In his recently published autobiography, the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar reflects on the nature of the psyche, drawing on his own life and the lives of his clients:

‘The unconscious may be more like an elephant which you can’t really control and which is mostly good-natured. It is not the headstrong horse of Freudian imagery which can be controlled with difficulty by the rider, the conscious part of the mind. The elephant is much stronger than the mahout [the driver of the elephant] and goes where it will though the mahout can nudge it in certain directions. There is certainly no point in getting into a fight with the elephant, a fight the mahout is sure to lose.’

From reading the rest of the book, it seems that Kakar is saying that the life that we discover when we delve into the unconscious is one that continuously seeks to manifest itself, and our conscious control over this process is limited. We can facilitate this process or try to obstruct it. Facilitating it would lead to a creative, spontaneous life. We will not succeed in obstructing it, but will only lead the manifestation to be incomplete, dissatisfactory or even neurotic.

The elephant is our feelings – those that we are aware of everyday, those that show their face once in a while and then withdraw beneath the surface of the mind (perhaps to resurface in a dream), the feelings we wish we would not feel, and those that we are only dimly, if at all, aware of – so far.

As Kakar writes, we can nudge our elephant a little bit to help him walk easily through the broader paths in the forest rather than going for the narrow ones that are ill-suited for him. In either case, the elephant will walk, either with graceful ease, or with a tense struggle, knocking down the trees in the forest, harming himself and the surroundings in the process. In one case it may get very far, in others it may cover less ground in its struggle with the narrow paths.

This perspective has some elements in common with Acem’s way of thinking. Acem Meditation calls for an openness to those aspects of the mind that are beneath the surface, gives them a freedom to express themselves, and also provides an opportunity for discussion and sharing, where the mahout – the conscious part of the meditator – may explore the various directions in which he may try to nudge the elephant.

Sudhir Kakar

An Acemer may perhaps add that sometimes, the elephant’s walk may be slow and tiresome, and sometimes it may be quick and exciting, but it walks nonetheless. Further, before being able to nudge the elephant, one needs to get to know it well by attending to it regularly and in a friendly manner, like a good mahout, rather than being scared of getting whacked by it. In other words, meditation is a daily commitment that continues throughout life. From this point, we may think of meditation as different from psychoanalysis which mostly lasts some years rather than the whole lifetime, even though many psychoanalysts would add that those years in analysis train the analysand to be open to the unconscious for the rest of his life.

Finally, one may ask, if we are no more in control than the mahout on his elephant, to what extent are we free to shape our lives, at least our inner lives, and to what extent are we propelled by our childhood and genes to live a life that we may want to change but cannot?