Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Whole Elephant

I wanted to title this blog entry “Ten Eleven Twelve” (because it is 10-11-12), but I keep coming back to “The Whole Elephant.” My inner life tells me it’s about the whole elephant, but, yes, the synchronicity of today is super good, too!

I am reading The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, a clear and quietly hilarious positive psychology teacher guy. Really, he is funny, and I understand all of philosophy much better than I did before, and I am only on page 175.

You can find him and it here. I am reading the navy blue hardback with yellow lettering, but I love the swimming elephant on the paperback cover.

The elephant comes from Haidt’s metaphor for what we are, each of us with “a divided self” : a rational rider on a huge elephant, with instincts and desires of its own. Willpower, rational control, and right thinking are all great, but the elephant is really big, strong, and goes where it wants to go.

Haidt connects this to how the brain really works, using “controlled processes” and “automatic processes,” and so much of what we do is automatic, involuntary, and habitual. “In sum, the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is…conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.” Ain’t that the truth!?

Anyhoo, I am delighted and comforted by this book, because it honors the elephant! The elephant 1) does really good things for us and 2) can be trained. Too often, people who advise me think the human is simply the rider! They ignore the elephant. Or think the elephant is the servant. The rider is the “advisor or servant” or, in my view, both, along with loving, respectful animal trainer/circus rider. The whole human being is the reasoning being AND the powerful animal, and we need to recognize and respect gut feelings and intuition, hungers and passions, etc., and not pretend 1) they are not there 2) they are easy to “tame” or control 3) they are not part of the real human being.

There was more I wanted to say about the elephant and the book, but, if I go on (and on) it will no longer be 10-11-12. So I’ll stop now, resume later, and you can leave elephantine comments.

Thanks to Wikipedia and Peter H. Wrege for the whole elephant and the African forest elephant!


Collagemama said...

I was excited about 10-11-12, but I'm easily amused. Thanks for the book recommendation.

Kathleen said...

Ah, then you may be amused that I got his central metaphor a bit wrong. I was taking it to mean that the whole human being is a rider on an elephant, but on p. 181 he casually lists, among helpful metaphors, what is probably his own: "the mind is a rider on an elephant," which refines it a bit more. Still makes sense to me, still applies, still rings true.

More of the whole elephant to come, I imagine....