The elephant in the forest

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?


  1. Halvor

    Nice and, for a westerner, unusual image. One might add that the elephant may be healthy or it may be sick, and that meditation is largely about curing the sick one to give room to the healthy one – if that doesn’t spoil the imagery…

  2. Kaif

    How would you define health and sickness? It would be interesting to delve into that.

    Two thoughts come to my mind. One, that Kakar writes of a colleague who was a successful man in his career, who, one day, had a break down and was hospitalized for major depression, a problem that has crippled his life since then, despite various treatments. This is where Kakar talks of the unconscious demanding respect not only for its uncanny knowledge but also for its terrible power (the quote in the excerpt for this blog post).

    Also, Freud famously said that the goal of psychoanalysis is to take the person from “neurotic misery to common human unhappiness”. Do you think meditation is different and that this is another divergence between Acem Meditation and psychoanalysis?

  3. Karan Sewani

    Good going Kaif, very interesting article, specially the part where you compared Acem and psychoanalysis and emphasized on attending to unconscious regularly.
    very interesting questions at last…
    and to your question in the last comment “Freud famously said that the goal of psychoanalysis is to take the person from “neurotic misery to common human unhappiness”. Do you think meditation is different and that this is another divergence between Acem Meditation and psychoanalysis?”
    i think meditation also does this, it sometimes makes us unhappy in process of integrating unconscious structures into our psyche, but it also have other broader impacts like spontaneity.

  4. Kaif

    Thank you, Karan, for the nice comment. What you say makes sense. I certainly feel much more spontaneous now than before when I used to meditate. I’ve seen that happen to other meditators, and also to a friend who went to psychoanalytic therapy. He became much less inhibited, more expressive of his desires and aggression. Perhaps the change in him was more powerful than what I have seen with meditators, but that could have more to do with him than with the therapy.

    At the same time I sometimes wondered if he had also become more self-centred. The psychotherapeutic situation was one in which he was the centre of the therapists attention and free to say whatever he wanted to say, and perhaps he carried that stance even outside the therapy room. I’m not very sure about this.

    This discussion reminds me of a line from the film Ordinary People – “If you can’t feel pain, you won’t feel much else either.”

  5. Karan Sewani

    very interesting example… what you wrote about your friend could be true, or it could be he was holding feelings for long time so it could be an outburst as well…. with meditation it is more slow and steady flow.
    A very nice quote indeed.

  6. Nice quote, Kaif. Slightly related is the following quote from the Norwegian female singer Kari Bremnes (or maybe she quoted someone else, I’m not sure): “If you’re too scared of death, you’ll be scared of life as well.”
    Meditation has many aspects, and traditional talk of “bliss consciousness” tends to be alienating, not so much because it isn’t real (in a few cases), but because it is so one-sided. Like everybody else, meditators certainly have their share of “common human unhappiness” (and sometimes even “neurotic misery”), but at times meditation brings in a force that makes reconciliation a little easier.

  7. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi

    I have established an analogy between practice of meditation and psychoanalysis.

    Julian B. Rotter (1970) writes in his book Clinical Psychology “Other professions which overlap clinical psychology are those of the psychiatrist, social worker, lawyer, speech pathologist, and religious worker. All these professions are concerned in one way or another with the individual’s adjustment to a special set of circumstances”.

    Now the question arises what does a religious worker does to help an individual for his/her adjustment with himself/herself and with the society? The one apparent answer is guiding people to perform devotional exercises.

    Perhaps answer lies in the following lines:

    Psychoanalysis emphasizes free association, the phenomenon of transference, and the development of insight. Psychoanalysis helps a person understand himself/herself better. The goal of psychoanalysis is to acquire self-understanding and knowledge of the sources of anxiety.

    According to Swami Vivekananda, “During meditation the mind is at first apt to wander. But let any desire whatever arise in the mind, we must sit calmly and watch what sort of ideas are coming. By continuing to watch in that way the mind becomes calm, and there are no more thoughts waves in it. Those things that we have previously thought deeply have stored into unconscious mind and therefore these come up at the surface of conscious mind during meditation.” We may call this ‘auto-catharsis’ sort of free-association, unconscious mind talking to conscious mind. Meditation provides us insight, understanding of self and increases our psychological strength. So we can draw some analogy between practice of meditation and psychoanalysis. .

    According to Swami Vishnu Devananda:”Through meditation, the play of the mind is witnessed. In the early stages nothing more can be done than to gain understanding as the ego is observed constantly asserting itself. But in times its game become familiar, and one begins to prefer the peace of contentment. When the ego is subdued, energies can then be utilized constructively for personal growth and the service of others”.

    According to Radhasoami Faith: “…strong desires, embedded in the mind, are awakened in Bhajan (a type of meditation) by the current of Shabd (sound).

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