A Small Rider Sitting on Top of a Large Elephant

Our life is the creation of our mind” — Buddha

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” — Shakespeare

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven” — John Milton

(Excerpt from, How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt)

Trust your gut. Trust your feelings. Or should you?

We would all like to think that our intuiton is spot on or special. We also would like to believe that we seriously consider all perspectives when making a decision.

However, according to old wisdom,

“[…] feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable.”
The feelings themselves are real, and sometimes they alert us to truths that our conscious mind has not noticed, but sometimes they lead us astray.

There seems to be a conflict between what your unconscious mind is doing and what your conscious mind is aware of.

In Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan shares and describes a metephor that’s actually from his other book, The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s about the mind being divided into parts that sometimes conflict, “like a small rider sitting on top of a large elephant.”:

The rider represents the language-based thinking that fills our conscious minds and that we can control to some degree. The elephant represents everything else that goes on in our minds, the vast majority of which is outside of our conscious awareness. These processes can be called intuitive, unconscious, or “automatic,” referring to the fact that nearly all of what goes on in our minds is outside of our direct control, although the results of automatic processes sometimes make their way into consciousness.”

Our unconscious minds figure out what to do, then it tells the conscious mind what’s going to happen.

“The rider-and-elephant metaphor captures the fact that the rider often believes he is in control, yet the elephant is vastly stronger, and tends to win any conflict that arises between the two. Jon reviewed psychological research to show that the rider generally functions more like the elephant’s servant than its master, in that the rider is extremely skilled at producing post-hoc justifications for whatever the elephant does or believes.”

Perhaps we wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed or stressed out if we knew we didn’t have control over everything. It acn be relieving. Frame it as, “Ultimately, I’m going to do what I’m going to do. Best not worry about it.”

So how do the rider and elephant actually communicate? By talking back to it using CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

We’ll get into that another time. I’m still trying to use it on my own elephant at the moment, a work in progress.

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