Ever feel like your mind is a lazy elephant that refuses to do want you want? No? Well, I do. And apparently I’m not alone.

Himalayan Art Resources recently posted a very interesting news item about a rare type of thangka: Meditation Instructions in the form of a painting. In the painting, the practitioner is represented by a monk, effort is represented by fire, and the mind is an elephant. As the monk embarks along the path, first he is chasing the elephant, which is all black (representing lethargy) and is being terrorized by a monkey (representing distraction). Yet as the monk moves forward, guided by the flame of effort, he is able to catch the elephant and it sheds its lethargic tendencies. The monkey can’t keep up. Eventually the monk is able to ride the elephant of his own mind and no longer needs the flame.

via HAR,

The idea of relating the mind to an unruly elephant along with the monkey and other elements in the visual example of Calm Abiding meditation originates in the writings of Asanga and then later in the meditation commentaries of Je Tsongkapa. It is thought that the artistic depiction of the practice is relatively late and possibly first arose in the 19th century as a wall mural. The image above is of a poster published in India in the early 1970s. An original Tibetan version of the painting has not yet been located.

Here is a diagram of the painting:

The monkey of distraction has many tricks up his sleeve…

At first he may appear just as sounds and physical sensations when you are on the cushion, but he also comes in much larger forms, such as fear and despair.  While a sound or a pain may distract you for moment, despair can lead one to give up completely. This issue was discussed in a recent conversation between Thich Nhat Hanh, David Suzuki, and David Hoggan, who is the chair of the David Suzuki Foundation. Regarding the despair one may feel about worlwide environmental destruction and climate change, Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

We have to accept that this civilization can be destroyed, not by something outside, but by ourselves. Many civilizations have been destroyed in the past. So, it’s very important to work with our mind. If we allow despair to take over then we will have no strength left to do anything at all. That is why we should do anything we can to prevent despair, including meditation.

It all comes back to the monk and the elephant!

We must train our elephants so that we are able to truly benefit the world, not just in the short term, but in the long term. How long term are we talking here? Well, for most of us it could be a LOOOONG time, and in the meantime we’re going to be stuck with that monkey in both its mundane and deeply painful forms. Not to worry though, even if it’s going to be a few thousand kalpas until your liberation, Robert Thurman explains that there is a “Consolation Prize”:

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters