Only three months into the year, and 2012 is already looking to be a widly adventurous and creative year for me. I am driven by a great enthusiasm to create – inspired by a curiosity to move into unknown territories. In the material sense, it has translated into me taking up projects that test the boundaries of conventional thoughts/methods – allowing me to explore insights, knowledge, wisdom that may yield more exciting ways for people to experience the world. It also allows me on a personal level to challenge my own beliefs and expand my perception of life. All of this coincides with a deepening of my spiritual connection that has significantly raised my awareness in the last couple of months.
One of the projects I’m most excited about is the development of the first “elephant-assisted therapy” in the world for addictions. For several years, I have felt a calling to connect more with animals and work with shamanism – both in my personal life and in my work. So when I came upon this project, I had an inspiration to help develop it further, in a no-question, no-doubt-about-it, moment. I was filled with an instinctual knowledge, a deep knowing, of what this modality could do for people recovering from trauma and addictions.
I sat with this knowledge and inspiration for six weeks – eager to connect it to an actual experience. I was excited to see what would unfold when inspired knowledge and physical experience came together. To my frustration, week after week, my planned outing with the elephants got cancelled. I now understand that sitting with my instinctual knowledge was an important part of the process. The wisdom had to come from that direction first, to be confirmed and expanded through an actual experience, at the right time.
Two days ago, I found myself in the elephant conservation centre where I was introduced to the animal that was to be my ‘healing partner’. Jum-Pui is a 41 year-old male elephant with the longest tusks in the sanctuary. What I had signed up for was a day of training with the animal’s mahout and learning to interact with it.
Part 1: Entering into a Strange World
I approached Jum-Pui with some trepidation. The first thing that struck me was not only the size of the animal, but his impressive white tusks that curved upwards at the ends made him look more like a mammoth than an elephant. That, and amidst the wide space it was walking through, lent the whole vision before me a surreal quality – as though I’d been beamed into a forest of millions of years ago. By then, I’d been given the safety rules and taught a list of commands which the elephant could respond to. But at that point, they were only mental concepts and I wondered clumsily how many mistakes I’d have to make.
How many times had I found myself with that same feeling – in a crowded shopping centre, a social event I didn’t want to go to, being forced to leave the comfort of my isolation cave? I remembered the brutal contrast between being in my safety zone and being exposed in a world that didn’t seem to offer any safety railings to hold on to. A world I didn’t care to know…
Part 2: The Habit of Conjuring Up Distress
As much as I looked forward to the process of getting to know and bond with Jum-Pui, it seemed a long way away. I was nervous at the prospect of having to climb on top of the mammoth-like beast and riding it without one of those seats secured on an elephant’s back.
Rather unelegantly, I managed to climb up to his back, at the tallest point just behind his ears. It was only then that I remembered my fear of heights. I had trouble bringing myself to sit upright. After a few moments of being frightened to death, I reminded myself that it was too late to back out; this wasn’t just a recreational ride, I had a mission to accomplish and a commitment to fulfill. With that, I forced myself to sit up. It felt wobbly; I didn’t feel safe. There was nothing to hold on to apart from a few bristles on his head.
Then the animal moved, slowly and to a short distance to drink. I was close to panic. Certain that I wasn’t safe on top of the elephant without any contraption or harness, I began to imagine falling off the animal. I imagined having my legs broken and my head cracked open. I imagined a whole production out of it – the dramas that would ensue, each scene that played itself out in my mind progressively more chaotic and intense.
Suddenly, I had an awareness of how my mind would often go into fearful scenarios. My tendency to create distress in situations and expecting bad things to happen was being played out in an exaggerated way for me to see. In that moment, I decided to counteract that pattern.
I scaled down the level of catastrophy in my mind. I expanded my fear into exhiliration. I got myself to act as if I believed I was safe. I relaxed my body a bit and trusted a little more. I breathed calmly. My fear lessened. But I still felt rather vulnerable, exposed and insecure.
Part 3: A Desperate Need to Control
Then the animal started to walk across the open space, and I was thrown into a frightful state again. Guided by the mahout, I tested out some of the commands I’d been taught. Go forward, turn left, right, lay down, stop, move backwards, etc. But my commands did not seem to work immediately. I wanted to manoever him the way I could make a car move: instantly. Jum-Pui was very good at responding to commands but there was a period of delay between my command and his response. That delay would fill me with a feeling of being out of control.
I wanted instant result. I wanted to feel like I had full control of the situation. I wanted to close the gap and eradicate any feeling of not-knowing.
After some time, I began to get used to the rhythm of command-and-response. Instead of expecting instant result, I allowed more time for him to respond. It highlighted to me another pattern I’m familiar with: the desperation to seek control in situations that make us feel insecure. In trying to regain a sense of control, we may act out in ways that can lead to bigger problems, such as addictions or destructive behaviours.
Behind addictive and destructive behaviours, there’s usually a lack of tolerance for discomfort. Part of the process of recovery is building our tolerance for discomfort by examining how we might have exaggerated the intensity of the discomfort we feel and changing the way we perceive our discomfort.
We learn to stay with these feelings instead of trying to escape from them. We learn that allowing ourselves to have these feelings doesn’t kill us. By letting these feelings be there, we allow them to evolve and move through our bodies. We learn to accept and embrace the myriad of emotions that give us depth as human beings.
Out of this, we acquire the qualities of patience and trust. Rather than trying to close the gap, we see it as a window that opens up to new beauty. We begin to notice the quality of grace in our world.
Part 4: Taking the Focus Away from Me (Selfishness vs Altruism)
I was feeling more confident being on top of the elephant, until the mahout allowed it to wander off to feed itself. I grew worried when Jum-Pui found the juiciest leaves near a ditch. I imagined being thrown headlong into the ditch. My pleas for the mahout to come and stay close were ignored. I felt annoyed and it aroused the part of me that felt injustice. Inside, I screamed, what about my safety? I tried to get the elephant to move away from the ditch, but it kept on tearing off branches of leaves.
Then I heard someone saying that the elephant must be hungry. Suddenly, I realised that I had been focusing so much on my own safety that I completely did not pay attention to the elephant’s needs. It was supposed to be a two-way communication, yet I’d focused solely on getting my own needs met.
This kind of selfishness occurs more often than not in relationships when one party takes the other for granted – requests turn into barking orders, uncommunicated needs become expectations, unfulfilled expectations become a source of outrage. We can be so taken over by our own drive for survival that we forget we are in partnership with another person, whether it’s in a personal or professional context.
Feeling guilty about my selfishness, I focused my attention on feeling Jum-Pui as a living and breathing creature, and not simply as a vehicle. Slowing down my breathing, I connected to the life force that emanated from him. A tiny fraction of my consciousness dropped into his massive body, and I felt his pulse synching with my heartbeat. The noise in my head subsided. Rather than nurturing my own fears, I now nurtured the creature’s need for self-nourishment. Fear gave way to humility. There was two of us now… and we were partners.
Part 5: Bonding and Caring For Another
By the time my partner and I moved into the lake, the tension and rigidity I had felt earlier had left my body. I felt bigger. Aligning in partnerships can do that to you. Resources are doubled, and areas of insecurity are made secure through the strengths of another.
As I felt more secure, I relaxed into playfulness and fun. Fear puts a shield in front of us that blocks the expression of who we really are. When it is stripped away, we begin to come from a more authentic part of us that is capable of responding with spontaneity, much like a child who knows no fear.
In playing and having fun, we naturally bond with others because the shield around our hearts are kept down, allowing our true feelings to flow. Jum-Pui liked spraying water with his trunk, which delighted me since I’ve always liked the sensations of water dropping onto my skin.
In between the water sprays, the mahout guided me to wash the elephant in the water. I only managed a few tentative moments of doing this before choking back tears as I was moved by the act of giving love. The fear of love is something I hear expressed in one way or another by the majority of the clients I work with. Recalling this, I felt a deep sadness for the loss of what the world can potentially gain from the greater connectedness that comes from us feeling freer in our capacities to give and receive love from one another. A simple act of love, carried out with devotion, with an undefended heart, may begin to heal the way we relate to the world.
Part 6: Surrendering to Uncertainties
As we emerged from the lake, I noticed a certain calmness in myself. The atmosphere around me seemed to be imbued with a softness. Everything seemed to move at a slower pace, whereas previously everything seemed to be moving dangerously fast and I was rendered out-of-control within it. The harshness of trying to survive in a world that wasn’t safe had fallen away, and I was fully present with all my senses. Jum-Pui’s legs felt like an extension of my own legs, moving forward in one unhurried, certain step after another. I didn’t care where it was taking me nor worry about what would happen to me.
I stopped wanting to control. In that act of surrender, I felt liberated from the mental weight of trying to fix, achieve, resolve, understand, compartmentalise. As my body relaxed, I leaned forward and rested my elbows on the elephant’s head. It gave me a different view of the experience – one where I could appreciate how high up I was above the ground.
Suddenly, I was able to transcend everything around me. From my higher perspective, I was acutely aware of my own livingness and my connectedness with the elements. Below me, I could hear the voices of people talking, shouting, laughing – but it was just noise. I was aware but unattached to anything that was taking place.
In that moment, I saw the difference between choosing to get sucked into our stories and rising above these stories. There’s always a choice, if only we slowed ourselves down to see that. It doesn’t mean trying to ignore what’s going on (a fearful act) but to make an empowered choice to not engage on an emotional level whatever it is we know is happening.
Part 7: Total Trust is Earned
Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to lean forward until my body lay on the elephant’s head. I learned something new then – that total trust is earned through the act of surrender. When we surrender, we come out the other side with total trust.
Total trust is the state of being in absolute abundance. When we trust completely, we experience no limitations, restrictions or scarcity. We’re in a state of infinite possibilities and freedom of creativity.
I felt I could fly if I wanted to. I could make the clouds form any shape I wanted. I could do a back-flip and land perfectly.
Part 8: Merging with Divinity
Yet I descended the elephant the same way I had climbed up (but without the drama). I felt a little sad that our journey together had come to an end. I felt a deep bonding with the animal and a desire to come back to see him again in the near future. I asked the mahout how long he had been with Jum-Pui, knowing that a mahout looks after only one elephant and throughout the elephant’s life. Twenty years, he said.
“Just imagine,” he said, looking at me. “And you’ve only had one day with him.”
I went up to Jum-Pui and looked up at him, marvelling at how incredible an opportunity it’d been to interact so closely with this majestic animal. Then as I looked into his eye, I saw Ganesha, the Hindu elephant deity. Prior to the journey, we had prayed to Ganesha at an altar in the conservation centre. Now, looking up at my ‘healing partner’, I felt Ganesha’s presence. I got a sense that the deity had been guiding, facilitating and overseeing my journey all that time.
In my spiritual belief, all deities are aspects of the greater divine spirit. As I connected the dots all the way to the intelligent force that created us and that governs all life, I knew there was nothing unsafe about my world.
I walked away richer and fuller – infused not only with the shamanic properties of the elephant and what Ganesha brings to a devotee, but the lessons learnt about trust, surrender, love, selflessness, courage, vulnerability, spontaneity, making empowered choices, and transcendence. I carried with me these lessons and an impression that was to last for days, reminding me to look out for divinity amidst the turbulence in life.