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How Elephants Rock “n” Role Or the Grand Picture in the Little Things

Arny Mindell

Peace is not God’s gift to the human race, it is our gift to one another.
—Ellie Wiesel

In the Spring 2001 (Volume 8, Number 1) edition of the Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, Kate Jobe reminded readers of the famous elephant story from India. This story helps me express some of my most recent personal discoveries thoughts about the Tao, quantum mind, quantum medicine, and concentration camps.

As the reader may recall, in that story several people who cannot see clearly touch an elephant. The first touches the elephant’s nose and thinks it is a serpent; one touches the side and thinks it is a wall; one touches a leg and thinks it is a pillar; one touches the ear and thinks it is a fan.

Each thinks what they noticed was the true and only elephant. However, a wise person tells them their various experiences are but single aspects of a larger phenomenon called “Elephant.”

For many years, I have been looking for this elephant and trying to understand Her. With others, over the years I have been exploring body and dream work, relationship work and large group work, social issues and worldwork, psychology and physics, music and comawork. The elephant, or unifying principle, behind all of this is Taoism, the experience of something which cannot be said but which can be felt to organize all our individual experiences.
The Tao is quite an amazing elephant. She is the subtle little things, an essence in each and every experience, a certain comfort or discomfort we feel but cannot quite grasp. I do not know what to call Her, yet she is there when we wake up without a dream. She is the sense we have all day long that we never quite mention to anyone—including ourselves. This Tao is so subtle; we need great lucidity to notice Her. She is the greatest thing in life, an ever changing yet steady soul-essence, and the quintessence of who we are. She is obvious, yet so subtle that we can easily forget Her. Why focus on Her, if we cannot quite explain or express it? It seems so little, so insignificant, so fleeting, it flirts, wanting relationship, trying to catch our attention.

This elephant is too small to notice, and yet too large to ignore. She is that grand thing behind the ups and downs, the anger and peacefulness, the terror and happiness, the enemy and the self, the present moment, the past and future, ambition and failure, the newborn child and the aging person sensing death. Contact with this larger being makes us feel well and more detached from the little things.

If we miss Her and focus only on everyday life, we eventually get depressed, like a lover missing love. That is when we are in touch with the nose, or leg, the ear or side of the elephant and need to go to the wise person. The wise person tells us, “Now you are ready to remember the elephant. You may not see Her, but you can surely feel Her. Just un-focus your attention, and become more aware, value, then go beyond and behind what you are noticing. It is all about observing.”

This last comment about observation awakened a physicist who thought about it all and called the elephant, “the particle which can’t be seen.” The Taoist called it the “Tao which cannot be said.” A therapist said, no, it must be “soul-essence.” A mystic musician laughed and said, “It is the sound of music, the song of stones.”
That was the end of their friendly exchange. The physicist said that she knew the truth: it must be a million particles, atoms, molecules, and cells. The Taoist said the whole truth was that “it” was the famous ten thousand things, but the therapist called “it” the “unending stream of dream figures.” A process worker suspected it might be the quantum mind behind quantum medicine, and suspected it might be related to the concepts of healing and death in medicine.

Now Albert Einstein heard all this and briefly sat up in his grave. Even Stephen Hawking awoke from a quiet sleep in his London apartment. Albert said to Stephen, “God’s Mind certainly cannot be as unpredictable and as multifaceted as the quantum mind or quantum information. God can not be so full of paradoxes and simultaneous truths.” Stephen laughed and said “Oh dear, Albert, life is out of control! My personal life has taught me that. That is why I put ‘imaginary time’ back into those equations of physics. I put imaginary time back into physics to make sure that the universe doesn’t run downhill, to make sure that it does not forget itself, but creates life and gives us hope at the same time.” “No, no,” said Albert. “No, this can’t be, She, the universe, does not really do anything!”

The wise person said, “Dear Albert, dear Stephen, dear therapist, Taoist and all the rest of you. Why not embrace the diversity of opinions and the diversity of parts? All are different forms of the Elephant. The point is, that when you feel that life is too much—and you most always feel that—when you feel you cannot handle things, then you need another view. When you feel that you are failing, down and out, up against odds you cannot handle, feeling the world is all too much for you—then remember the elephant. She is there within and in back of the problems, behind and before what you are looking at, was heard before a voice even spoke, touched you before your fingers decided to reach out, was eaten before your mouth opened, and kissed you before you needed it. Maybe she was here before we were, and will be around afterwards as well.

At this point one of the elephant’s feet got very restless. “But wait a minute. Please,” it said, “How exactly does all this work on the way to a concentration camp?”

“What’s the problem?” said the wise person, not quite understanding the foot’s abruptly formulated question.

Elephant’s foot lamented bitterly, tears running down her cheeks, “I know I’m part of that beautiful big Elephant. Remembering my part in the big picture helps. However, I keep forgetting it. Please explain to me, why do I forget Her? Remembering the whole Elephant is so hard when you have to watch most of your family die in front of you. So many died in that concentration camp, I myself cannot bear to live. It’s all been just too much for me.”

The wise person, seeing Elephant Foot in so much pain, said softly but firmly, “Perhaps you do not remember that you are part of her when you are in pain, because the picture of the elephant just walking is too limited. We all know that our grand Elephant keeps walking along. However, haven’t you noticed that occasionally, Her feet become entangled, causing Her to stumble and fall? Have you not heard Her talking to Herself? While falling, she has the strange habit of sometimes scolding one of Her feet, usually the one which stepped on another, causing the fall.”

“As soon as She trips, all Her parts come alive and interpret the fall as a world war. Some call it a holocaust. Usually, one foot stepped on another. Until now, you and the rest of Her parts expected Her to walk in peace and harmony. We all know that She does pretty well as a whole. For five billion years She has been moving along, doing Her thing, generally creating new worlds. But if you read Her biography called, World History, you will see that, indeed, She has tripped and accidents do happen.”

The wise person went on. “Everybody stumbles. That is what feet do. In stumbling, one foot reminds the other and the whole Elephant, that in fact, She has feet. Before She stumbled, She was simply an essence, an awesome field. All Her feet were equal. She moved or floated, but, never having fallen, She did not know that She could dance. For the Elephant to dance, She needs to learn new steps. To do that, the feet must learn the steps of the dance. Don’t wait for Her to learn to dance, that’s up to you,” said the wise person to the foot. “Learning to dance is the job of the feet!”
“After getting out of one of the concentration camps, Nobel prize winner Ellie Wiesel said all this in another way, ‘Peace is not God’s gift to the human race, it is our gift to one another.’”

“The Elephant moves, but does not dance. We do need more than physics and dreamwork, social action and lucidity to know Her. We need more feet that can learn to dance, to rock and roll with other feet, to rock with other roles. So when the Elephant forgets Her own feet, teach them to dance.”

“The wise person said all this to the Elephant’s foot, took a breath and then went on. “You may be only a foot in the grand scheme of little things, however, you are responsible for the dance! When conflict threatens, sense it coming, and learn its dance. If you miss the subtle sense of conflict’s discomfort, notice your suffering. If you miss that, notice the tears on your cheeks, and remember, She can fall. If She falls, everyone falls together. Worse yet, everyone goes into that same concentration camp. First the ‘innocent,’ then the ‘guilty.’”

“So stop secretly believing that the Elephant won’t trip, and learn the dance and care for your own toenails.”

Elephant Foot was humbled, yet managed one last question. “So what’s the dance step?”

The wise person rocked and rolled almost singing,

Now night now day,
the unknown and the known,
terror then insight,
peace and conflict,
rocking and role-ing.

“That’s the dance, that’s what life’s about.”
Elephant Foot, getting the message, added,

Now the elephant,
then Her four feet,
first Essence then parts to complete,
first you,
and then I can meet.”


Arny Mindell, Ph.D., is the seminal figure in the development of process work. The author of numerous books on its theory and applications, he rocks and rolls and roles while teaching and working with individuals and groups around the world.