THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
by Lisa Stowe
As a first grader, my six-year-old son Daniel has daily homework. Every day he has a little bit of math, a little bit of writing, and a little bit of reading. For each of the three books that he brings home, he reads it to me, and then we talk about what happened in the story.
One of his recent homework books, “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, told the story of six blind men and their differing perceptions of an elephant. In the story, each man touched a different part of a nearby prince’s elephant, resulting in differences of opinion as to what the elephant actually was. Was it a spear (the tusk), a wall (the body), a rope (the tail), a tree (the leg), a fan (the ear), or a snake (the trunk)? Upon reclining under a tree to discuss the elephant, the six men quickly begin arguing, each telling the others that they are wrong about the elephant. The prince, hearing the ruckus, comes over and tells the men that they are all both wrong and right at the same time. The problem is not that the men are incorrectly describing the elephant, but that they have failed to see the whole elephant.
Wow. The mom in me talked with Daniel about how it is important to look beyond our own point of view and how just because someone has a different opinion than we do, it does not mean that he or she is wrong. The yoga teacher in me filed the story away for a dharma talk.
It turns out that the story is an old Indian fable that plays a role in Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi lore. The story shows us that truth can be stated in different ways. It reminds us that our powers of perception are limited. It challenges us to look beyond our immediate field of view as we look for what is “true”.
It is easy to fail to “see the whole elephant”. In our physical yoga practice, we may focus on what we can’t do rather than what we can. At the same time, we may cling to what comes easily, not appreciating the benefits that accrue when we work on what is more challenging. We may limit our practice to our sticky mat, practicing asana and pranayama, but forgetting the other six limbs of yoga. Off the mat, we may see ourselves not as a whole, complete person, but as an amalgamation of subsidiary parts – the yogi, the professional, the friend, the child, the parent, the spouse.
At the end of the story, the six men and the prince go for a ride on the elephant, seeing how all the parts of the elephant fit together to make it what it is. We may not have a royal guide to show us our whole elephants, but we can still strive to remember that they exist, and to seek them out both on and off the mat.
Lisa Stowe is a yogi, economist and mom who is as graceful with her arm balances as she is analyzing financial markets and juggling two young children. THE BALANCE SHEET will offer her perspective on integrating and benefiting from a consistent yoga practice amidst the hectic reality of family, work, and home.