This week’s excerpt is from Eknath Easwaran’s book Strength in the Storm.
As a boy, growing up in a South Indian village, I learned to ride an elephant the way teenagers today learn to drive a car. In our part of India, elephants are loved and deeply respected. They work in our fields and forests much like draft horses in the West, and have for thousands of years. They are highly intelligent, sensitive, loyal creatures, and the bond between an elephant and its trainer, or mahout, goes as deep as any family tie.
Elephants are very gentle. If you offer one a peanut on the palm of your hand, it won’t grab; it will take the nut delicately with the tip of its trunk without even touching your skin. But its physical prowess is legendary. It can pull up a tree by the root and swing it around with its trunk as if it were a toy. Every creature gives way to the elephant; it has no natural enemies.
All ancient armies had infantry and cavalry. But Indian armies had elephantry too, and they were mightiest of all. A trained elephant will not turn back from battle. It would rather die than run away. And when an elephant goes into battle, its strength and endurance are so tremendous that no matter how many arrows find their mark on its body, it ignores them and presses forward gallantly into the thick of the fight.
Why am I telling you about elephants? Because this is how we should go through life, the Buddha says. It’s one of my favorite verses: “Suffer harsh words as an elephant suffers arrows on the battlefield. People are people, often ill-natured.”
This is the authentic keynote of the Buddha. He doesn’t pretend that everyone is divine, everyone an angel. He says, “Frankly speaking, most people lack courtesy. You can expect to be hurt. But you have a say in how much you are hurt – and how you are going to respond. Be like an elephant, the mightiest of creatures. Shrug off harsh words and move on.”
In other words, the Buddha is saying, we should be prepared for a certain amount of impoliteness and discourtesy in personal relationships, not because people are bad but because they can't control their minds – just like us.
This is a remarkable point. Just think: you don’t have to be upset in an upsetting situation! All of us have times when life doesn’t bother us and other times when one wrong word sets us off like a volcano. What makes the difference? Only our state of mind – which we are learning to control.
This is the benefit of practicing kindness, and the implication is revolutionary. If we want not to be upset by rude words and unkind behavior, the answer is for us to be courteous and kind. It may not have an immediate effect on those around us, but with practice it becomes a shield so strong that other people’s behavior will not bother us at all.
Believe me, for those of us who have had our intellects honed to be sarcastic, it’s very difficult to keep from using sharp words. When you’re being criticized or attacked, it’s almost considered an intellectual responsibility to answer back with compound interest. And that’s just what I used to do in faculty meetings, along with everyone else – until I began to understand that if somebody attacked me, there was no need to get angry. It didn't improve the situation on any level – and besides, something within me rebelled against being bounced around like a rubber ball. So I started repeating my mantram silently and keeping quiet.
It was not at all easy. Worse, it was misinterpreted. Somebody who used to keep quiet would think I was at a loss for an answer and join the others in jumping on me. It was difficult training, but very soon I began to see that I was getting detached – not from my colleagues, but from my own opinions. When they were criticizing my ideas, they weren't criticizing me. They were criticizing a statue they had sculpted and set up in the corner. Why should I be bothered if they threw darts at a statue they themselves had made?
This doesn't mean making a doormat of yourself. Just the opposite. It is training – learning to get your mind under control. The first goal is to break the connection between stimulus and response. Later, once you have a measure of detachment, you can reply to criticism without identifying yourself with your opinions or the other person with hers, choosing words that are kind, respectful, and to the point. The key is to have a choice.
The more insensitive the other person is, the more reason for you to alert your mind to be calm and compassionate – and, if necessary, to face opposition firmly but tenderly. We aren't helping inconsiderate people when we give in to their demands or let them walk all over us. It only feeds the habit of rudeness to let them have their way. We have to learn to show respect by opposing them – tenderly, nonviolently, but firmly.