Thursday, 28 February 2013

Elephants a symbol of liberation?

We all have things that hold us back in life, things that tie us down and stop us being all that we can be and doing all that we are capable of doing. What are the chains that that keep you locked down? What are you tethered to? What is the cage that keeps you fenced in?

The animation above is a telling of a tale by Jorge Bucay. It tells of an elephant that believed it could not escape its chains because it had been conditioned to do so. It was tamed, it accepted its fate. It was tied down and trapped by what it believed to be true, even though it was blatantly untrue. It had stopped questioning its reality. Its mind had become fettered. This is something I think that everyone can all relate to, I know I can. How often in life do we settle for our current reality and just accept what feels comfortable and just perform for our master, whatever and whoever they may be? How often do we all just trundle along, accepting our current reality, failing to see the elephant in the room, the problem, the thing that needs to be altered?

Elephants have been on my mind the last few days. I cannot seem to escape them, they are everywhere. Everywhere I turn they seem to be popping up. It began a few days ago when a friend posted the Jorge Bucay story on facebook, or maybe it was a little earlier when I read the beautiful story of the elephants visiting the home of Lawrence Anthony after he died. What an incredible story that is (Click on link) They’ve cropped up in conversations too. People keep on talking to me about elephants. My friend Karl was telling me a tale about having to buy one the other day “that he just couldn’t say no to”. Last Saturday during the training I received from the media trust the instructor suddenly randomly began recounting a Rudyard Kipling verse about elephants; elephants have been cropping up in other conversations too. I called to visit a member of the congregation and began chatting with her about elephants and mentioned that a ministerial colleague had lots of elephant ornaments in their home. She said "well I have a love of cat ornaments, I don’t have any elephants here," or so she thought. As I left her house I just glanced into her kitchen and my eye caught sight of an elephant right there in front of me, on her fridge. She had an elephant fridge magnet that she’d had for years, that she’d forgotten was even there. Now that’s not very elephant like is it? Forgetting that you had an elephant on your fridge. Why did I notice it then, coincidence? Maybe? Maybe not? Jung called it synchronicity (See Link) By the way another friend of mine tells me that the same thing has been happening to her, she has received elephants on cards and has seen them on the news and another friend told her that when she was out shopping with their grandson the other day she kept on picking up things with elephants on them everywhere. My friend is quite a spiritually minded person and she said to me “I wonder what the significance will turn out to be?”  I wonder too. Many other people have told me of other recent elephant tales, too many to go into detail about here.

So here I am writing about elephants, why? Well because I have to. The very same invisible force that compelled those elephants to pay homage to Lawrence Anthony is compelling me to explore elephants and their spiritual symbolism.

In the two clips below Lawrence Anthony's widow Francois talks of his work and the visit of the elephants to pay their respects

Elephants are incredible creatures, beautiful and powerful and deeply spiritual. Many of the religious traditions make reference to them and they are used in so many stories. Did you know that they actually listen with their feet (See Link) and they mourn their dead? So it’s no surprise that they sought out Lawrence Anthony a man who had offered them so much love and came to pay him respect. There is no doubt in my mind that they are deeply soulful creatures.

Elephants are large animals they have small eyes and big ears. They are renowned for their amazing memories. If they have been somewhere once they will never forget it. They are herd animals and look after one another. If they come across the bones of a dead elephant they will cry out to others so that they will come and pay homage to a lost friend or relative. They are generally gentle and obedient creatures although if the leader calls on them to fulfil a task they will endure anything to do so, destroying any obstacle in their way and becoming insensible to pain and fatigue.

Yes elephants are deeply soulful creatures therefore it is hardly surprising that many of the faith traditions pay homage to them and their characteristics. 

It is generally thought that Hindu’s worship elephants; this is actually a misunderstanding of the faith tradition. It is not the elephant itself that they are worshipping but rather what it symbolises; the elephant symbolises obedience to the dharma, the ability not to repeat past mistakes and to take care of their neighbours.

Ganesh (See Link) is one of the most adored Hindu deities. According to mythology he is the first son of Shiva and Pavati and is known as “the remover of obstacles”, a characteristic that is associated with elephants. Ganesh has the head of an elephant, which symbolises wisdom; it is considered that a man who has the head of an elephant is a wise man. He is accompanied by a mouse, which the elephant uses as a vehicle to carry his spirit around in. The mouse is symbolic of the human body that scurries around in the dirt and darkness and the elephant is the spirit that needs to be carried around in the body in order to reach its destination.

According to Hinduism, humans are elephants who believe that they are mice. The story of Ganesh teaches that we need to remove the obstacles that will allow our true human natures to develop.

So we have two stories, inspired by elephants one depicting how we are chained by our minds, by what we believe is true and the other showing how an elephant mind can lead to liberation. Isn’t this so human? So often the very thing that can enslave us is almost identical to that which will set us free.

What are the things that hold you back, that stop you doing what you can do, from being all that you can be? We all have fixed ideas about things, that we probably rarely even question. Sometimes these are very obvious to others, but not to ourselves. How many of us fail to see the elephant in our room, or attached to our fridge.

And even if we see the obstacles can they be removed? How easy is it to break the chains that enslave us? They may look like a flimsy bit of rope, but they can still have great power over us.

In the Psalm 107 vv 13-15, David proclaims that it is God who does this. He sings “thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wondrous deeds for mankind! Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains.” In Luke’s Gospel, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus quotes Isaiah and states “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” by doing so he is proclaiming his purpose that he has come to set the people free. I see some real parallels with Ganesh here, the remover of obstacles.

Is this enough though? Can faith alone remove the obstacles that block us from physical and spiritual liberation? Also is it enough to simply seek liberation for ourselves alone?

Well I for one do not think so, on both counts. Faith for me means very little, unless it is accompanied by selfless action. Faith for me has always been about how I live and not about what I say I do or do not believe in. To me what matters is the building of the Commonwealth of Love right here right now, Heaven and Hell are right here right now, not some place beyond this life. What matters is the world in which I live today, faith has to be a living breathing thing and not some imagined Nirvana or Oz at the other side of the rainbow.

Nor is it good enough to simply want liberation for myself alone, wouldn't that be selfish?

And so I return to my Lenten message, what can I give to life to my world instead of simply giving something up, just for myself? What can you who read this blog give to your world too? Where is the need in your world? What gift can you give to your world? Where in your world is love so desperately needed? Look around you, see what you can contribute? Do you know what if you do you might find that you can easily set yourself free from the chains that hold you down; you might find that the barriers that block you from living the life you were born to live can and will be removed.

We can learn so much from the elephant, the most soulful of creatures. Through them we can learn to remember not to forget what love is; we can remember not to forget to pay homage to those who have loved us and shown us the way of love; we can remember not to forget the lesson the first time, so as not to have to repeat the same mistake twice; and perhaps above all else we can remember not to forget that we are all in this ship together, we do not journey alone, nor do we know freedom alone.