”What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.”

So is it recorded in The Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha who lived 2600 years ago.

Shakespeare expressed the same idea: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” [1]

Are they both right, that we are mind over matter?

Not according to Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He writes that the conscious, reasoning part of our mind has only limited control over what we think, feel and do. [2]

The problem, he says, is that the mind is divided into two parts that often conflict. We are like riders on the back of elephants. Our conscious and rational mind has only limited control of what the elephant beneath us does.

The elephant represents our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions. The rider is like the ‘press agent’ for the President (i.e. the elephant) who rationalizes whatever the president says.

The elephant and rider each have its own intelligence, and when the two work together, they reveal human brilliance. However, they don’t always work together.

As we approach the High Holidays, we Jews turn and return, break from habits that keep us from change and growth, and respond in new ways to those around us, to events in the world, and to our own lives.

The goal of t’shuvah (i.e. turning, returning, and responding) is to restore ourselves to where we know we should be, to our loved ones, families and friends, to colleagues and community, Torah and Judaism, goodness and God. This season reminds us that we ought to look beyond our material needs to our spiritual ones and focus on that which elevates us to be just “a little lower than the angels.” [3]

Haidt reminds us that when the Rider and the Elephant are at cross purposes – we ought to retrain the elephant, and that’s not so easy. The elephant is wired by nature,  nurture and ingrained patterns and it doesn’t seem that it matters what our conscious minds, our reason and good yetzer (inclination) are telling us. The rider often has little control over the elephant beneathe our legs.

Haidt urges the rider to talk directly to the elephant.

Was Shakespeare right that “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”?

I answer this way – that the challenge of this season isn’t to insist that the rider have the final word, but to redirect the elephant’s impulses to be more in tune with the rider’s vision and purpose. Haidt suggests three means to do so:

  • Meditation – to quiet the mind and detach from whatever drives us towards dysfunctional and destructive behavior;
  • Cognitive therapy – to dig into our motivations, unconscious impulses and hidden agendas, and “unpack” the baggage that we carry, the memories and hurts that taught us that the world works in such and such a way, and that if we’re to survive we better behave accordingly;
  • Biochemical support – I’m not a psychiatrist, but those who think that drug therapy would be helpful should consult with qualified mental health professionals.

Each strategy has its place. There’s no one means to effect t’shuvah. Change and growth don’t come suddenly. T’shuvah involves a deliberate step-by-step process taken over time with patience and perseverance.

The elephant operates from a subterranean unconscious mishmash of forces. Given its size and weight, it’s likely that we may only be able to direct it forward slowly. What’s necessary is to retrain ourselves that we might become more optimistic and positive.

“Life is what we deem it,” is the truth of t’shuvah. We CAN redeem ourselves, but it won’t be easy!


[1] Hamlet – Act 2, Scene 2

[2] “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” and “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”

[3] Hebrews 2:7 based on Psalms 8:5