The Rider and the Elephant – Truth Telling During Elul

September 17, 2014

”What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” So it is written in The Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha.

Was the Buddha right, that the mind can determine the nature and direction of our lives?

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, if I have read him correctly, believes that it can, but it isn't so easy. He writes that the conscious, reasoning part of our mind has only limited control on what we think, feel and do, and that the mind is actually divided into two parts that so often conflict. He uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider to explain.

The elephant, Dr. Haidt says, represents our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and  intuitions. The rider is the elephant’s ‘presidential press agent’ whose job it is to rationalize and explain whatever the president (i.e. the elephant) believes, says and does.

The elephant and rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together they reveal the brilliance of human beings. It is then that the individual is integrated in body, intellect, heart, soul, and spirit. However, these five classic dimensions of the human being do not usually work so easily or smoothly together despite that being a goal.

This month, preceding the High Holidays, is the season in which we Jews strive to make sense of why the ‘elephant’ and ‘rider’ within us are of different minds and not well-integrated together. It’s our time to seek greater understanding about who we are. It’s our opportunity to assess the nature of our thoughts, assumptions, feelings, intuitions, and beliefs and what impact they all have on our lives and relationships with others, with Judaism and with God.

Dr. Haidt suggests that when the rider and elephant are at cross purposes, and we wish to change one or the other to go in a different direction, we need to look first at the elephant and retrain the beast within and not the intellect. That is not so easy to do.

The elephant, after all, is wired by its nature, by how it was raised and by patterns long-since established upon which the conscious mind and reason (i.e. the rider) have little influence.

Dr. Haidt urges us to address directly the elephant and suggests three different means of doing so for maximum impact and productive effect:

The first is meditation or prayer, the goal of which is to quiet the mind, to detach from that which drives us towards dysfunctional and destructive behaviors, to be able to glimpse ourselves in a much larger context in which we are not the center of the universe but an integral part conscious of all the other parts.

The second is cognitive therapy, the goal of which is to dig into our deepest emotional and psychological motivations, our unconscious impulses and hidden agendas, and to “unpack” all the baggage that we carry around with us, the memories, joys and injuries of childhood, our life's successes and misfortunes, all of which taught us early on (for better and worse) how the world works and how we need to behave and think in order to survive in it.

And the third is biochemical support. I am not a psychiatrist nor a licensed therapist, though I have served as a pastor to many in my role as a congregational rabbi and teacher for forty years. I have learned enough to know that in some cases medication for depression, anxiety and a lack of impulse control can enable individuals so overwhelmed and afflicted to more effectively address the dysfunction and unhappiness in their lives that they otherwise would be unable to do. Such individuals should consult with qualified mental health professionals to determine if such treatment is warranted.

The elephant operates from a powerful subterranean unconscious mishmash of forces, and given the beast’s size and weight, rational argument is mostly ineffective in addressing deeper non-rational forces except to better understand them. What is necessary for each of us is to retrain the elephant within that we might effectively break from repeating destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that alienate us from those we love, from community, tradition and God.

Yes, life is what we deem it to be, an essential truth affirmed during the High Holiday season, and change is necessary because life is dynamic. But change and growth are never easy. That being said, we can indeed redeem ourselves – and that is precisely what we are meant to do.

Chazak v’eimatz – Be strong and courageous.

L'shanah tovah u-m'tukah – A good and sweet New Year.


Note: Jonathan Haidt is the author of two excellent works – The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

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