Elephants: Please Don't Go
A week ago I was invited to join in a worldwide meditation on behalf of the elephants in Africa, which are under renewed threat of extinction. Ordinarily I am resistant to vigils, meditations, and "sending light," because it feels like a cop-out, a substitute for doing something. There is something obviously wrong with the attitude, "I won't do anything to help you, but I will hold you in the light." And if I am unwilling or unable to do something, I think it is better to face that truth than to imagine I have acted by merely sitting there.
Yet I also understand the despair so many people feel as we survey the depredations of the planet-wrecking machine, and our seeming helplessness to stop it. Meditating on behalf of the elephants can be a salve for that despair - but does it actually help the elephants, or only help us feel better? Despite my resistance, I think it can actually help the elephants: not as a substitute for action, but as a declaration to the universe of a willingness to act. A meditation can say, "I want to do something but I don't know what. Give me a way."
By sitting in a meditation for the elephants, or by holding a person in the light, I am readying myself to act. Often, an opportunity arises soon after that I might not have anticipated or imagined. I hold someone in the light, and soon he, or someone else in a similar situation, offers himself to me for assistance of some kind. The universe says, "Okay, we hear you, here is a chance to act on your good will." If I act, then I know my meditation was sincere. If I decline this invitation, I know I was lying to myself. This is a deeper reason why I hesitate to join meditations-for-the-cause. My plate is full already, and I don't want to offer myself to causes I don't have time for.
On this occasion I said yes. Sure enough, the surprising message I received from the elephants is compelling me to act, at least to the extent that writing and speaking constitutes action. I would like to share with you what the Elephant Oversoul told me - not that I especially believe in oversouls as an ontological category. Nor do I disbelieve in them. It is a convenient label to help describe my experience, which began with a strong feeling of the presence of Elephant, and an almost-verbal communication from that presence.
First, a few words on what, before my experience, I would have called the "plight" of the elephants. While poaching for meat and ivory remain big problems, the worst threat to the elephants today is habitat destruction. Not only has development cut off their ancient migration routes, herding then into increasingly confined places, but increased contact with human settlements and agricultural operations causes friction and danger, leading to pressure to "cull" the herds. When their natural habitats, freedom to roam, and social structure are destroyed, elephants turn "rogue," leading even their sympathizers to feel that they have no choice but to kill them. Recent initiatives to turn vast tracts of African land to palm oil plantations and other commodity crops threaten to exacerbate these pressures. Elephants and their habitat are rapidly being converted into money; some researchers fear they could be extinct from the wild in as little as five years.
Why did I put "plight" in quotation marks? A plight is a situation in which one is helpless to do anything but plead, to beg for help or mercy, and one might indeed say that the elephants are helpless victims of humanity's cruelty and greed. But this conception is contrary to the communication I received that day at noon on a high mountaintop outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. After a few minutes of random thoughts, I felt the presence of the Elephant, a vast and incredibly ancient being. I asked, "What do you want?" The Elephant said, "We want you to ask us to stay." There followed an upwelling of words and images to the following effect:
Don't imagine that we are helpless to save ourselves. We can manipulate reality in ways you cannot begin to imagine. We are leaving because the way you treat us says that you don't want us. If our gifts are not welcome to you, we will bow out.
I think most people would feel the same way, the way we feel if we're working at a job where our contributions are not appreciated and we are not respected. Perhaps some species do not care if we honor their gifts - rats, maybe, termites, cockroaches - but elephants like whales and lions are beings of great dignity, and will not stay on earth if we continue to disrespect them.
All of this seems perversely anthropocentric - why should human honoring of the elephants' gift matter more than any other species' blessing - for indeed, the elephant is a keystone species in many African ecosystems? It is not only human beings who will suffer from their loss, so why should our attitude be more important than the warthogs'? I cannot answer this with complete certainty, but I think that there are two reasons why it is we humans from whom the elephants need to hear a plea to stay.
First, human beings are on the verge of entering our species' adulthood, in which we are to become earth's steward, earth's partner, earth's lover. Our coming-of-age ordeal is upon us, comprising the multiple crises of our time, a subject I explore more deeply elsewhere. Anthropocentric or not, we have taken on a role unique among all earth's species. No other species has the power to destroy or transform landscapes and ecosystems as we do. While it would be an exaggeration to say we might extinguish all life on earth, we have already eliminated a vast number of species, and if habitat destruction, ocean acidification, desertification, and other trends proceed apace, we will surely eliminate many more. With small exaggeration, we might say that the fate of the planet is in our hands. It is fitting, then, that the plea to stay should come from us. I say plea, because indeed it is to humanity that the word "plight" applies. Seeking to become nature's lords and masters, we have instead so severed our connection with the source of life that it is we who need nature's mercy.
Second, the elephants have a unique gift to offer humanity. I can only speculate on what this may be, but I think they are somehow holders of memory. Similarly to whales and dolphins, they use low-frequency rumblings and stompings to transmit signals hundreds of miles through the earth, enabling them to maintain a communication network, perhaps even a collective mind, with other members of their species. I cannot explain this rationally, but when I heard that they may go extinct, a certainty welled up within me: If the elephants go extinct, there will be nuclear war. It is as if, through some shamanic magic, they are preventing us from forgetting history (or forgetting ourselves) and unleashing holocaust. A few elephants in zoos and game reserves won't be enough - we need the elephant mind, the society of the elephant walking this earth. Could it be that the Elephant is the embodiment of some vast and merciful cosmic intelligence that is preventing us from killing ourselves with our own cleverness before we reach maturity?
The healer Marie Levit offers a further perspective on the gift of the Elephant:
The main spiritual qualities of elephants is their greatness and "largeness." I believe that is what we are here to learn from them. They are here to remind us of our own greatness. This is why they have "great memory" - so they can remember of their sacred greatness and remind those who has forgotten.
When our greatness disappears, elephants disappear as well, as they feel that their main quality is not needed. Their conscious disappearance is an awakening call for others. It's amazing that they are so "large" that they choose to sacrifice themselves in order to remind others of their largeness as well.
In my perception, this is what Ganesha story is about. In that situation both Shiva and Shakti acted "small": Shiva wouldn't give her space (what kind of God would do that?) and Shakti, in response created a being who would protect her from her own man (what kind of Goddess would need protection?) That's when elephant decides to sacrifice itself and becomes Ganesha -- to remind gods of their greatness every time they look at his large head.
I believe that is exactly why elephants choose to disappear at this time of history. With the crisis of everything, people forget more and more of their greatness, go into protection mode, like Shakti, and act small like Shiva. I believe that the way to "save" elephants is to fully receive their gift they are here to share with us, and remember our own greatness. By embracing the "elephant consciousness" within ourselves and Creation, we will support this energy on every level, including its embodied expression, and the elephants will have no reason to disappear.
If these musings are unconvincing or perhaps repellent to the reader, I might be tempted to take the usual Discovery Channel approach, and appeal to pity instead. Such an appeal might say, "Well, perhaps the elephants really aren't so important in the grand scheme of things, not compared to the big environmental issues of the planet. But they are such majestic creatures, it would be a shame if they disappeared. And they are so intelligent, and what is happening to them is really awful." I won't make this kind of appeal though, because it doesn't speak forth the urgency I feel. The loss of the elephants wouldn't be a pity or a shame, it would be a catastrophe whose proportions transcend rational explanation.
The ideology of the separate self that we have lived under for centuries says that we can insulate ourselves from the effects of our actions on others. On the collective level, it says that we can do the same to nature, that we can always engineer our way out of every crisis. If the elephants disappear, well, that's too bad, but we'll manage. This ideology, however, is becoming obsolete, as physics, ecology, psychology, and spirituality affirm the interdependent nature of the self, the self of inter-beingness. Accordingly, what happens to the elephants is also happening to ourselves, and their loss would tear an irreparable hole in the human psyche.
You needn't take my word for it. Read the book Elephant Whisperer, or watch some of the videos on the Corelight page referenced below, and you will understand that these beings are indeed part of ourselves, and that their loss is our own. This connection, and not rational concerns about ecosystems, is the real motivation for our desire to save the elephants. The science and all the other arguments give the mind, which is steeped in the belief systems of Separation, permission to believe what the heart already knows.
How, then, do we ask the elephants to stay? Our request must be communicated on multiple levels, not just as a mental or verbal asking, however heartfelt. Indeed, the means of this asking comprise all the things that activists and conservationists are doing today, the practical work on the ground. The mental plea to stay is a beginning, an invitation for opportunities to act in material and social reality. If you would like to do that, here are some resources to get started:
Corelight: combines hands-on action with an attunement to the spiritual importance of the elephants.
Save the Elephants: based in Kenya. The worst slaughter is happening in central Africa.
Animal Rights Africa: Comprehensive information to put the issue in context
Wildlife Direct: Links to numerous conservation activists
If you read about the situation and feel powerless to do anything about it, then perhaps it is time to try what I did, to meditate on the circumstances of the elephants and, with your heart and mind, plead with them to stay. If you do so, I expect that soon you will have an opportunity to do something real for them, if perhaps only indirectly. Something will call to you.
The elephant extermination is part and parcel of a whole way of life, a way of thinking and being that encompasses the money system, science, religion, and more. We all have a part to play in creating a world in which elephants are no longer slaughtered and habitats no longer converted to commodity export crops. Each of us has something to receive from the elephants, and each of us has something to give to them as well, to create a world in which elephants are welcome. For one thing to change, everything must change; if one thing changes, everything will. What is your part? What can you do? You might feel paralyzed in the face of the enormity of the world's problems, powerless and despairing. That is the time to bow into service and ask the world, as I asked Elephant, What do you want?
I leave you with some words from the poet W.S. Merwin.
THE CHAIN TO HER LEG
If we forget Topsy
when we forget her mother
gunned down in the forest
and forget who killed her
and to whom they sold
the tusks the feet the good parts
and how they died and where
and what became of their children
and what happened to the forest
when we forget how
the wires were fastened on her
for the experiment
the first time
and how she smoldered and
with them all watching
but did not die
when we forget
the lit cigarette
the last laugh gave her
lit end first
as though it were a peanut
the joke for which she
we will not see home again
when we forget the circus
the tickets to see her die
in the name of progress
and Edison and the electric chair
the mushroom cloud will go up
over the desert
where the West was won
the Enola Gay will take off
after the chaplain's blessing
the smoke from the Black Mesa's
power plants will be
visible from the moon
the forests will be gone
the extinctions will accelerate
the polar bears will float
farther and farther away
and off the edge of the world
that Topsy remembers
Images by Exfordy/Brian Snelson, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.Tweet