Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Little Distance

The battle between what we do and what we want to do is tragicomic. My favourite metaphor comes from Jonathan Haidt. He describes our mental and emotional processes as a Rider and an Elephant. The Elephant is the one who does the living. The Elephant came first. The Elephant has the kind of intelligence bees have. Able to coordinate, delegate, specialise and communally survive with a built in understanding of the world. We have been around for millions of years and slowly but surely the elephant has trained itself to behave in certain ways.

What we do, What we want to do

The rider is a fairly recent addition. As we developed language, and the ability to look backwards and forwards, our worlds were forever changed. Our learning ceased to be purely instinctual. Through words and culture we could learn lessons. We gained a memory. Not only of our own deeds, but of what others had learned. We could bend and change the world. Our brains effectively became a communal asset, where what we knew was much less relevant than what dots we could connect. There is absolutely no way I can absorb, process, retain or understand all of what we do.

But we still have our Elephant. And our Elephant is still the one that does the doing. Elephants are strong and willful. They are a collection of habits. A habit isn't just something you hear about and do. It requires training. We know we should save. We don't. We know how to get to a healthy weight (eat better, exercise more). We don't. There are all sorts of things our Riders know and our Elephants just ignore. There are also things our Elephants know or do, and our Riders don't understand. Rather than admitting this, our Riders act as Public Relations Officers and make up reasons why we did stuff. The Rider prefers that to admitting they don't understand or aren't in control.


I like the metaphor because it resonates for me. In some places I have built up habits that make my rider smile. Others are deeply embarrassing and frustrating. The Rider-Elephant idea allows a little bit of distance between what I regard as 'me' and what I do. Almost like I am an Avatar in a game. Instead of 'I am angry'. I can think, 'My Elephant gets really angry in these situations'. Just this small bit of breathing space means I can think of how I can train my Elephant to respond differently, rather than identifying with the thing I can or can't do. I am not a runner. I can't dance. I am not handy. etc. Instead, characteristics become tasks or goals. Even feedback becomes less of an attack on the soul.

I used to say I was my harshest critic. Turns out I just hadn't met enough people. But I do find the distance between what I think of as 'me' and the stuff that makes that up is a form of relaxation. The more I am able to connect to the things that really matter to me, the more I can see the other stuff as noise. The less the habits matter, the easier they are to change.

Still doesn't mean they change as quickly as I'd like, or my Rider is as good a coach as I'd like. But it adds perspective.
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