Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10
He arose and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. Mark 4:39
This task relates to the challenge of dealing with strong negative emotions. We can go for a day or a week without huge upsets. Then there are times when the emotions are so powerful that they just take over. They are like a steam roller and we can’t do anything about it.
There are crises in life that are extremely difficult to handle– rage, terrible depression or fear. Sometimes, when these powerful emotions take over, the whole body just shakes with fear.
In India they use elephants to move telephone poles, and do other jobs. When they need another elephant, they get a wild one out of the jungle. Then they have the problem of taming it.
How do you tame a wild elephant? You don’t just talk to an elephant and say: “Nice elephant, go over and pick up that log.” It’s no use getting on the elephant’s back and riding her as if you were breaking in a horse.
This is what they do. They get two tame elephants that have been working for a long time and put one on each side of the wild elephant. These two elephants go about their business, picking up logs and moving things. If the wild elephant gets frisky, they just sort of lean on her. By the end of a couple of days, she has calmed down and learned to work like the rest of them.
What has that got to do with spiritual growth? The wild elephant represents your negative emotions. As far as our emotions are concerned, the wild elephant could be something like runaway fear, uncontrollable rage, acute depression or any emotion that is strong and out of control. It is no use trying to deal with the emotion directly. That is why, when someone is afraid, it does not help to say: “Don’t be afraid”. The fear will continue and the person will get annoyed. When you say: “Don’t be angry,” they get more angry. You can’t talk to emotions. They don’t listen.
Try to talk to your own emotions, and you will see how useless that is. Then try to talk to someone else’s emotions: “It’s alright, don’t worry,” and it is just as useless. They will not stop worrying just because you tell them.
So it seems as if there is nothing you can do. But there is something you can do. You deal with the tame elephants. And what are the tame elephants? They represent the two areas of your life that are somewhat under your control.
One of them is your body and your body tensions. You will notice that when your emotions get out of control, your body also gets out of control. Can you imagine a person who is furious without having some physical symptom? Can a violently angry person have a normal heart beat, with hands relaxed, and the face its usual color? No.
If you are angry, your body will show it. In fact, the anger cannot survive if your body is relaxed. I used to think that if my body was tense I couldn’t do anything about it, but then I learned that if I can tense my body, I can relax it. I have some control over that. And the same is true of thoughts. I can do something to control thoughts–not totally, but at least in part.
By working on relaxing the body, you work on one of the tame elephants, and this puts pressure on the anger to relax. This is true of other emotions. People feel fear in their gut. If you can relax your stomach it is very hard for that fear to survive.
One of the ways in which you tame the body is by noticing the tensions, maybe exaggerating them a little bit, and then relaxing. The point of tensing them is to remind yourself that you have some choice as to whether your body is tense or relaxed. You might have to do that repeatedly, but you can do it. Since you are able to tense your muscles, you can relax your muscles. You bring that elephant alongside by taming the body.
The other elephant to bring along side is your thoughts. You will notice that wild emotions need wild thoughts. If someone makes you angry, you get all kinds of crazy thoughts: “This person is always doing that to me, I can’t stand it” or “I don’t know why everyone is bugging me today, everybody’s on my back.”
Wild thoughts support the wild emotions. Just as you can relax your body so you can relax your thoughts. You can either stop the thought and just say to your mind: “Shut up, that’s not helpful,” or you can replace the negative thoughts with positive ones.
Let me give you an example from my own life. It’s kind of trivial, but it is sometimes good to begin with trivial things because then, when big negative emotions hit, you know what to do. You have had some practice with little ones.
I was driving along and going to Tucson Medical Center. I was supposed to be there at two o’clock. All of sudden I got upset and thought: “Oh, I’m late, I’m late.” My stomach began churning. I was worrying and flagellating myself: “Why are you always late, you never start on time, you never …?” I could feel the wildness in my body. I could feel the crazy thoughts supported by the physical symptoms brought on by the emotions.
I was driving with my shoulders up around my ears. My shoulders were very tense. When I noticed this I relaxed my body. They tightened up and then I relaxed them again.
Then I had to deal with the negative thoughts. One of the thoughts was: “You’ll never make it”, but as it turned out it wasn’t even true. It wasn’t even remotely true. I got there five minutes early. But the wild elephant loves negative thoughts and will even generate these thoughts. It says “You better worry because you’re going to be late. You’re going to be late”.
I took a hike with my daughter recently and we had the same thought: “We’re going to be late” and she gave me a motto which has stayed with me: “You’re never late until the time of the appointment has passed.” You are not late half an hour before you get there, are you? But the negative thought says: “I’m late. I’m late.”
I was full of anxiety and I was saying to myself: “I’m going to be late”. Isn’t that a crazy thought: “I’m going to be late”?
I changed my physical state and I changed my thoughts. It was a beautiful day. I loved seeing the mountains. I thought: “I’m just where I want to be in life. I enjoy what I am doing. I am not late yet, and even if I am it won’t matter. Right now I am having a good time.” I transformed the trip into a pleasant experience by taming the wild elephant.
The time will come when you are really tested. We read about the awful tragedies some people have to deal with in life. How do they get through them? We might have to deal with some rough things. What will we do? If that happens it is useful to have this particular exercise available to you.
I’ll give you another example of taming the wild elephant. A woman got on an airplane. The plane was about to take off, and already she was afraid the plane might crash. The passenger sitting next to her said: “I wonder if anybody listens when the stewardess tells you about the escape hatches, the oxygen and all that kind of stuff.”
He looked over at her. Her eyes were riveted to the attendant. This was her first airplane flight. She was listening to every word. She wanted to know where the exits were. She wanted to know where the flotation thing was under her seat. She wanted to know everything. She was a mess. Her emotional state showed in her physical tensions and in her wild thoughts: “I just know this place is going to crash. My children are going to be orphans. Or maybe I will just be maimed for the rest of my life. I can’t stand it. I have to get out of here.”
She could have used this exercise. She could then have leaned back in her seat, let her arms relax by her side. She would have turned her mind to positive thoughts, such as: “The plane has not even taken off. Very few of these planes crash. It is exciting to have my first plane journey. Worrying about crashing will not prevent it from happening. If something goes wrong I can start worrying then. It does not do any good to worry about that now.” All of that would have eased the emotion and tamed the wild elephant.