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Posted By Opening the Heart

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side
At once began to bawl
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

 

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

 John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

 

This ancient Indian story becomes particularly meaningful when applied to the process of self examination. Just how partial is our understanding of ourselves? How moulded by prevailing culture, science and pop-psychology are the stories our minds weave about the 'self' and our lives?

Looking back to my childhood in England I can laugh in embarrassment at the various notions I imbibed from my family, friends, schools and popular culture. Exposure to alternative world views has taught me how impossibly racist, sexist, jingoist, chauvinist, homophobic, fear-based and just plain wrong those notions were. With hindsite it is easy to see that just about all my perceptions of who I was in the world were way off base.

Hitch-hiking around Europe in the 60s, living in an ashram in India for three years in the 70s, becoming an immigrant to the US in the 80s were all salutary experiences that opened my eyes and busted many of the myths I was carrying about myself and my relationship to the world. But there's no doubt that new myths crept in along the way.
A quarter century later  the 'elephant' story prompts me to wonder what misunderstandings, distortions and failures to see the big picture I am currently indulging.

I remember spending a meditation intensive in India in 1977 sitting opposite a partner and responding to the suggestion: "Tell me who you are!" It took me a long time to get beyond the 'bio', the family, the career, the closely held beliefs. In essence these were just parts of the elephant - and even patching them all together produced only a piecemeal collage. What was being sought was something much deeper and more complete - something amorphous but much closer to truth.

The challenge then and now is to recognize and move beyond the narrow lens crafted by (unreliable) personal experience and 'culture'. It requires continually reminding ourselves that we are usually only experiencing a fraction of our whole being. Try this experiment: set your timer to beep every hour today - when you hear it ask yourself 'who am I right now? and spend just one minute meditating the answer.


 
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