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An elephant must turn its entire body to see behind it—a unique characteristic dictated by the constraints of its physical form.
In Buddhism, the elephant is sometimes used as a metaphor to illustrate the need for carefulness in regards to physical things in the world or our thoughts and imaginings. For example, in the Avatamsaka Sutra, it is often mentioned, “when the elephant king turned around, he observed…” And we can expect a detailed teaching based on the elephant’s observation.
I find this metaphor useful in my daily efforts to stay focused on whatever I’m doing. Distractions are pervasive, and if I bear in mind to either give myself fully to something attracting my attention, or completely refrain, I see things more carefully—or not at all. Either I commit fully to what I see, or I ignore it fully.
Most of us are familiar with the “monkey mind” analogy used by meditation teachers to demonstrate how not to be. The monkey never stays on a single branch for long before leaping to another, ever restless. It is easy to see why a distracted mind is called a monkey mind and why it is an enemy to the one-pointed concentration that meditation demands.
There is also a lesser-known negative habit of monkeys that applies to the undisciplined meditative mind. Monkeys are hated by farmers, not because they eat their fruit, but because of the way they eat it. The monkey will not consume an apple. Instead, it will take a bite of an apple and throw the rest away, then grab another. It only takes a few monkeys to ruin an orchard. (I lived on an apple orchard in India, and observed this first-hand.)
I am certainly not the only one who has noticed that as soon the mind is set to do something, 10 things arise competing for its attention. Or, the initial idea is buried completely by another that presents itself as more important.
But unlike the elephant, human beings are constructed such that we can physically see damn near 360 degrees while facing forward—and, unfortunately, our mind is equally flexible. We hop from one thought to the next, like a monkey eating apples, never finishing one thought before darting to another.
While all of us are familiar with our “monkey mind,” we may have overlooked our “elephant mind,” but this metaphor is one we must give some attention. Whenever we feel we are in monkey mind mode, we should shift gears and assert our elephant mode. It only requires giving ourselves fully to whatever we are doing.
Like an elephant who must turn his whole body to look at something, we should learn to direct full focus on what is demanding our attention or refrain from entertaining the thought. If we do this, we will be steady and sure in thought and avoid flightiness.
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