It’s quite fitting that the last chapter of Part 1, we find ourselves receiving some age-old wisdom from Babu, Maskat’s grandfather. These are Maskat’s final days before he and his family are to leave his childhood home, and head for a new life in the United States. As the origin story comes to a close, and are about to embark on Part II of the book, away from Lamu and away from adolescence, it only makes sense that we’re given a parting gift of sage advice; advice from a man whose own struggles taught him the valuable lessons we’re all receiving in this last chapter. Words that will equip us, as we set out into the unknown.
While our own personal unknowns may not involve an immigration per say, we as a species are on the brink of a much greater uncertainty. A global pandemic continues to rage, populations are quite divided (and no one knows how close we are to an irreversible boiling point) and the ecological health of the planet is in its most critical state. I read Babu’s words, and I take them for myself, as every day I find myself waking up to a world facing these challenges. How will I move through the struggles of my own life, as well as those of our humanity?
The allegory of the elephant and the rider has become a powerful metaphor in understanding our own behavior. While Maskat had a bit of trouble wrapping his head around what Babu was speaking of, luckily we have the gift of YouTube who can tell us a bit more about the wisdom found in this particular model:
In our quest for concrete understanding of the world around us, we’ve prioritized the rational, saving us from the control of superstitious dogma but also depriving us from connection to our bodies and hearts. You, me, and all of us have been trained to rationalize everything. If it can’t be motivated or explained by reason, it is ignored, or even devalued. Even our emotions become victim to this imbalance, as we are expected to understand and explain our feelings (and therefore be able to do something about them.)
We live life under the delusion that our thinking and rational mind is the driving force of our own behaviors and those around us. Even though we’re presented in every moment, with evidence to the contrary. We can’t figure out what to order at a restaurant, when we’re very much craving that roast chicken. We sometimes feel sad when all aspects of our lives are seemingly joyful. We avoid people we value and desire connection with. We can’t fathom why our partners have taken an action contrary to what was expected. And when life manifests itself in opposition to reason, our only conclusion is that something is broken.
No friend, nothing is broken. We’ve missed the whole damn point! When we believe the rider is in charge, we’re setting ourselves up for a series of rude awakenings, a deeper confusion about our existence, and we become completely blocked from ourselves.
My elephant, the haiku
my pachyderm moves
it only knows what is true
feed it a peanut
In 2013, I was working 80 hours a week trying to build a startup. The man who once spent his time in a mixture of work, creating music, volunteering overseas, breaking bread with friends, found himself in a whole new, very monolithic existence. I wanted balance, but I had no motivation. I told myself that working less would only be more sustainable, I knew how much joy I get from playing music, I told myself that being with friends and family was fuel I needed. Yet nothing changed. Brown hairs turned grey, and I was a machine within a machine.
A mentor of mine knew my predicament. I sat with him, often times utterly defeated. Ashamed of my lack of agency and balance. The things I loved seemed to be so far beyond reach, they were glowing specks across a great distance. And that’s when he taught me how to train my elephant. He told me:
Your body has to remember what it feels like to create. Take some time, and remember the last time you were making music. What did it feel like?
I sat there, eyes closed and breathing deep. And I had images in my head of past concerts, or nights in the studio. I saw the smiles on my face and the bags under my eyes after sleepless nights of creative breakthroughs. But I felt nothing. My elephant was numb, and had forgotten how to feel what used to bring it joy.
This is why your behavior isn’t changing. You have no feeling towards the thing you want to be doing. If you can download the feeling, your behavior will change.
Well how do I do that? Is there a download button I can click somewhere?
Give your body a taste of what it felt like to feel the joy of creating. Do you have it in you to play a song on the guitar every night?
Honestly, I don’t.
How about just jam on the keyboard, no songs, no structure, just make music. Do you have it in you to do that?
I really don’t
What is one creative thing you can do that you have the energy to commit to on a daily basis?
I can draw a smiley face. (sarcastically)
Great! This is your creative endeavor. One smiley face a day. And when you draw that smiley face, really feel into it. See if you can tap into the joy of what it feels like to create something.
And for a week I drew smiley faces in my work journal. After three days of this, I felt a little buzz every time I would take that 30-second break to make something 2-dimensional but new. I found myself motivated to urge others to draw smiley faces too, on social media.
Back with my mentor a few weeks later, he asks me:
Do you maybe have the energy to do something more than just a smiley face?
It was a no brainer: yes! I figured a sustainable practice after that could be a haiku per day. And for weeks, I wrote haikus, and I felt that creative fire burn a little brighter with each passing day. Randomly on a Saturday night weeks later, I found myself with a burning desire to play on the guitar. The guitar playing became an almost daily practice. I found the motivation to spend a few less hours into the night working, and I started not just playing music, but dreaming of things I could do with it. Fast forward a year later, I was in a band, and I was creating The Noon Project, which went on to a series of successful shows on both coasts of the US, whose funds were all donated to improve the lives of refugees in Iraq and Syria, through the Preemptive Love Coaltion.
Babu was tapped into a secret, and Maskat is a fortunate soul to be receiving this gift, that I only began to understand in my early 30s. That if we can unlock the feeling within us, our emotions will drive the change we need.
As I reflect on training my own elephant, I can see now that by giving my heart a little glimpse of something, it can not only awaken, but it will want more of that thing. Doodling in my notebook became haikus, which became guitar playing, which became dreaming and materializing a band, and an international project. And it all started with a smiley face.
This last chapter gives us as readers some very powerful tools to have great impact in our own lives. While Maskat continues to wrap his head around this elephant / rider allegory, may we dive deeper into knowing our own elephants. Only in cooperation with this very powerful force within us, will we be able to regain agency and inspiration in our lives, to move in more authentic ways.
And to you my fellow readers, I leave you with this. Order that thing on the menu you know you want. Let yourself feel grief, even if there’s nothing apparently worth being sad about. Spend more time feeling into the things you want to do. And be compassionate to your fellow riders, who have elephants of their own. Don’t be surprised when their elephants move contrary to the way you expect. Remember, you’ve been there yourself. So maybe you can offer compassion to them, as well as yourself. And don’t forget to draw smiley faces, and when you do, enjoy every moment of it.
In other words, feel into your life.
For a deeper look into Babu’s advice to Maskat, check out The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hansen.
What a beautiful reminder to be WHOLE human beings, not just a prefrontal cortex. Emotional landscapes are, as you have pointed out, under explored in our culture, leading to much suffering. This notion of tapping into an emotion to cultivate more of the behavior that caused that emotion reminds me of a Buddhist practice. In it, you meditate on times when you have been generous or kind, for example, and you sense and appreciate the feelings that come up in your body as a way of cultivating more of this feeling and action in your life. Thank you for illuminating a way to access this landscape by sharing your story.
Such a good advise, and unfortunately so easy to forget when times are getting busier! Thanks!!