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466. The taming power of the great

Long ago, in the 19th century, in a hamlet near the Himalayas, there lived a small Indian boy who was fascinated by the elephants he saw trek down the long, long road that led into Tibet and, eventually, China. One night, the boy stole from his home and walked to the nearest town, where the elephants were corralled in a pen. While their drivers slept round a camp fire, the boy untethered an elephant—the oldest as it happened—and slung himself into the saddle on its neck; he took with him a staff that lay beside the head driver, a man who slept with his face to the fire.

The boy delivered firm pressure to the elephant’s flanks and ears to move him from the camp. As it turns out, an elephant—despite its size—can be quite a stealthy beast; and so the young boy joined the long, long road to Tibet. He became intemperate with the staff, he flicked and whacked at the elephant; often it seemed to him that he guided the elephant, just as he had seen the drivers do many times before, and other times it seemed to him that the elephant did just as it pleased—whatever he did with the staff made no difference at all.

Although the boy had a notion that he would drive the elephant into the distant mountains and so finally see the snow he had heard the tinkers talk about when they visited the village, he found by dawn, when the peaks glowed rose-pink, that the elephant had turned away from the mountain road to a side trail. The boy tried every trick that he could imagine to steer the beast; he hit hard, he whispered softly in the elephant’s ear, he implored, he smacked with a hand, and he commanded.

Finally, he became convinced that the old elephant did as he said; and that was how, by lunchtime, he arrived back at the pen, where the head driver whisked his staff down to him with such speed that the boy fell to the ground. He gave the boy an amiable swipe with the staff: “Now little baba, I heard you steal away my elephant in the night; but I knew my old friend would bring you back smartly, ready to begin work this afternoon,” at this he held the staff before the boy, “for it takes more than sticks and commands to drive an elephant—and, as you discovered little baba, the elephant drove you!”

You know, if you never make any plans, if you never think, “Seven o’clock, time to wake up. Time to go to the Underground station, time to think about lunch…” you will still do things. The little voice, the ego, is the boy who tries to drive the elephant; actually, the elephant—your entire mind—already knows where it is going. You can never issue a command to it, never strike it with a stick or whisper in its ear, and it will still get up and do things; maybe not the things your ego imagines, but the things it would do anyway—whether it is hit or not.

As with the little baba, many people think they drive the elephant; actually, the elephant drives them. The scientists say there is no free will, although we cannot know what every particle in the universe will do we could do so in principle. Locally, the elephant goes where it wants; if you recriminate with the elephant, if you think you drive it, you are mistaken. You have to trust it, very occasionally you may issue a blow with a staff. It is an exception. The system continues on its path, it knows the true path—the boy on top does not, the old head driver knows better than to force it; or, as my grandmother from Toronto, not the mystical East, used to say: “Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see...”


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