Set aside about forty-five minutes to an hour of uninterrupted time to complete these steps, preferably in a comfortable nurturing space. Have a journal or paper and writing instrument handy:
You're now prepared for the next step, Setting Our Compass, which we'll look at in the next post.
Here's how the process played out for me while traveling:
One of the first exciting elephant encounters Jim and I experienced was on our first trip to Thailand in 2011. We had seen elephants with riders and elephants hanging out in town, but Elephant Stay was a working elephant village on the outskirts of Ayutthaya. Visiting this time, though, revealed what looks like a changed mission and it was disturbing enough that I left heartbroken.
My relationship with animals goes as far back as I can remember. We, like most of our neighbors at the time, had the usual cats and dogs, but we also had chickens and a Shetland pony. Our animals didn't just live in our tiny back yard, though--they were invited into our home on a regular basis. I still have fond funny images of my mom cooking over the stove while her favorite chicken, Biddy, and our pony would be there by her side.
Animals took a backseat in my life while living away at college and on my own until many years later with my dog Shyla. She introduced me to that palpable, self-directing consciousness that all beings have--not just humans. If my 15+ year experience with her taught me anything, it was that I had no right or privilege to force any being to do anything. Who was I to step in and exert power over or constrain an animal against their will? From our experience together, I learned to value and honor autonomy for living beings.
The pain in my heart illuminates a values crisis. I value beings to be free and self-determinate, deciding their own fate; to not be harmed for the sake of any human entertainment--particularly mine. To me, this is unnecessary cruelty. To harm things so I can be entertained? Ouch!
So, I value not harming other beings and I particularly cringe when cruelty is forced upon them on my behalf.
Our second adventure at Elephant Valley Thailand, further north in Chiang Rai, is where we found the purist efforts to help these majestic beings be free. Here, humans were basically an aside--it was all about putting the elephant's best interests first. Providing sanctuary and rehabilitation is the primary purpose. Here, elephants are encouraged and taught how to be elephants again, as through the breaking process and their work (entertainment or logging), these elephants were never afforded the opportunity to learn how to be elephants. Elephants, like other mammals, learn by watching and being in the midst of other elephants. Particularly if they were separated from their herd, they never learned the basic skills necessary for survival in the wild.
Since visiting or interacting with the elephants at Elephant Valley Thailand wasn't the goal, it was the humans and their living area that is fenced off and the elephants roamed free. It's estimated that Asian elephants walk between 7 and 10 miles per day grazing for food. We followed them through the jungle and learned the history of each one, but only at a safe enough (for them) distance where our presence wouldn't interfere with their natural activities.
We did get to feed the elephants toward the end of our visit and getting that close and personal with elephants is as unmatched a memorable experience as any I've known. This is the place where I felt they were on the best track for elephant care, even though I was personally disappointed that fostering healthy relationship with humans was not considered important. Their goal is to "simply let the elephants just be elephants in a stress free natural habitat."
When we found our way to Elephant Stay, our third elephant encounter, we were disappointed to see three mother elephants chained up under an open, but roofed, structure. Their babies were allowed to roam free and interact with the public, as babies stick close to mom. Tourists can come for a brief visit pay a minimal fee to photograph and buy food to feed them.
I could see one of the moms rocking back and forth and was told to not go close to her. (I remember this same experience last year, and ignored the cautions making sure the mother received the same food as the others.) Knowing now that this is a sign of distress, I found myself tearing up. She needed to walk! These animals normally spend much of their day moving and walking. We couldn't find the young woman we met with the year before and no one spoke enough English for us to understand what changed and why it seemed to be going backward in care for the elephants.
I later looked at their website and learned they have an active captive breeding program and continue to offer retirement for older working elephants. They are engaged with the entertainment industry, boasting 60 elephants under their care. I couldn't see where they could possibly have enough room to let 60 elephants live in health and dignity and that's when my emotions started stirring. "What happened?" "Why does it look like they're shifting from a sanctuary and moving toward harmful practices?" I left in tears of disbelief and lost hope.
Our next stop that day was to the largest reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya. But I was too numb from this experience--gallivanting around seeing these great sites meant nothing when I knew that these beings were being held in such abhorrent (for them) conditions. The depression lasted into the next day.
My values were starkly illuminated from this emotionally painful experience. And, while this is a pretty extreme example of values clarification, I bet each of us has an area in our life where we can live in greater alignment with our most important values. This is why staying in tune with our emotions and periodically checking in with our values is so important. It's from this connection to "the eye of the heart," or what Lame Deer of the Lakota Nation knows as CANTE ISTA, that we can better distill our purpose and direction.
So, when it came to Part 2 - Values check in, it was super clear--I want to live more aligned with my value that beings have a right to self-determination--particularly elephants.
And Part 3's question, "What would I have, or experience, as a result?" and "What feelings would I experience?" it was clear: I wouldn't feel the pain, anger and shame I do knowing that animals, particularly elephants, are being harmed for my own and others' entertainment benefit. I would experience more peaceful feelings and ease. I would feel joy when I saw elephants and their babies living naturally, knowing these majestic beings are not harmed. I could also learn from watching their unadulterated behavior how better to live on the planet.
Stay tuned. In the next post, we'll distill these ideas further by creating a powerful vision statement--setting the compass of our heart.
JoAnn Saccato, MA is a mindfulness teacher, author, life coach, educator, and consultant in Northern California. She is author of Companioning the Sacred Journey and Mindful and Intentional Living: A Path to Peace, Clarity and Freedom