The Elephant and Mindfulness

Kim Bantam


I recently finished the book Kim by Rudyard Kipling (who, as you may have gathered, is a personal literary hero of mine) and was struck by a particular Jataka or Story of the Buddha’s former birth. I am far from anything resembling an expert or even Greenhorn in the subject of Buddhism, having only a very limited knowledge of its history and theology picked up during my time in Japan, but in the parable of the elephant, I found something profound which indeed transcends specific religions, offering hope.

Below is the Jataka– I apologize in advance for any errors, as I had to manually copy it from Kim:


‘Long and long ago, when Devatta was King of Benares– let all listen to the Jataka!– an elephant was captured for a time by the king’s hunters, and ere he broke free, ringed with a grievous leg-iron. This he strove to remove with hate and frenzy in his heart, and hurrying up and down the forest, besought his brother elephants to wrench it asunder. One by one they tried with their strong trunks and failed. At last, they gave it as their opinion that the ring was not to be broken by any bestial power. And in a thicket, new born, wet with the moisture of birth, lay a day-old calf of the herd whose mother had died. The fettered elephant, forgetting his own agony said:

“If I do not help this suckling it will perish under our feet.”

‘So he stood above the young thing, making his legs buttresses against the uneasily moving herd; and he begged milk of a virtuous cow, and the calf throve, and the ringed elephant was the calf’s guide and defense. Now the days of an elephant– let all listen to the Jataka!– are thirty five rains to his full strength, and through thirty five rains the ringed elephant befriended the younger, and all the while the fetter ate into the flesh.

‘Then one day the young elephant saw the half-buried coil, and turning to the elder said:

“What is this?”

“It is even my sorrow,” said he who had befriended him. Then that other put out his trunk and in the twinkling of an eye-lash abolished the ring, saying:

“The appointed time has come.”

So the virtuous elephant who had waited temperately and done kind acts was relieved, at the appointed time, by the very calf whom he had turned aside to to cherish….


So, what are we to take from this particular parable? I believe it is relatively straightforward story, but should be held particularly dear to those, like me, who suffer from what my Great Grandfather would call “Agonies of the Mind”– in my case, this would include #depression, #anxiety, #agoraphobia, #scopophobia, and #bipolar II.

So often I have been wrapped up in my own misery due to these various agonies, and quite often I have found in my life that the only time I was truly mentally absent from the emotional tumult was when I was helping somebody else. Now #mindfulness is treatment practice that I personally cannot stand– please know, I am not knocking this modality of treatment as a whole, and if you or a loved one finds it helpful, then without a doubt it is useful. My personal issue is that I do not have the patience to simply acknowledge something such as depression or anxiety, and “let it be”, for lack of a more in depth explanation; It seems to me, however, that helping others is the ultimate Mindfulness exercise, as most times you are so focused on helping another, that you don’t need even acknowledge anxiety, depression, et cetera; and this is true #peace, no matter how fleeting.

Now I know that it would be impossible for your average working adult to simply leave the accouterments of modern life behind, and simply wander the world helping other people, as appealing as that might seem. I have found, however, that in my personal life– especially at times of the utmost crisis where I find myself on the figurative precipice between breath and death, God sends somebody stumbling into my life to take me away from the absolute misery I had been afflicted by. Now I am not here to shill for any particular religion, or even religion at all- but keep in mind the one line from the Jakata:

“The appointed time has come.”

Personally, I derive great comfort in this; I have always preferred to live in a world where, no matter how chaotic, Somebody was in charge, and the idea of a) there being  time where I can relief from my illness while I still draw breath and b) my suffering has not been meaningless brings me comfort, especially when it is such a preciousresource.

Now what about those of you who tends towards atheism or agnosticism? I pass no judgement here. For those of you who prescribe to this particular set of beliefs, then (should you find any value in the Jataka or my rambling interpretation of it), approach my advice with an attitude of utmost pragmatism.

Stay Safe and Thank You Kindly,


Tommy H. Atkins





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