this elephant-rider duo, this elephant-and-rider one-o, when there is mutual respect between them.


Barry Magid shines a light on our elephant-ness and reminds us that true wholeness, that true wisdom, requires an appreciation of how our own and others’ elephant-ness is woven into the fabric of our individual and collective experience.   And how the deepest understanding and fullest, truest embodiment of the precepts demands this appreciation.


This definitely comports with my experience in every realm of life: relationships, work, even – and perhaps especially – religion/practice.


“We must come to terms with both sides of who we are,” he says.  “Practice will not lead us into a state of harmony by eliminating some aspect of who we are.”


If and as we seek peace with our elephants, we just might find that our elephants become more receptive and responsive to our wizened riders – though I would note, as I’m sure Barry Magid himself would, that practice won’t necessarily lead us into a constant state of harmony even if we embrace all aspects of who we are – or, rather, it may eventually awaken us to the harmony that’s always been there, but it won’t necessarily always feel pacific.


I’ll close with the lovely Mary Oliver poem titled Wild Geese:


You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.