I am filled with wonder and excitement as the mahout hands me the bucket.
I stare down the trunk of a 5,000-pound elephant awaiting its bath.
The elephant trainer and I are standing by a winding river surrounded by lush mountains at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The elephant’s eyes are so kind and caring, but in the last few hours, I have learned that if I don’t approach it carefully, I could get trampled.
I smile courageously, and with my bucket, I approach the chaang—Thai for “elephant.” I run my hand along the elephant’s ear as I dip my bucket into the water, take a step back, and then splash the full bucket onto the chaang. It flaps its ears and looks at me with wide, beautiful brown eyes. I begin pouring bucket after bucket, and the elephant’s skin begins to wash clean.
At the sanctuary, I also met a wild elephant. This elephant had to be kept away from all the others, because it was raised without human contact. They rescued the elephant from a poacher, and they were working to train it using nonviolent methods. It was still wild and unpredictable.
There are other “elephants” in our lives that we have to approach with caution, because despite their beauty, we feel a healthy sense of fear in their presence. One of these elephants for me has always been my creativity. The process of making artwork isn’t easy. So many things go into creating that perfect composition or visual story that we hope to share with others.
The creativity elephant, like the rescued elephant at the park, can be calmed with proper nurturing. But where do we start? How do we harness the power of creativity, learn to set it free, and be conscious of how that creativity needs to interact with the world around it?
Because of a travel coincidence while on the same journey that took me to the nature preserve, I learned about a training program for the creativity elephant, appropriately named the Elephant Journal Apprenticeship.
I met the girl in the Luang Prabang airport in Laos. She had the same backpack as I did. We sat together in the airport terminal, and it just so happened that our seats were next to each other on the plane too. While we were talking on the flight about mindfulness, she told me about her experience with the apprenticeship, and I registered the next day.
The program offered mindfulness-based writing education for social media, blogging, and news writing. It also provided a space to interact with other creatives and get constructive feedback. It offered a place to practice the skills learned and a way to channel the wild creative impulses into something helpful to others.
Below are the most significant lessons from my Elephant Apprenticeship:
1. Be unapologetically you, and skip the cliché.
In the program, we were given the option to manage a Facebook page. I managed Mindful Heroes, which highlights the wisdom and teachings of various mindful masters. Through posting on this page, I learned more about the kind of mindful hero I want to be for myself and others—one who embodies authenticity. The quotes that I loved most can be summed up with the iconic quote from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility”—not only to others, but to yourself, to stand in your heart-centered truth.
2. Real freedom is not won in comfort.
This program gave me a list of new mindful authors and books to curl up with. One of those authors is Pema Chödrön. She is a master of tonglen, or the art of taking in and letting go of pain, for yourself and others. This technique helped me work through some personal discomfort with procrastination, writing insecurities, and moments of weakness. These things were blocking my creativity, and once I set them free, I was able to see more clearly.
I also learned about The Artist’s Way and the magic of “morning pages.” To release thoughts as they flow out of our heads onto a physical page on a daily basis is truly freeing. It also helps us to see the wild places in our heart and to learn to help them work for us, not against us.
3. “Write about the things that are hard to write about, but not to get attention or be an ’emotional vampire.'” ~ Waylon Lewis
It is easy to focus on making art, talking, or writing so that others give you attention through emotionalism, but this type of vulnerable sharing isn’t really helpful. The stories and art that affect us are the ones that reveal the simple truths. Sure, sharing pieces of our struggle helps to create community and connection, but if we stop there, we miss a real opportunity to be of benefit. We can find a way to turn our pain and shame into another’s gain—and if we can’t, maybe we just need to let the dust fully settle before we try to put it out in the world.
4. When it comes to social media, treat your followers like real people instead of seeing them as potential “likes.”
Social media can be cold and distant, but we can choose warmth and genuine connection by giving the love we want and remembering that it’s not about the numbers, but the experience we are creating. Creating something and sharing it with others includes celebrating their creations, too. Art feeds off art, and inspiration comes from kindness.
5. “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” ~ Arthur Conan Doyle
Impossibility is the fuel of creativity, but the truth will always set us free. Clarifying the truth and putting that first is what changes hearts and minds to help the world make better use of the power of creativity in the form of art. Seeking honest truth is what creates the clearest creative freedom.