The blind men and the elephant


When is an elephant not an elephant?

One of the challenges of community organizing in the Transition model is the sheer variety of people involved. Many are enthused and inspired by the hope that Transition offers in response to the challenges of economic contraction, peak oil, and climate change. People are roused, excited, wanting to break new ground and create an inspirational working model of what the world could be.

But what happens when your voice joins with the varied voices that make up your community?

Many people, many different ideas. Some more forthright than others. Some born leaders. Some not necessarily leaders but vocal just the same. Or the quieter one, the stubborn one, the one ready to do everything.

The challenge is bringing all these different voices to the same table.

The blind men and the elephant

There’s a fable from the East about a group of blind men who are asked to pat an elephant to identify what it is. Each faith tradition has its own moral that it draws from the story, but the body of the narrative is the same. It goes something like this:

A group of blind men are taken to an elephant. They are told to reach and touch what is standing in front of them.

“What is it that is standing before you?”

The men, who’ve never encountered an elephant, are positioned so that each is standing in front of a different part of the beast.

Each man strokes what’s in front of him, and speaks to what it is he believes this hands are touching.

One claims the elephant is a pot (he has his hands brushing over the elephant’s head), another a plough (tusk), for another a pillar (leg), yet another a tree stump (foot) and another a fan (ear).

Truth is one, paths are many

For each telling of the story the outcome varies. But all versions of the story have a common element.

The Buddhist version has the men coming to blows over who’s right and who’s wrong, with a moral of how people cling to their ideas of right and wrong instead of opening their hearts to other ideas and possibilities.

The Jain tradition has the opposite result, with the men living in harmony through accepting the many valid beliefs that people can hold.

The Sufi tradition points out how one version of the truth can make us blind to other truths.

Other traditions offer similar interpretations of the story.

Holding opposites

How do we hold differing interpretations of the truth? Do we dismiss them, accepting the conflict that can arise from that? Or do we open ourselves to possibilities beyond our understanding and see where that openness takes us?

Of course none of the blind men were correct in their individual identities of the elephant, but even if their descriptions of what their hands were brushing over weren’t accurate, they were also not wrong. The elephant was each of these parts and more. Even when you are looking at the real thing it is very hard to say “what” the elephant is.

But what if it’s right in front of you? What if you can see it?

That spurs the question, What exactly are you pointing at? Or, What exactly are you seeing?

The elephant is many different things at many different times. Now covered in dust, now wet, now moving, now standing, now calling out, now quiet, now grabbing with its trunk, now eating. This thing called elephant is not a fixed entity, but rather a series of every changing activities, which when they come together we call – with complete validity – an elephant.

The blind men show how with limited information, even the elephant can be interpreted differently.

This isn’t meant to be indulgent wordplay or mind games. Rather it’s an illustration of how difficult it is to pin anything down with a single description.

The simple complexity of Transition

Transition is no exception.

Those involved in Transition initiatives probably have an elevator speech ready to explain to others what it is that you’re involved in. One that I have used is, “Transition is a community led response to the challenges of climate change, energy contraction and economic instability.”

That trips off the tongue very easily but what do those words look like on the ground?

In a community with many views and interpretations vying for expression, how does your local initiative translate its stated vision into action? How do we bring our own passion to play while allowing space for others with similar but conflicting passions to stand along side us and work?

It’s out of these many voices that the collective genius of community arises. We must allow the diverse voices to be heard and find a way to bring them to the table. This isn’t to suggest a chaotic meal, but rather a richer more bounteous spread, filled with a diverse mixture of ingredients. Not only do the diverse ingredients represent the multiplicity of communities, but also increase the resilience of that community.

In the Buddhist version of the parable the Buddha laments at the squabbling that takes place between the blind men as they try to defend their different interpretations on the nature of an elephant.

“O how they cling and wrangle,” he says.

Contrast that with the Jain version where the king overseeing the episode congratulates and encourages the blind men for each seeing a part of the whole.

We all bring to the table of our Transition initiative different skills and visions. Within any Transition initiative, the part that each individual brings is but a small part of the community feasts being cooked up.

Like the blind men, we each only hold a part of the new story being written about our community. Embrace it all and savor the richness.

–David Johnson for Transition Voice

Transition US logo One in a series of monthly columns from Transition US, a non-profit organization providing support, encouragement, networking and training for Transition groups in the United States.

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