I find the metaphor of an elephant and a rider, which has been used by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and embraced by Mathew Taylor, to be especially useful in thinking about the mind. This is how J. Haidt describes it:
The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.
I would like to extend Haidt’s proposition by suggesting that since the rider is the one who has to train the elephant, the rider needs to be trained first on how to train the elephant. First, he needs to be taught how to become attuned to his elephant, how to become increasingly aware what is boiling inside its head and what can be anticipated from the powerful animal. Cultivating awareness through mindfulness is cultivating this attunement.
It is also crucial for the rider to learn how to become the ‘whisperer’ of the elephant. The rider will never be in full control of the animal but can learn to befriend it, and to expand its influence over it. As this process of befriending develops, the relationship between rider and elephant gradually shifts from one of misunderstanding, frustration and even antagonism, to one of patience and gentleness. Even when the elephant throws a tantrum sometimes, the rider will not react to this frantically but will calmly and skilfully do what is best. The experienced rider becomes skilled at knowing when to opt for firm discipline, and when simple, calm patience is required.
As time goes on and as one’s practice of mindfulness improves the ‘elephant’ (i.e. the automatic/implicit processes) starts gradually changing. The elephant becomes less frantic, more predictable, more willing to be ‘whispered’ by the rider. It throws its tantrums less and less often. The rider does not need as much willpower to control the animal now since the big creature is more willing to be led by the rider.
Limitations of relying on theory
Teaching people what the latest scientific findings reveal about the mind is definitely a desirable thing to do, but in my understanding it has its limitations. Using the same analogy, I would compare it to teaching the rider the theory of riding. He would be given a PowerPoint presentation about elephants and riding: what the elephants are like, what mistakes there are likely to make, what can be done, when they can and cannot be trusted, etc.
This lecturing would be good to learn more about elephants in general but would tell very little or nothing about the particular elephant that you are riding. – We all have unique personalities, don’t we? But even more importantly, it would not teach the practical skills that are gained through experience of actually riding an elephant. The deep learning needed to tune in to your own elephant and to befriend it can only be achieved through deep listening and deep practice. Mindfulness is the only deep practice that I am aware of. As with teaching people how to drive cars, we don’t expect them to become skilled drivers after only having taught them the theory.
For these reasons I believe mindfulness – which enables us to gradually achieve the attunement and ‘whispering’ that I’ve described – is an essential tool for changing our automatic processes and closing the gap between who we are who we want to become.