Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

The Elephant and Being

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“Becoming becomes a denial of being.” —Bruce Lee

A few weeks back on a trip to New York, I was explaining my elephant tattoo to a new friend. It’s not always easy to articulate ideas that have rattled around in your head for a long time, and admittedly I probably did a poor job at explaining the aim of it. For clarity’s sake, the idea here is based off a passage from Leo Babauta’s The Power of Less,

“Choosing the essential is the key to simplifying — you have to choose the essential before you simplify, or you’re just cutting things out without ensuring that you’re keeping important things.

How do you know what’s essential? That’s the key question. Once you know that, the rest is easy.

Once you know what’s essential, you can reduce your projects, your tasks, your stream of incoming information, your commitments, your clutter. You just have to eliminate everything that’s not essential.

It’s like the old joke: how do you carve a statue of an elephant? Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. Well, first you have to know what an elephant looks like.”

Several years ago when I first read that, it coincided with a time in my life where I was ripe for leaving things behind. I had moved on from my job, said goodbye to friends, and was heading back to Canada to start fresh in a return to my hometown. What I was really doing, though, was bailing on my work, abandoning friends, and fleeing a city with the hope that old habits wouldn’t migrate with me to new surroundings. Either way, I was “cutting things out” in the name of essentialism, while entirely missing the point of what that’s all about.

In explaining the story of how this translates to a tattoo, I might have focused too much on the idea that there was some sense of further action required (more chipping away yet to be accomplished) before that sense who I was could really be felt. Rightly so, the new friend challenged it and asked why I couldn’t just be? Why was there such a drive to eliminate and refine in an attempt to discover what’s already present?

I remember the feeling in that moment. Something clenched up in me because I felt like I was wrong: Why hadn’t I thought of that in the eight years I’ve been considering getting this tattoo?!?! I felt embarrassed and tried to back-peddle to an explanation of what I meant, but no one cared as much as I did and discussion rightly moved forward.

“The problem with the Western approach is that it attempts to explain life, as opposed to revealing how to experience it. […] If the goal of dancing were to reach a certain spot on the floor, then obviously the fastest dancer would be the best. The point of dancing is the dance itself. And so it is with life.” —The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee

Maybe what’s impacted me most, since then, about that feeling is the realization of how true that idea is: I really don’t spend enough time be-ing.

To me, the elephant has come to represent the process of becoming. The most difficult part in explaining that to someone who hasn’t struggled with addiction, though, is communicating just how strong the desire is to shed its heavy burden. To change, really. The elephant signifies growth, both the nurturing and development of what I truly want out of life, as well as the stripping away or elimination of that which isn’t. But in all of that constant “doing,” what might be most essential of all here is being present and aware while the shape of that statue continues to find its form.