Training the elephant of the mind


In classical meditation training, the mind is symbolized by two animals: an elephant and a monkey. The elephant represents the qualities of inertia, stubbornness, repetitious mental and emotional patterns, and overall our ignorance about our own mind and its sublime, true nature. The monkey represents the activity of the mind, constantly distracted and unsettled. The monkey also illustrates how the mind will mimic higher qualities of Awareness and fool the practitioner into cherishing experiences as special when they are merely the play of the personal mind.

The training for meditation has three goals:

  • to revert the mind from the external for its frames of reference to the internal,
  • to declutter the mental-emotional complex so that the qualities of contentment, peace,  tranquility or serenity can be experienced,
  • and to begin to tame the elephant and monkey demonstrations of a person in his or her life.

The preliminary practices of sitting quietly (just that!), of experiencing the body breathing, or of gazing at the sky help us recognize how uncivilized, unruly, and mindless we are with ourselves, with others, and our world. None of these practices are meditation but all (and many more) are necessary to prepare the mind-emotion complex and the hard-to-train sense of self for meditation.

Training in meditation has goals different from those of its preparation.

  • Truth is the first aim. All preliminary practices reveal how deceptive our daily experiences can be. For example, people, places and things appear stable or permanent Mahasiddha Sarahabut nothing is. Everyone knows someone who has died, or who was in love and now is not, or who was young and now is not. Social policies change, people’s interests change, climate changes. So, truth, that which is non-deceptive – is truly true – is the target, the aim, of meditation. Real meditation has no interest in relaxation since that is simply to feed the elephant. Nor does true meditation encourage titillating internal experiences since that feeds the monkey. Truth, as in true true, as in truth of Being is the primary purpose, aim, goal, and function of meditation. This target is represented in Tibetan imagery by the arrow.
  • The revelation and then realization of what is really real is the second purpose of meditation. This is born of the primary overall function and purpose of Truth. For example, is my craving revealing that I am really hungry or revealing that I am bored?  If I am bored, why? As a human being, limitless possibilities of how to improve my state of mind, clarify my emotional and behavior patterns, bring joy and harmony to my relationships and the world, and overall be creative in all of these is within my capacity. Why am I bored and reaching for a snack that doesn’t serve the boredom, doesn’t serve my body or emotions, and is a waste? What is real? Meditation is designed to deconstruct the illusory and open the wisdom eye and heart of someone so that Real and True arises as obvious within oneself. No dogma, no doctrine, no fanaticism, just obvious. One Tibetan symbol for this is the skull cup: reality is mind-made.
  • Unanimity, oneness is the third functional purpose of meditation. The above two realizations provide a third: we are all in THIS together. Together, if we care for each other, everyone benefits. When we don’t, everyone suffers. That’s real, that’s true, that’s obvious. One symbol for this is a set of mala beads.

The preliminary training for meditation is necessary and to be applauded in all the ways that it is currently extant in the world. Meditation used to only be practiced by adepts. But what is called meditation is not in most cases.

What will be offered in the free, online group meditation sessions (beginning Tues, Jan. 16) does not claim to be true meditation. What will will practice will, however, combine the purposes of taming and training together with the ultimate functions and aims of meditation.

You are welcome to join. Use this link (and file it for ease of use.)

About Donna Mitchell-Moniak

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11 Responses to Training the elephant of the mind

  1. what a clear explanation of the benefits of meditation! I also enjoyed your perspective on the values of older societies. makes me think ……


    • Yes. Certainly, there has always been the basic stresses of survival – true to the times and culture. But what we live now is a result of being told that we have to “have” in order to be happy. Before, in order to “have”, one had to create. This meant an appreciation of what one had because its value was measured by how much was sacrificed or put into having it, creating it, or choosing it over something else equally vital and necessary. That is not the case modernly. I think some measure of our collective stress comes from an innate knowing that this is backward and vampiristic. Gratefully, meditation and clear mindedness help to clear away these wrong views.

  2. aaremo says:

    Excellent post, after a very rocky month last month I realised the necessity of keeping that elephant in check or being trampled by it! And so I’ve increased meditation time and been reaping the benefits. Should be something we are all taught in school, a core human necessity 🙂

    • agreed. In truth, it used to be even though it was not called meditation. Yet young minds were brought up wondering, contemplating, and musing. Deleting the arts from US schools (maybe not in the UK) was a significant blow to mindfulness and mind training.

      • aaremo says:

        Yes, it’s vital to our development as human beings I think. When you say the arts were deleted from US schools, what kind of subjects do you mean? That’s terrible. It’s more needed than ever

        • Unfortunately, during the Bush administration funding for public services was decreased and increased for the military and the wars. They have not been corrected adequately. Thus reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, along with standardized tests to “assure” proficiency were deemed more important than the humanities, arts, and physical exercise. Sad.

  3. very interesting. in my view meditation ;s purpose should be to discover the divine within that is the soul, always elusive and never responsible for your actions being truly divine. the gita says its easier to behold god as an external presence of divinity than go deep within and fibd the divinity which is the reicarnating soul without blemish and ina ctive save in guiding your conscious along the right way.. the goal has to be to discover ones innermost essence the soul which has condesecended to incarnate as you to evolve through all the earthly trails and tribulations you subject it to experience.

    • I love the Gita. It was a world scripture that was “required” reading and contemplation for all of my programs for many years. It was a joy to expose others to it and to witness what ideas, insights, and how devotion to the Divine expanded within them.

      We are in agreement overall, I think, about the purpose of meditation: Truth. The distinction for any meditator is what facet of Truth is one opening to, seeking, or desiring to experience. As you say, “the goal has to be to discover ones innermost essence.” The experience of that for some is the arising of empathy and compassion expanding through their heart accompanied by tears of gratitude and sorrow at the same time. For someone else, the discovering of one’s innermost essence will empty one’s mind of clutter and, like lightning or a strong wind, clear away that which obscures the inner essence. For another, the experience will be of a transcendent nature, devotional, merging with or surrendering the personal self to that innermost essence.

      Millions or billions of people do meditate and have over humanity’s long history. Meditation can be/has been done in a indigenous way, in a Patanjali way, in an active physical way, or any of the many sitting practices offered by Buddha, Lao Tsu, or other saints or sages of the world. No matter the practice or its lineage, it will have Truth as its core premise. Wonderfully so. The additional beauty of this is that Truth is not one Truth but a faceted jewel or an unfolding flower. Again, I think we are on the same page, my friend.

  4. Thanks for your illuminating thoughts. indeed truth is the essence within.

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