At age 17, anticipating my first driving lesson, my grandfather offered a piece of advice I hadn’t heard anywhere else. He explained to me that if you want to be a good driver, you need to understand the machine. When you understand the mechanisms at work when you turn the key, lift the clutch (we almost all drive stick in the UK) and push the accelerator, your control improves and you develop a connection with the machine — you know when to ease off and when to push further. Without an understanding of the machine, you're just pushing pedals.
It proved to be a sticky metaphor, resurfacing year after year as I took on new challenges and worked on new skills. In the aftermath of an angry and bitter fight with a loved one I found myself revisiting it again. Once the most potent emotions had worn off and the weight and seriousness of the fight began to set in, I found myself wondering exactly how we’d made it to that point. What did I actually say? Did I think about it? Did I mean it? A big part of me wanted to support what I’d said and defend my position. I desperately wanted to confirm that I was in the right but the truth was, I’d never spent a single moment before that fight thinking through the things I’d said. I discovered them in the moment — forced to evade and defend I had reached blindly for a fresh argument and formed it on the fly. I jumped from one subject to another, compounding my complaints and insults, looking for a new explanation for why I deserved to be mad. There was a machinery at work that I had no understanding of. It’s easy to think we’re always in control of the car, after all, without a driver the car isn't going anywhere right? I surely couldn’t have been speaking so much and forming all of those arguments without some control, could I? The more I reflected, the more honesty I summoned and eventually I saw it clearly; the car drives itself.
Philosophers and artists have been exploring the idea throughout recorded history. Every February millions of us are closing the casket on New Years resolutions that didn’t stick and we’ve all experienced a failure of will power as we delve into the fridge for that extra treat.
"I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”
Desire is familiar to all of us but we too often make the mistake of drawing the line there between conscious and unconscious. It’s a convenience to believe that beyond sex, hunger and ‘fomo’ we’re all conscious and in control. But the uncomfortable truth has surfaced as thousands of years of philosophy intersects with modern research. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt gives us a new metaphor for understanding the mind:
“The image that I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was the rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.”
Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
Research continues to support and strengthen this idea and the size of the metaphorical elephant continues to grow. Desire isn’t the only part of the equation, we have instincts about everything that we interact with and our intuitions drive our decision making to a sometimes incredible degree. These instincts have evolved over millions of years to steer us away from danger (fear of the unknown, fight or flight), towards survival (cravings, tribalism) and up the social ladder (self promotion, social competition). And over that time they’ve become so well developed and ingrained as to be almost invisible and completely enmeshed with our thoughts, decisions and actions. But evolution has no conscience and what is natural isn’t always best, as we know when reaching for that extra alcoholic drink of piece of cake. Our evolved instincts got us through great adversity to this point but they haven’t adapted to modern life and its relative comforts. And therein lies a problem that I believe is central to much of the suffering and disharmony in the world.
Instincts and intuitions play a huge part in forming our opinions, our political leanings and judgements of others. Innate tribalism forces us to form alliances with identity groups and fight against common enemies. And when we fight our corner, our instinct to defend closes the door to compromise and forces us to side-step, weave new yarns on the fly and reach for ad-hominem attacks. When we reason, we very often do it from a pre-determined position and our nature blinds us to our biases. Naive realism is the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively, and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased.
“If I could nominate one candidate for 'biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony’, it would be naive realism”
Jonathan Haidt, the Happiness Hypothesis
Our ignorance to the influence of instinct and the overestimation of our conscious processes hinder our ability to behave well. Polarisation, hatred and discrimination arise from and are perpetuated by these invisible forces. If we are to make real positive change we each need to discover our elephant, learn how it behaves and make every effort to tame it. Awareness is the first step and perhaps the most difficult one. Think back to the last time you were agitated and angry — you were most likely so overwhelmed by those emotions that inward reflection was almost impossible and certainly not at the forefront of your mind. But it's in those moments that we are most in need of our ability to look inwards.
“Self awareness—recognising a feeling as it happens—is the keystone of emotional intelligence...People with greater certainty about their feelings are better pilots of their lives, having a surer sense of how they really feel about personal decisions”
Daniel Goleman, Emotional intelligence
There are tools that can help us see the elephant and tame it:
Reflection - When our minds are calm and quiet we can take the opportunity to reflect on past moments of turbulence. In conjuring those emotions we can diagnose the way our behaviour was distorted. Think of it like physical training — the more we exercise those muscles, the more responsive and powerful they become.
Observation - Having a hard time catching yourself when you lose control? Try observing other people in similar situations. It’s much easier to notice flawed behaviour from the outside, particularly once you learn what to look for and the nuances of human nature. Escape your own biases by diagnosing the elephant in others, determining how it manipulated their words and actions. And then look for equivalent moments in your own experiences. No matter how different we are as people, if we look hard enough we are sure to find similarities.
Conversation - Open yourself up to the input and feedback of others and take on their perspective. Remember the strength of your biases and their ability to alter your reasoning. Where you might find a defence for your actions or a new justification for your position, others might see glaring holes. Find people you can trust to be inquisitive and reasonable and encourage honesty and openness. And in the act of opening yourself to critique, you might just find your elephant rearing it’s head in defence again. Notice it.
Meditation - Shown to change the brain in numerous ways, meditation might be the best tool we have for taming the elephant. The areas of the brain responsible for concentration and focus grow thicker as a result of mindfulness meditation. Compassion based meditation practices improve the parts of our brain responsible for bringing emotions into conscious awareness. Regular practice can develop self-awareness and quiet the more volatile emotional parts of your nature (with the added bonus of decreasing stress and anxiety and increasing contentment)
“Learn to ask of all actions, why are they doing that? Starting with your own”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
It takes time and effort to make these changes. It’s easy and appealing to lean on the beautifully written and easy to understand principles of the ancients but we can’t truly put their words into practice unless we also work on our intuitions and self awareness. We miss the point if we only heed the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius or Buddha when already calm and untroubled only to abandon it when angry or stressed. Think of it like the relationship between athletic ability and technique — it doesn’t matter how much you know about the technique of dunking a basketball if you don’t have the vertical leap to get to the rim or the dexterity to handle the ball. TRAIN to build the ability, LEARN to develop the skill. Self awareness is the ability, equanimity is the skill.
All of the most important moments in your day, your year and your lifetime will revolve around interaction with people. The majority of problems in the world, no matter how we perceive the details, revolve around interactions between people. To do our part to improve the world around us the best thing we can do is become better at interacting. When we learn to understand our emotions and regain control of our thought processes, we become more considered, more restrained and open to compromise. We form more developed opinions and learn how to lead, cooperate and inspire.
But what’s in it for you? If you make the effort to tame your elephant you’ll cultivate better relationships and have fewer of those bitter arguments over nothing. You’ll learn to let go of the minor things that make little to no real difference. You’ll learn which motivations are of true value and which threaten to distort your ambitions. You’ll open the door to stability and harmony and give yourself, and those around you, the best opportunity to find happiness and contentment, which after all, must be the most valuable thing any of us can truly aspire to.
“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations