Huston Smith writes of the movement from being “untrained” in spiritual disciplines, grounded in a state of general unawareness of what is possible, towards a place where our new awareness becomes a kind of second nature. He uses the metaphor of domestic elephants in training:
When a wild elephant is to be tamed and trained, the best way to begin is by yoking it to one that has already been through the process. By contact, the wild one comes to see that the condition it is being led toward is not wholly incompatible with being an elephant…the constant, immediate, and contagious example of its yoke-fellow can teach it as nothing else . Training for the life of the spirit is not different.
The key here seems to be the value of a community that honors mentoring as a core part of its culture. Our imagination is but a shadow of God’s, tethered as it is to what we’ve seen before and so often weighted down by an unrelenting litany of “that’s not possible, that’s not possible, that’s not possible.” Without mentors and guides who broaden our imagination and give us the tools that bring those dreams to fulfillment, we so often fall into distraction or discouragement, or even forgetfulness. We forget what it means to dream.
We need this kind of help in order to grow in our awareness of the sacred. But even that phrase “we need this kind of help” carries with it a tinge of defeat, as if we’re supposed to be able to figure out all things by ourselves. Such is the culture that surrounds us, but the story of the Elephants reflects a culture in which that kind of insecurity is absolutely foreign. How can we imagine the unimaginable unless someone’s there to give us a few hints, to share with us what is possible if we are free to dream?
In fact, we can sometimes identify whether a community is healthy or not based on which “elephant” sets the tone. To learn how to live, do we look to the mentors, to the wise ones, to the unflappable and humble guides who delight in being yoke-fellows to the untrained? Or do we let the wild and unimaginative ones determine our expectations of ourselves?
The hidden gift is the joy that comes from being taught and nurtured by the old souls, the paradoxical feelings of challenge and support that comes from being “yoked” to guides who want us to grow. Huston Smith continues:
Robert Ingersoll once remarked that had he been God he would have made health contagious instead of disease; to which an Indian contemporary responded: “When shall we come to recognize that health is as contagious as disease, virtue as contagious as vice, cheerfulness as contagious as moroseness?”
When it becomes hard or even impossible to see that growth and health are as contagious as decline and dis-ease, then we know that we have lost touch with our mentors.