The Elephant In The Room

Recently, I had to attend a mandatory HR meeting at work to discuss our return to the office,1 and not surprisingly, it was awkward and grueling.2

A depiction of the Buddha taming a belligerent elephant,

One interesting thing that came from this meeting is an analogy of handling change using an analogy of an elephant and a rider. The rider represents the logical, rational part of the mind, and the elephant represents feelings and emotions. When they are in accord, things move along well enough, but if the elephant doesn’t want to go, it’s really hard to it go.3

We often take that elephant for granted when things are moving along nicely, but when the elephant is being stubborn or rampaging, the rider is tempted to lash out, give up, or punish it further. This may end up being counter-productive though.

There in lies the challenge.

The image I posted above depicts a famous episode from the Buddha’s life where his cousin Devadatta, out of spite, sent a rampaging elephant out to trample the Buddha but the Buddha was ultimately able to calm the elephant through compassion and keeping a clear head.

In the Buddhist sutras (scriptures), the Buddha often used the analogy of a charioteer driving his horses. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says:

222. He who checks rising anger as a charioteer checks a rolling chariot, him I call a true charioteer. Others only hold the reins.

Translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita

at the same time, the Buddha also uses the analogy of a vīṇā (lute) and how to keep the strings not too taut, nor too slack:

“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned [literally: established] to be right on pitch, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”

“Yes, lord.”

“In the same way, Soṇa, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune [‘penetrate,’ ‘ferret out’] the pitch of the (five) faculties (to that), and there pick up your theme.”

Translation by Thannisaro Bhikkhu, the Soṇa Sutta  (AN 6:55)

Just as managing horses in a chariot, or tuning one’s lute, managing the “elephant” of emotions is learning how and when to hold the reins, and when to loosen them. If the elephant is rampant, then one has to soothe it using calm goodwill, rather than fighting it, or punishing it.

Elephants are great creatures, and the elephant of one’s own emotions similarly needs to be treated with goodwill, even if you need to get it to move somewhere. 🐘❤️

P.S. On a side note, I highly recommend this podcast episode from the Hellenistic Age Podcast about elephants in warfare at the time. It has lots of interesting zoological details about elephants as well.

1 I am part of a department that wont’ be coming back until probably next year, so I am pretty lucky in that regard. I know a number of folks who refuse to work in an office and have looked for jobs elsewhere rather than come back. It’s a good company, but I think they’re in for a surprise when they realize how few want to actually return to the office.

2 Friendly reminder that HR departments answer, ultimately, to the company and not to employees even when they have the best of intentions.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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