The Parable of the Elephant

The parable of the elephant (I call it that – it seems to have other names too) is supposed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent a long time ago, but it has been passed down in other forms.  You may have heard it in a classroom used as a teachable moment or parable. I heard it in a workshop presentation.

examining the elephant
Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

One version of the story:

Four blind people come upon an elephant in the forest. But they have never had any experience with an elephant. Each person attempts to determine what is before them.
The first person touches and explores the elephant’s trunk. “It is like a snake.” 

“There is a column,” says the next explorer leaning on the huge leg.
Feeling a bit threatened, the elephant trumpets an alarm. “It’s like a horn.” 
The elephant starts moving away and the fourth person freezes in place. “It’s an earthquake!”

The story is ancient and the first recorded version of the story may be in a Buddhist text (Udana 6.4) dated to about the mid-first millennium BCE.

In the many variations you can find, the people are monks, all men, genderless people (the one I use here), children and even modern-day scientists. Some versions have the elephant’s tusk being like a spear or the leg like a tree trunk. I found an alternate version of the parable with sighted men encountering a large statue in total darkness or being blindfolded as an experiment.

And what is the moral or lesson?

Generally, the moral of the parable is that humans tend to claim absolute truth based on their own limited and subjective experiences.   Further, we also sometimes ignore other people’s equally subjective experiences – all of which might have some validity.

The story is used to illustrate how the “truth” is what we have determined by our own incomplete experience without taking into account other people’s experiences and additional observation and information.

In a more moralistic sense, the story points to approaching new things with greater empathy and putting ourselves “into other people’s shoes.”

In the 19th century, the American poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. That version concludes with an actual moral stated that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God. The blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced.

I heard this story in a workshop presentation as a way of illustrating systems thinking. That interdisciplinary study looks at interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. Systems are “bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.”

In the presentation I heard, the story was about networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In that “web of life” way, we know now that changing one part of a system will affect other parts or the whole system, and that a system may be more than the sum of its parts. It can express synergy or emergent behavior. The system could also be a natural environment and the people who live in and near it, such as a wetland.

The more modern uses of the story use it in ways unknown and unintended by the original storytellers, but the moral is broadly the same: we need to seek the truth through the observations of ourselves combined with those of others before we conclude what that truth might be.


Dark Days and Nights of the Soul

Last week, I wrote about attempts to prove the existence of a soul by proving that the soul has weight. Writing that led me to return to “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poem I was assigned to read in college. It was a title that appealed to me then because that was a time when I had many nights that I thought of as “dark nights” due to depression.

The poem was written by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross. St. John didn’t give the poem a title. He also wrote two commentaries on the poem that are much longer than the poem itself. Those commentaries are called Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo) and The Dark Night (Noche Oscura).

The new year 2020 has been a month of dark nights and dark days for me. I can’t say that my dark days are really “of the soul.” St. John of the Cross was describing the journey of the soul to a mystical union with God. If anything, my journey has been away from God.

I’m not sure I can really define what I mean when I use the word “soul” though I have thought about it for years. St. John of the Cross was certainly thinking about God and religious belief. He wasn’t thinking about how life-in-general can have dark nights, but in the 600+ years since he was writing the phrase “dark night of the soul” has been used many times to mean the hardships of everyday life.

It means to me and others a kind of spiritual depression that someone has to go through in order to be reawakened into the world. If you’re experiencing that it can be very frightening and dangerous.

Eckhart Tolle says the dark night of the soul is used to describe “what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event, some disaster perhaps, on an external level… the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.”

The nights St. John describes are purgations on the path. The first purging is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul.  The second purge is the spiritual part. Both are stages of the mystical journey.

St. John does not actually use the term “dark night of the soul”, but only “dark night” (“noche oscura“). His guidance comes from the only light in this dark night burns in the soul.

When I studied and wrote about the poem as a student, I dug deeper into the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love which had been earlier described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle.

This old poem is not easy to read. What might I find to identify with in a poem written around 1578 while the poet was probably was imprisoned in Spain?

What I found was the idea that a crisis of the spirit and soul might be the start of a journey to something better. I find it hopeful. I found it hopeful many years ago. I still find some hope in its intention now.

The crisis is hopefully temporary, but it may not be brief. I pity those who suffer for a long time. The examples in religious history are not comforting. St. Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured dark nights for 45 years. According to her letters, the dark “night” of St. Teresa of Calcutta lasted from 1948 almost until her death in 1997.

These are heavy and not entertaining thoughts. I once had a conversation with a close friend about this topic and he suggested (only partly jokingly) that the soul is energy and that it leaves the body at death and joins “The Force” (as in Star Wars) and becomes part of a larger energy field.

He is not alone in that belief in a force that is a kind of global soul or energy field that can be used by all of us – if we know how to tap into it.  there’s the rub.  Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul” connecting all living organisms on planet Earth.

Energy cannot be destroyed, so if the soul is energy, where does it go when we die?

Another scientifically-minded friend answers that the energy simply gets “grounded” in the Earth.

You won’t find scientific interest in soul research. I doubt that any researchers are looking at the dark night of the soul either.

Maybe the soul, if it exists, has no physical form that can be measured. maybe we can’t tap into any larger energy other than our own.

I wrote my own dark night of the soul poem this past week (read it here) and I do feel lighter today than I did the past month.

Maybe I need to lighten up when it’s possible to do so. Perhaps, I will reread humorist Douglas Adams’ novel about the shallowness of modern spirituality, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, whose title sets up where he is headed. And I’ll make a nice cup of tea.

What the Constellations Said About Me

Libra Zodiac Sign Horoscope Wheel From Astrology

A reader made a comment on an earlier post of mine about astrology asking what my college girlfriend had said about me based on my natal star chart. I’m sorry to say that the answers were not written down and I recall only a few bits of information.

A few things that did stick deeper in my memory:

I was born on a Tuesday, which means (according to an old nursery rhyme) that I am “full of grace.”

I was supposed to be good at motivating others – which sounded good at the time since I was studying to be an English teacher.

I was supposed to be open to new ideas – which seemed like Catherine might have injected that so that I would be open-minded about her many “new age” ( a term we did not use back then) interests.

She said that I could easily adapt to new situations and people – something I did not feel was true of me at all.

I would have a good sense of humor. I did. I do. Who doesn’t love a compliment?

I don’t really recall any negatives about me (selective memory) or predictions about my future that she told me except that she said my physical weaknesses would be my stomach and kidneys – and damned if I haven’t had kidney stones, an ulcer, and GERD.

I recall there were numbers she gave me – all of which are forgotten – but I suppose it included things like the celestial longitude interval assigned to Libra is 180° to 210° and that according to the numerology algorithm, the life path number for everybody born on my birthday is 3. I’m not sure what to do with that numerical information.

I knew back then just by reading the horoscopes in newspapers that Libras are governed by the Venus and the Seventh House. My mother had given me a ring with my sign’s stone, the Opal, and that the symbol for Libra is Scales.

I looked on a few pretty serious astrology websites to see if anything there triggered a memory of what Catherine said about me. I should note that she was doing a specific chart for my actual birth day (sidereal astrology) rather than those general descriptions of everyone born in that wide period of Libra in any year. Catherine laughed those away.

One site said that I should be: very energetic, taking the initiative, and preferring action rather than planning.  I don’t know about back in college, but all three are untrue of the 2020 me.

Libra people are most compatible with Aquarius, Gemini, Sagittarius and Leo. Catherine was a Taurus BUT it was a strange fact that her birthday May 5 (5/10) was exactly half of my Libra birthday (10/20). That had to mean something, right? Libra people are least compatible in love with Capricorn and Cancer. I married a Cancer.

Finally, according to, as of today I have slept for 8,072 days or 22 years. (I’d knock that number down. I’m a lousy sleeper.) But I have been alive for 581,040 hours. (It seems so short.) My birthday this year will again be on my birth weekday of Tuesday. Still full of grace.


Weighing the Soul

astral soul
Astral projection (or astral travel) is a term used to describe an out-of-body experience (OBE). It assumes the existence of a soul or consciousness called an “astral body” that is separate from the physical body and capable of traveling outside it throughout the universe.

In the film 21 Grams (2003), there is a reference to the weight of a soul that runs through the three non-linear stories of characters in a past, present and future.  The film’s title is an allusion to actual research done by physician Dr. Duncan MacDougall in 1901.

His plan was to attempt to measure the mass lost by a human when the soul departs the body at death. He built a bed that had balanced platform beam scales sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce. He weighed the initial six patients before, during, and after the process of death, measuring any change in weight. Once all the weights were taken, he then eliminated all of the reasons that could explain a weight loss. He started with six patients who were near death.  The first subject lost three-quarters of an ounce at death – 21 grams.

In 1907, The New York Times wrote about MacDougall’s research in a story titled “Soul has Weight, Physician Thinks” and his results were published that year in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research and in the medical journal American Medicine.

He said he performed four successful measurements and obtained an average weight loss at the moment of death of 15 grams.

MacDougall wanted scientific proof of the existence of the immortal human soul and believed that by recording a loss of body weight at death, he would have shown the departure of the soul immediately following death.

Though he followed the scientific method and his s results were published in at least one peer-reviewed journal, his conclusion was not widely accepted as scientific fact.

He later measured the weight of dogs under the same conditions and the results were that he found no perceived change in mass. He took this to mean that the soul had weight and that dogs did not have souls.

You might think that MacDougall was a religious man, but his interpretation of the “soul” was not religious. He would define it as more of a “life force.”

Albert Einstein used the word soul at times but he also did not mean it in religious terms. He was not an atheist, but he did not believe in any part of us being immortal.

In most religious, philosophical, psychological, and mythological traditions a “soul” is defined as an incorporeal (not composed of matter; having no material existence), immortal essence of a living being. In Abrahamic religions, immortal souls belong only to human beings.

St. Thomas Aquinas called the soul anima defined as a current of air, or breath, or life or the soul. Sometimes it is connected to animus, meaning “mind.”  Aquinas wrote that all organisms have a soul, but only human souls are immortal.

In Hinduism, all biological organisms have souls. Religions that profess animism teach that even non-biological entities, like rivers and mountains, have souls.  Anima mundi is the concept of a “world soul.”

Those who believed in MacDougall’s research and conclusion (and others since then have tried similar experiments) are really more concerned with the existence of a soul rather than its weight. The weight was the way to show that existence. This kind of research gives comfort to the idea that some part of us survives the death of the body.

A Perennial Philosophy

water lily buds

I saw a reference this past week to the “perennial philosophy” and though I studied some philosophy in college and sometimes still read in that section of the library shelves I have to admit I couldn’t define what that meant.

This version of philosophical thought has been around since the Renaissance and had a resurgence in the 20th century.  The perennial philosophy is one way to view the practice of many religious faiths.

Aldous Huxley wrote back in 1945 that a perennial philosophy “recognises a divine reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being”.

What first appealed to me when I did study this philosophy was the idea of identifying common mystical experiences across cultures and traditions.

From Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita:
“More than twenty-five centuries have passed since that which has been called the Perennial Philosophy was first committed to writing; and in the course of those centuries, it has found expression, now partial, now complete, now in this form, now in that, again and again. In Vedanta and Hebrew prophecy, in the Tao Teh King and the Platonic dialogues, in the Gospel according to St. John and Mahayana theology, in Plotinus and the Areopagite, among the Persian Sufis and the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — the Perennial Philosophy has spoken almost all the languages of Asia and Europe and has made use of the terminology and traditions of every one of the higher religions.”

I also had read some William James who wrote that an essential mark of the mystical experience is that it is ineffable or indescribable. Of course, that hasn’t stopped “mystics” from talking about, publishing and capitalizing on their experiences. It hasn’t stopped non-mystics from wanting to read about mystical experiences in the hope of having their own at some point.

In the Perennial Philosophy, all of the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions share one universal truth. It’s Einstein’s dream of a unified field theory but or religion. If you accept this, you would agree that all of these traditions are trying to make sense of the same thing.

What is that thing? Huxley thought it was “divine reality.” He thought that although all the traditions vary in their teaching, they all are a search for meaning in life. That’s not THE meaning of life. It is finding meaning in our life.

Clearly, the ethics, beliefs, principles and teachings of the world religions are very different. It’s easy to say they share one divine ultimate goal but it is more difficult to see everything that leads to that divine reality.

Would the Perennial Philosophy mean the creation of yet another religion? It’s not a religion. It’s a philosophy.

Can an atheist follow the philosophy? Yes. How does someone follow it? What is the path?

Maybe Huxley’s own book, The Perennial Philosophy, is a place to begin. He doesn’t abandon religion. In fact, he uses Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Islam and explains how they are united.

There’s no building to go to for meetings. There’s no leader. There really isn’t a book to follow. The Perennial Philosophy might seem lonely or you might like following a path on your own. What is definitely perennial is our desire to find the meaning.


Our Brain’s Constant Predicting

The end of a year and the start of a new year brings many predictions about things to come. Predictive coding has nothing to do with “coding” computers or predicting trends and everything to do with our personal neuroscience.

The classical view of perception states that we experience the world by receiving input from our environment, processing it at the higher levels of our brain, and then responding accordingly.

A newer alternative theory proposes to add to those three steps that our higher faculties often “predict” the input from our environment. That means we have a perception of some things before we experience it. This is called predictive coding or predictive processing.

I read an article by Sara Briggs and then followed up with another titled “To Make Sense of the Present, Brains May Predict the Future.” In those readings, I encountered this theory (still controversial) that suggests that perception, motor control, memory, and other brain functions all depend on comparisons between ongoing actual experiences and the brain’s modeled expectations.

The next day I noticed a connection when my son’s visiting dog seemed to do some predictive processing. Pepper reacts to her doorbell at home by barking and sprinting to the front window. We were watching the movie Love Actually and in one scene Hugh Grant’s character rang a series of doorbells looking for a woman’s home. Even though these were different doorbell sounds from the sound in Pepper’s home, she reacted to each ring in the same way that she does at home. Her actual experience in my home and her brain’s modeled expectation created a match.

One way scientists look for evidence to support this theory is to look at cases where the brain predicts too much or too little. For example, individuals with autism would presumably have a weak predictive filter. That would mean that they have a harder time categorizing items based on past experiences.  They would have an extreme sensitivity to input from the environment and the many “new” experiences could be overwhelming.

A person with schizophrenia would be at the other extreme with an overly strong predictive filter. Their brain would be so certain about what it’s looking at, it will cancel out new information and have false perceptions, possibly even hallucinations.

What is considered “normal” is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

Of course, we can change that by changing our brain chemistry. That is why some research uses psychedelic substances. Some neuroscientists might say that our “normal” perception is a “controlled hallucination.” Substances like psilocybin and LSD remove the predictive filter and so when we under that influence someone sees something common to daily life, such as a tree, there is no prediction and it alternative perceptions emerge. The branches moving in the wind are arms and the leaves are flames. The drugs don’t add to perception but by removing the filter they allow other possibilities.

How does this predictive coding affect learning new things?

To learn new things we need to be open to new perceptions which means the filter must be reduced to some extent. But in order to retain the new information and use it in the future, we need a predictive model of that information, which requires that filter to be operating normally. When the two are balanced, learning and memory are optimized.

In a more simplified explanation, being open-minded should lead to greater learning. We don’t put information in a box and move on.

Some of this theorizing isn’t new at all. Back in the 1860s, the framework known as the “Bayesian brain” was introduced and Helmholtz’s concept of unconscious inference emerged. It proposes that the brain makes probabilistic inferences about the world based on an internal model, – it calculates a “best guess” interpretation of what it’s perceiving. The name comes from Bayesian statistics which quantifies the probability of an event based on relevant information gleaned from prior experiences.

These “controlled hallucinations” based on predictions don’t wait for all sensory information to drive cognition. We are constantly constructing hypotheses about the world. We use these to explain new experiences. The brain is constantly generating and updating a mental model of sensory input.