NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Elephants: Please Don’t Go

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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
Topsy remembers

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
Topsy remembers

when we forget how
the wires were fastened on her
for the experiment
the first time
and how she smoldered and
shuddered there
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
killed him
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. 

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