The Blind Men and the Elephant-Lessons on Perspective

There is an ancient legend from India about blind men and their experience “seeing” an elephant. There are many different versions of this tale, ranging from some attributing it to a lesson the Buddha was teaching his students, to the retelling of it in poetry form. John Godfrey Sax in the 1800’s has an excellent version done in poetry.

The story starts with six blind men. Now, depending on which version you read, the number varies from three to six. We will use six. The men were passing the time of day talking, and someone brought up how wonderful it would be to “see” an elephant. As fate would have it, a merchant was passing through with a herd of elephants. He heard about their desire, and decided to make it come true. He led the men up to an elephant, placing each man at a different spot to “see” by touching the animal. They were so excited!

One man was led to the elephant’s side, where he experienced the elephant to be quite like a great wall.

The second was led to the tusk- so round, smooth and sharp, and he experienced the elephant to be like a spear.

The third was led to the trunk, and he thought the elephant to be like a snake.

The fourth was led to the elephant’s knee, and he thought the elephant to be like a tree.

The fifth was led to the elephant’s ear, where he experienced the elephant to be most like a fan.

The sixth was led to the elephant’s swinging tail, and determined that the elephant most certainly resembled a rope.

You can imagine what happened when they returned to their conversation after the merchant left them to their own devices! Each man stated his opinion, and each knowing he was right, kept fighting for his voice to be the voice of truth that rang the strongest! At the end of the story it states that while each of them was partially right, all of them were wrong. The Chinese version of the story asks how anyone can describe the whole without learning the total of the parts.

We think we can.

We do it every day. Think about it.

We think we know the answers, without really getting all of the information that would be needed to make a really informed opinion. We know our answers, and so we are armed with that knowledge, and if we are not open to the opinions and perspectives of those around us, we may not be making the most informed conclusions or decisions. In relationships, we believe we know what the other person thinks or feels especially if we have known them for some time. This doesn’t take into account the fact that we are all constantly changing. Each day we are faced with new experiences that we must engage in and learn from. We all grow at different rates, and in different directions. If we understand that, and honor that in our partnerships and relationships, those bonds will strengthen and grow. If we don’t they will disintegrate and dissolve. For example, after my father’s death, I visited the home of my aunt and uncle- my dad’s oldest brother. At that time, they had been married for over 60 years, and were still learning about each other-even though they had known each other for most of their lives.   They listened attentively to each other. He said something in conversation, and she said with excitement, not accusation, “I didn’t know that about you dear!” She was excited to learn something new about her husband of so many years, not harboring feelings of resentment, or “how dare he withhold this from me!” It spoke volumes about their relationship. It truly was new every morning for them. He has since passed, but the lessons from that afternoon live on.

Each one of us brings all of our past experiences and knowledge into every new experience, which colors our perception about what is currently happening. Our life contains different experiences than anyone else’s. Sure, we can have similar experiences, perhaps even go to the same event at the same time- but we have a different experience of that event based on our own past experiences, and our own unique way of filtering things through our minds, our hearts, and our senses.

Our past experiences play a role in how we see things in our world. If our life and experiences have taught us that the world is a kind, safe place, we will have courage and trust that it is safe to go out and explore the world. We will have a brighter expectation of what we will encounter.

On the other hand, if our experiences have taught us that the world is a place where everyone is hurtful and out to get us, and it isn’t safe to be who we are, we will have a totally different experience.

Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

That is so true in life! We each see things from our own perspectives, our past experiences coloring what we currently see. Much of the time we are so busy thinking about what we are going to say next that we are not fully engaged in listening to what is going on around us, or to who is talking. Then there are also the things that are not said, but can be understood with eyes of compassion. We gain much by truly listening to one another.

I wrote a blog explaining that drama comes from insecurity, and excitement comes from passion. The words that we speak and our interactions with others show where we are coming from in these two very opposite directions. Life is more pleasant for everyone when we can listen and engage from a place of peace, being secure in who we are, and also in our acceptance of others’ life experiences and perspectives. We do not have to accept their truth as ours, but can honor their perspective knowing that it comes from their very unique experience of life, and that may not be a very happy one.

So, back to the blind men and the elephant- what do you think? Do you see them as each being partially right, and all totally wrong? Or is there more to their story? Is there more to our story by listening differently? What role does compassion play in our interactions? Does accepting people for who they are, and letting their stuff be their stuff, not needing to change them or take on their issues, change our lives too?

Honoring that each of us has our own unique way of expressing our life experiences, and not needing to take on anyone else’s issues, but learning to let them move through their own life lessons in their own timing, is one of the greatest gifts we can bestow each other. It also frees you- giving you total freedom to experience your life!

What a gift!