The Elephant in the Room is You

“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” — Mary Engelbreit

Every now and then, I make a resolution that I will start getting up an hour early to go jogging before I start my day.  As a physician, I am very much aware of the benefits of exercise to the body.  Exercise keeps us fit, trim, lowers our cholesterol, increases our stamina and energy levels, and may even prolong our life.  All good things, right?  So I set out to do this on a regular basis.  I set the alarm by the bed to go off at 6 am instead of 7 and I fall off to sleep, snug and secure in the satisfaction that tomorrow is a new beginning toward translating my deeply held conviction that you only go around once in life and you should be all that you can be.

6 am arrives and the alarm goes off.  There I am, in my little cocoon of sheets and blankets and the room is cold.  Coming out of the fog of my dreams, its hard to awaken my firm resolve of the night before.  I look at the digital dial on the alarm and realize that its two hours before I have to be anywhere.  Just reaching up to shut off the alarm is rather annoying, never mind the thought of forcing myself to actually get up and venture outside where it’s really cold to do something that requires me to muster a great deal of energy.  So do I get up or not?  One part of me says yes, another says no.  No matter how much spiritual practice I do, I remain totally schizophrenic.  There are two voices in my head battling it out for my very soul.  Which one eventually wins?   I invite you to look to your own experience for the answer to that one.

The divided self is universal to the human experience.  Our rational side wants us to exercise, to lose weight, be more disciplined about something or other, but our instinctive side, our emotional side, wants to turn over and go back to sleep or to order that tempting dessert.  Our rational side is aware of this division in ourselves, this split in our personality, and may try to outwit our instinctive side by putting the alarm clock across the room to force us to get up.  Or put a lock on the refrigerator to keep us away from the ice cream.  But often this strategy backfires.  What you get instead is a crazed man cursing himself as he stumbles across the room to hit the snooze button or a frantic woman who raids the refrigerator in the middle of the night to get at the tempting dessert that she has held off all day until she can’t stand it any longer.  Let’s face it.  We are an insane species.

This division in the self is at the heart of the human situation.  Poets, philosophers, and psychologists throughout the ages have commented on it.  Plato compared us to a charioteer who uses whip and goad in our attempt to control the unruly horse.  St. Paul wrote, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.  I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[1]  Buddha said that the mind is like a wild elephant and needs a trainer to control it.  Freud wrote about the selfish id and the conscientious superego.  Perhaps the best analogy comes from Johnathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, who picked up on the elephant idea of the Buddha and says that the dynamic tension between these two aspects of our selves is best represented by a rider atop an elephant.  The tiny rider being the rational side of our self and the 6 ton elephant being our instinctive, emotional side.  The rider can direct the elephant as long as the elephant does not have desires of its own.  However, when the elephant really wants something, the rider is totally outmatched.

Why did human beings develop is this way, so that they are often divided in purpose?  It really makes perfect sense, if you think of it in evolutionary terms.  These two “minds” roughly correspond to the two information processing systems within our brains.  Humans have automatic processing, which handles dozens of functions all at once without us even having to think about it. The automatic response system developed because its quick and reliable action gave our species an advantage in securing food quickest and avoiding danger the fastest.  Things like breathing, blinking, and withdrawing our hand from a hot stove happen without any conscious effort on our part.  That’s the elephant.  We also have controlled processing, which requires conscious effort and deliberation, but is able to analyze and plan for the future.  That’s the rider.   Our elephant part works pretty well, as thousands of years of product cycles of natural selection has gotten all the bugs out.  But controlled processing, the ability to deliberate and plan for the future is, in evolutionary terms, a relatively new addition.  But the rider helped certain elephants do certain things in a better way.  Evolution selected the elephants that got the most use out of the rider.

How do these two information processing systems work together?  Suppose it is getting to be about dinnertime.  The elephant only knows its hungry.  To plan a meal, the rider is needed to choose the menu, look up recipes, choose the proper ingredients, and plan the process of putting the ingredients together.  Controlled processing, while it can be quite elaborate, is quite limited.  It can only think consciously about one thing at a time.  But while these elaborate controlled processes required for cooking take place, everything else is done automatically by our elephant – breathing, stirring, chopping, maintaining proper distance from the heat of the stove, even feeling the proper texture and consistency of our culinary creation are all functions that happen without any conscious effort on our part.  So both parts of our divided self are necessary to bring about purposeful, intelligent behavior.

All in all, this divided system of processing functions fairly well until we decide to make some significant change in our life.  If you’ve ever tried to get up early, started a diet, bought a piece of exercise equipment, started piano lessons or the study of a foreign language, you know what I’m talking about.  That’s when your rider, who thinks its in control, likely finds itself at odds with the elephant.  And the elephant, being much larger, usually wins.  The rider wants the trim body and the elephant wants the ice cream cone.  The rider is simply unable to keep the elephant on the path long enough to reach the destination.

The elephant and the rider is a brilliant metaphor for helping us think about our internal difficulties with discipline and change, but it can also lead us to oversimplify the problem.  The elephant isn’t always the bad guy.  The elephant also has good qualities and the rider has its faults.  Emotion is the elephant’s turf – love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty.  That fierce instinct you have to protect your children from danger – that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself – that’s the Elephant.  All the gut feelings, visceral reactions, intuitions, everything about us that comprises emotional intelligence, that’s the elephants domain.  Most importantly, it’s the elephant who furnishes the drive to get things done.

Conversely, the rider isn’t always the good guy.  The rider tends to spin his wheels. Have you ever heard of analysis into paralysis?  That’s the rider.  The Rider tends to get focused on problems and this can lead to hesitancy and inaction.  The rider is that part of ourselves that can see into the future, but if all he ever does is plan and plan and never takes action, nothing ever gets accomplished.  The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence that contributes to the unique brilliance of human beings.

The big question – one that has plagued humankind ever since we became reflective beings – is how do you get the elephant and the rider to cooperate with one another?

Willpower alone seldom brings about change.  In other words, while the rider can yank on the reins or goad the elephant and get his way for a time, it seldom lasts very long.  The elephant is simply too strong for the rider to win a tug of war, and the elephant, being emotional, will get angry and refuse, or simply be stubborn.  So the rider exhausts himself.

Motivational speakers, personal trainers, using the rider atop the elephant metaphor, have come up with all sorts of effective strategies to get the two working together.  Most of these techniques, well known to behavioral scientists, usually consist of 3 elements.  Directing the rider, motivating the elephant, and clearing the path.  First, direct the rider.  That is, set concrete, one step at a time goals.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  For me, in my quest to begin a jogging program, that meant telling myself, the goal is not something abstract like, get in shape.  It meant the goal this week is to run a mile every other day.  Next week run a mile and a half every other day.  That’s directing the rider by giving him small, concrete, achieveable goals.    Second, motivate the elephant.  Engage the emotions.  The elephant will be more motivated if it can imaginatively envision the destination or goal.  It also helps to create stronger emotions related to the attainment of the goal.  For me, the idea of having a smaller waistline was not motivating enough.  So I began to think of something that was more important to me.  I want to be around to play with my grandkids and watch them grow up and do things with them.  That turned out to elicit much stronger emotions within me toward the attainment of my goal.  And it has helped me to stay with my exercise regimen.  Third, clearing the path.  Make it easier for the elephant to go the way that you desire it to go.  For me, that meant changing the time I planned to go jogging.  Overcoming the inertia of my lazy body at 6 am was simply too difficult a path for my elephant.  So now I attempt to run first thing when I first get home in the afternoon.   This is much more agreeable to my elephant as my elephant already has its adrenalin flowing at 5 pm whereas at 6 am its hopeless to get him moving.

To me, the genius of Haidt’s book is that he took this idea of the divided self, the idea of the rider and the elephant, and applied it to several facets of human development, human flourishing and human well being, not just to the discipline and motivation to diet and exercise.  He reexamines such big ideas as – how we change our minds, how we deal with challenge and adversity, the role of relationships, the role of virtue, the role of religion and the divine – all from the perspective of this struggle between the rider and the elephant.  And it is amazing how illuminating it is to examine these crucial pieces of the human situation in light of the rider and elephant model.  That’s what I will be doing in a series of sermons I will be doing once a month – looking at some of these ideas in light of Haidt’s model of the rider and elephant.

I will finish by sharing something Haidt shared when he was interviewed right after his book was published.  He said his research on human fulfillment and well being really can be boiled down to two big ideas he picked up from Buddhism.  The first is the idea of the human mind being like that of the elephant and the trainer which he modified into the metaphor of the elephant and the rider.  The second is this thought from the Buddha, “All that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.”  From these two simple ideas Haidt develops a remarkably coherent path for those of us who strive to better understand ourselves and others and who seek to bring about meaningful change.  It basically boils down to this.  The elephant often gets stuck thinking it can somehow make the world conform to its wishes.  The rider is the real change agent, but only when the rider learns to change its thinking.  As the quote on your OOS today says, “If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”

If nothing else, an examination of these ideas will help us to be more gentle and patient with ourselves and with others.  Most all of us have learned from years of experience that you can’t just resolve to be happy. You can’t just resolve to exercise, that you can’t just resolve to quit overeating, you can’t just resolve to stop and smell the flowers – because the rider does the resolving but it’s the elephant that does the behaving. Once you understand the limitations of your psychology and how hard it is to change yourself, you become much more tolerant of others, because you realize how difficult it is to change anyone.  A valuable lesson for us all, one that it seems we keep having to learn again and again.

May it be so for all who have the grace to accept this difficult teaching.  Amen.


[1] Romans 7: 18,19

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About lfhoward

Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Valdosta
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