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The Rider and the Elephant – How much control over our lives do we really have?

”What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” The Dhammapada, sayings of the Buddha, 500 B.C.E.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” –William Shakespeare, Hamlet – Act 2 Scene 2

Are the Buddha and Shakespeare right? Are we humans really capable of being “mind over matter?” Is nurture more powerful than nature? Can we think, do, react, and be anything we decide to be? Is it really that simple and easy to define ourselves and turn our lives around by deciding to do so? These are some of the questions we Jews ask during the month of Elul leading to the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe.

None of this effort to create and/or recreate ourselves is simple according to Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He writes that the conscious reasoning part of our brains has only limited control over what we think, feel, decide, do, and become. (See his books “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” and “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”)

The challenge before us, Haidt says, is that the mind is divided into two parts that often conflict with each other. We are like “Riders on the backs of Elephants.” Our conscious and rational mind (i.e. the Rider) has only limited control over what our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions beneath (the Elephant) compel us to do. The Rider is like the press agent for the President (the Elephant). The press agent (the Rider) rationalizes and spins whatever the President (the Elephant) says and does.

The Elephant and Rider each has its own “intelligence,” and when the two intelligences work together they merge into a special kind of confluence of heart, mind, spirit, and action, thus embodying an integrated self. However, our Elephant and Rider don’t always work together, and when they don’t we feel fragmented, dysfunctional, and often frustrated and stuck.

This month of Elul leading to the High Holidays is when Jews prepare to break from ingrained negative and self-destructive habits that keep us from change, growth, and a more integrated self. We call that process Teshuvah (lit. turning, returning, or repentance). The goal of Teshuvah is for us to restore integrity and dignity to our lives, to become our best selves, to bring us closer to the people we love, to our families and friends, to our colleagues, fellow workers and community, to our people, to Jewish tradition and Torah, and to the pursuit of goodness and godliness. The Teshuvah process assists us in making amends, apologizing for wrongs we committed, seeking forgiveness from others we’ve wronged, and making a commitment not repeat those actions, behaviors, and deeds that caused a breach.

Jewish tradition calls us especially in this season to look beyond our material needs and focus upon our emotional, ethical, and spiritual lives, on that which elevates us to be a “little less than the gods” (“Vat’chas’rei-hu m’at mei-elohim…” Psalms 8:5 – Robert Alter translation).

Haidt reminds us that when the Rider and Elephant are at cross-purposes we need to retrain the Elephant; but that is never easy nor is it an immediate “fix.” He explains that our Elephant is wired to patterns long-ago established when we were young. It seems to us at times however, that it doesn’t really matter what our conscious minds, the power of reason, and the good yetzer (inclination) tell us we ought to do, for our Elephant is overly powerful and our Rider has little sway or control.

So Haidt urges the Rider to clarify the path towards greater integration of the self and then talk to the Elephant into reconditioning the Elephant’s gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions whenever they are out of whack with the Rider’s higher ethical, rational, and spiritual aspirations, purposes, and goals.

Was Shakespeare right, then, that “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so?”

I respond this way. We will not be successful in the process of Teshuvah if we insist that the Rider has the final word. Rather, the Rider’s role is to redirect the Elephant’s emotional, psychological, and intuitive impulses carefully and deliberately. There are at least three means to do this:

  • Meditation – Quiet the mind and detach from whatever drives us towards dysfunctional and destructive behaviors;
  • Cognitive therapy – Explore our deeper motivations, unconscious innate impulses, and hidden agendas thereby bringing them to consciousness, and then “unpack” that baggage we carry around with us (often without realizing we are doing so), the hurtful memories from childhood and early adult life that conditioned us to think and believe that the world works in a specific way and that we have little to no control over it. The Jewish Musar movement addresses all these challenges;
  • Biochemical support – I am not a psychiatrist, but I believe in biochemical medical intervention and support when trained professionals determine it to be efficacious and necessary to attain greater calm in our lives and the ability to make necessary positive changes. Those who think that biochemical therapy might be helpful ought to consult with qualified mental health professionals.

Each of these three strategies has its place, and working together they can be efficacious in helping us draw together our Rider and Elephant into a systemic, unified, integrated, productive, positive, and confluent organism.

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor is helpful because it accurately describes how the Elephant operates from a powerful subterranean unconscious mishmash of forces and what the Rider does and is capable of doing. Given the Elephant’s size and weight, however, it is likely that we may only be able to move forward slowly on one day and to find ourselves slipping backwards two steps to our former dysfunctional default position on the next. What is necessary is for us to retrain ourselves patiently and with perseverance, virtues themselves in the process of effecting Teshuvah. As we are successful, our sense of hopeful optimism likely will return.

I agree that life is what we deem it to be. We humans are, after all, proactive beings. We need not be victims of our non-rational and irrational forces. We have agency to effect change and growth in our lives. We have only to want to do so as the necessary first step.

Happy riding, and may we all experience a productive Elul!

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and immediate past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the newly created Union for Reform Judaism's Israel and Reform Zionism Committee (IRZC). John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of two books - “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing Company, 2017) and "Why Israel [and its Future] Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019). Both are available at Amazon.com. John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren.
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