Jani Kaaro is a scientific journalist, a researcher and encyclopedist, and he has some of the most insightful columns that I have ever read, time after time. I'm going to translate a few of his articles, if you have time and interest, check it out, you won't be disappointed.
The Day of the Elephant Tamer
Like many other people I know, I too thought about God when I was a child. I remember exactly how He looked in my eyes. He was about sixteen years old, like my cousins who I admired; He had a similar sweater as I did, which I could only use on special occasions like for the class photograph, and He looked at me, wise and all-knowing from a slanted angle from the upper reaches, His head hanging down. This was how God, the one I offered my prayers at, looked to me.
Now praying was hard. I had gone to Sunday school, as it was held next door, and I knew that one should always speak respectively and lovingly about God. Still, every time I started a prayer by saying “Dear God,” a little voice in my head said “you bastard.”
I couldn’t help it. I had a lot to say to God. When I was little, I prayed that my pappy would live for very long, and a bit later I prayed I wouldn’t be bullied in school. Even so, my each and every prayer was accompanied by the same curse. The more I tried to resist, the more powerfully it sprang through. Was it even my own voice?
I’ll return to this childhood memory soon enough, but before that I’ll raise up the actual subject of this column. Many of us struggle with ourselves. Many of us feel inadequate or worthless and carry an unstructured hatred towards “something”. We feel hopeless, as the same “I am worthless” –feelings continuously rise up. Sometimes we try to change our lives and check out a how-to-live-your-life guide or two. They tell us that everything depends on how we see ourselves. “Change the view!” “See yourself with new eyes!” “The World is what We make it!”
If these things really worked, there probably wouldn’t be more and more new life guides popping up in the market. One good and old one should do the trick and we’d all be happier. However, the do not work, and there’s a reason for it.
The following thoughts are based on the writings of Jonathan Haidt, a professor in psychology from the University of Virginia. Haidt compares our brains’ oldest, most evolutionally sustained parts to an Elephant and the youngest, most conscious side to a Little Man controlling that Elephant.
The Elephant is the part of our brain where most of our automatic functions reside: spinal reactions, personality, feelings, and instincts – everything you could describe with “gut feeling”. In some other columns I have mentioned that moral reactions fall under deliberation, and as such are a part of the Elephant.
Our conscious part of the brain, aka the Little Man guiding the Elephant, represents everything the grey beast is not. It assesses, weighs, calculates and makes rational decisions.
The Elephant is interested in only and solely staying alive. Its survival strategy is to find pleasure and avoid pain. The Elephant lives here and now and does not especially think about the decisions it makes.
The problem is that in a matter of conflict between the two, the Elephant often comes on top. Evolution has shaped it to its finest during millions of years and its automation works like a damn charm. Our conscious Little Man, however, is a newcomer, a green and fresh face under the veteran, just figuring out how to control the grey giant. If the Elephant decides to stampede onwards without consequences, the little Tamer on its back can only try and control it by squeaking in its ears.
The problems I had with prayers as a child are a very vocal example of what happens when the Elephant and its Tamer have communication issues. When I was little, I used to be ashamed of the fact that I cursed God in the middle of a prayer and I thought that no one else had the same problem. Then I stumbled upon the research of Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist from Harvard University, which showed that we all go through similar issues.
The best way to get into Wegner’s studies is to imagine yourself as his research subject. He calls you in the room and asks you to talk about your daily happenings. What kind of test is this, you think, but begin chatting along. Great, he says in a moment, and asks you to continue, but this time you can’t think about a White Bear. A White Bear? What could be easier than not do that? When have you ever thought about a White Bear? He hands you a small bell to clink if you accidentally think of a White Bear.
And so it begins. If you try to do this by yourself, you’ll see how hard it is. Next you’ll see the transcript concerning one subject taking his Wegner’s test. ‘Cling’ means a ring of the bell:
“Uhh, right now all I can think about is that white bear… where was I… I was talking about flowers *CLING* another white bear… this is impossible *CLING* I could shake the bell *CLING* again… *CLING* …and again *CLING* I try to think about a million other things but… *CLING* ..another white bear…and I’m thinking about it now *CLING* and now *CLING* and again..! *CLING Ughhh, I’m getting tired of this bell!”
The idea of the research is this: when your conscious part tries to deny you of doing something, the Elephant checks if you’ve done just that. If you deny yourself about thinking of a White Bear, the Elephant checks that by any chance you haven’t thought about the White Bear. I knew that I couldn’t think badly about God, so the Elephant checked each and every time if I was doing just that. Haidt tells that he, too, had his own forced thoughts. Every time he climbs onto a roof, a small voice in his head says:
With the metaphor of the Elephant and its Tamer, we can all learn something about how we can change our lives. Why? That is because we can’t change our lives simply based on thing learned by our conscious selves. We can’t simply decide to change perspectives, to learn to see ourselves as winners or to adapt a completely different view on life. Our attitude and perspective is in the Elephant. If we want change, we have to tame it.
Haidt mentions three things, how we can affect the deeper conscious, our Elephant. The first is medication. They can help bypass the conscious part completely and affect the Elephant straightly. The other option is meditation, mindfulness practices and other relevant processes aiming to “empty” the mind. They will ease the Elephant, unable to take in the incessant barrage of modern life stimuli, which makes the beast more easily twitchy or addicted to drugs, sex or stimulation. The third option is cognitive psychotherapy, which doesn’t necessarily affect the deep unconscious, but gives you, the Tamer, the tools to harness it.
The problem with humans is that the Elephant and the Tamer demand very different things oh so often. One part of us wants to roam free. Another part wants security by constructing a safety net to our close ones. How can we choose right
? We feel how contradicting motives are drawing us into different directions. When we look back to our lives lived, we feel that it has been but a struggle of discrepancies. How could we ever achieve peace?
I do not use mood medication myself, I’ve never been to psychotherapy and meditation is also kind of lost on me. Instead of these I opt to take my Elephant to the deep forests or the ocean side. The places where It’s from. It’s an ancient creature and in the nature it recognizes something and calms down. It stops trying to act like a little child and forms a truce with its tamer.
We watch the hypnotic weave of the waves, and the Elephant starts lifting its ears to the little Tamer’s speech. It tells the great beast its plan on how life could be improved. We try to find the balance for the Tamer’s need to look forwards into the future and build a safe life ahead while letting the Elephant bask in the moment of what is now and what is of pleasure. To me, I think this is a person’s duty towards himself: make the beast and its tamer understand each other better.
After a nice mutual chat we all ride into the sunset, together. We are once again headed towards a single, mutual goal – and that much happier.