Letting Go of the Tail of the Elephant

by Carol Hendershot

There is a story about a group of blind men who came upon a strange and wondrous creature called an elephant. None of them had ever heard of such a strange beast before and decided to check it out. With some trepidation, they approached the animal from different angles. One approached from the front and touched the elephant’s trunk, proclaiming that this creature resembled a very thick snake. One came from the side and as he grasped the elephant’s ear, shouted, “No, this animal is like a fan blowing in the breeze.” Another bumped into the animal’s leg and was sure that the animal was more like a tree trunk. The man who approached from the rear grabbed onto the tail, and with assurance, described the creature as a rope. 

When I sit down to meditate, my thoughts immediately go to the ways I think the world is organized, and I forget that I have only experienced one small part of the whole. My view is limited by the fact that I am a white woman from a middle-class background raised in the middle of the U.S. in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. 

 From this perspective, I spend the first half-hour trying to organize my life and fend off imagined catastrophes. The thoughts come one after the other, and I tend to believe every one of them and that I should do something about every one of them. All the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”, all the plans, all the “great” ideas and impossible dreams gang up on me.

And then, I realize that these are just thoughts, most likely coming from the tail of the elephant, and that I don’t have to believe them or act on them. When I recognize this screenplay in my mind for what it is, I start to feel an opening. I remember that I am not in control; that it will rain or shine, according to rules that I don’t understand and can’t influence. 

Does any of this sound familiar? 

I don’t think I am alone in wanting to have some say over the way life works. I want life to be predictable; to ward off the changes I don’t want and create the changes I do. I want to be in control, and I don’t want to have to guess what is coming next. But it’s not, I’m not, and it looks like I’ll just have to keep guessing. 

I’ve found meditation to be a good way to confront the unpredictability that life is always shoving in my face. I can breathe a little deeper when I open my heart and mind to this natural unfolding. There is no foreboding in sitting back and watching things untangle and re-tangle themselves. By looking at life through a clear lens and accepting the way things are, doors of understanding open for us. 

The words of Michele MacDonald, a teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition, remind me that “We meditate so that we won’t hurt others or ourselves and to understand things.” It sounds so simple and reassuring; a welcome balm to my confidence. This letting go feels like freedom to me.


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