This was pointed out to be a mentor I was fortunate enough to have as a young man. He used circus elephants as an example. I know it’s cruel for circuses to keep elephants, but this used to be considered normal (obviously enough people thought about this practice critically enough for it to become taboo). Elephants are big animals. They weigh between nine thousand and twelve thousand pounds and are very powerful. And yet, at a circus, all that keeps an elephant from escaping is a chain wrapped around its leg padlocked to a small stake which is hammered into the ground.
Now, I am absolutely certain that the elephant would be able to pull that stake out of the ground. But for some reason it can’t. As big and heavy and powerful as an elephant is, it just can’t muster the strength to tug the small stake out of the ground. What incredible force prevents this hefty beast from uprooting the small stake? Well, it all starts when the elephant is very young.
When the elephant is very young and small, a thick chain is wrapped around its leg and padlocked into place. A large steel stake is then solidly hammered into the ground and the baby elephant is padlocked into place. Now because this is a large stake hammered very deeply into the ground and the elephant is so small it doesn’t matter how hard the elephant tries to escape, it can’t. The stake is immovable to the baby elephant. After months of trying the elephant has learned that when there’s a chain around its leg and a stake in the ground, it can’t go anywhere. It has been conditioned.
Now obviously this doesn’t just apply to elephants. It applies to all animals as can be seen by the accompanying picture of a horse tethered to a very light plastic chair. There can be no doubt that that horse could manage to drag the chair away easily. It also applied to humans. When we are very young we are given information, usually by the people closest to us. After years of being exposed to other people’s habits of thinking, their thinking becomes our habit of thought. We are conditioned. We have adopted their belief systems as ours.
This is wonderful news if we have been conditioned perfectly. For instance, if someone suggests that we place our hands on a red hot stove plate we would obviously refrain based on our belief systems. We need not spend time thinking about this. Unfortunately, none of have been perfectly conditioned. We all have limiting belief systems which render most people closed to new ideas and possible beneficial potential.
In my own life I have worked very hard at questioning everything. I have worked hard to cultivate the habit of being open minded enough to consider new information and sceptical enough to reject it if it doesn’t seem right after critical consideration. This is an ongoing process because you don’t know what you don’t know and it’s always surprising to bump into old beliefs in conversation that are clearly wrong and need to be examined critically.
One of the most painful things I had to reconsider with my own mind is the eating of meat. Those that know me will know that I grew up in South Africa. South Africans love meat. I was no exception. All the vegetarians I spoke to seemed to be lighter (physically and emotionally) than average and so I decided to investigate. Having weighed up all of the information I could find I realized I couldn’t continue to eat meat. Ouch! This came as a big shock to my closest friends and vociferous opposition from some family members. It came as a shock to me too, but I’ve been a vegetarian for years now and feel better for it too.
These days I’m still occasionally very unpopular for being insane enough to consider what most people would immediately reject as stupid. But them I’m reminded by what Einstein had to say on the subject: "Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence." I don’t consider myself a great spirit by any means but I have come to the realization that if I’m ever going to become a great spirit, it’s going to have something to do with the ability to think for myself.