Working with the elephant

Yesterday I played the piano again for the first time in months. I haven’t played regularly in many years, and even the pieces I used to know by heart are desperately rusty. I can’t play any of them without following the sheet music pretty closely. It was interesting, though, to find that there were large swathes of each song that my fingers were producing without much intervention from my conscious brain. My mind insisted that it was in control, but it really wasn’t paying attention. I had not actually read those notes and deliberately translated them into finger movements, as I had to do when I first learnt the piece. The sheet music was acting as a sort of prompt to an algorithm buried deep in my sub-conscious, and perfectly capable of operating without my intervention.

And if I don’t have this all worked out
Still I’m getting closer, getting closer
I still have far to go no doubt
But I’m getting closer, getting closer

It’s a little spooky to realise that your sub-conscious is up and about while you’re not paying attention. Sometimes I half expect to come home and find postcards from myself. There are numerous tales of people who have driven home and arrived safely, only to wonder who was actually driving their car – they have little or no recollection of the mechanics of the journey. We love to think of ourselves as powerful intellects, in control of our actions and our beliefs, but we are really just riding that ol’ sub-conscious elephant, twitching the reigns occasionally in a rather futile attempt to prove that we know what we’re doing.

If I see it as experience
It hasn’t gone to waste
Lately all the missing pieces
Have been falling into place

I spend a lot of time trying to work out what drives my elephant. It’s useful to understand what sends it stampeding off into the undergrowth, as well as what enrages it and sets it charging in an uncontrolled explosion. Understanding is the first step to defusing those switches, although it is almost certainly the first step on a long and painful road.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who have 5 year plans, together with in depth time lines and implementation details. I’ve always found life far too chaotic and unpredictable for plans. (Two years ago, for example, I would not have been able to predict that I would be sitting here utterly exhausted, having completed my first year of high school teaching.) For a control freak, I am making relatively good progress at accepting that life will bounce me from one event to another, and one crisis to the next, and there’s not much I can do about it – but again they are small steps on a long road.

Though there have been sins
I will regret
Still I’m getting close, getting closer
I don’t have all the answers yet
But I’m getting closer, getting closer

One thing I still struggle with is my anxious attempts to predict the future. I want to be prepared. I want to know what’s going to happen so that I can brace myself for the impact. Yet wise people keep pointing out to me that we can’t predict the future. Stressing about things that might not happen must be the ultimate in foolish energy wastage.

And although you will say
I am still too naive
But I have not lost faith
In the things I believe

Getting Closer, Billy Joel

I can’t prepare for an unknowable future. What I can do is learn to cope better with the present. I can invest my energy in all those things that increase my resilience. In sitting by the pond watching for tadpoles (two froglets and a young tadpole spotted this afternoon). In rediscovering the piano. In singing in the choir, or even just in the shower. In reading books (but only the ones that make me feel good). In spending half an hour in the hallway with my family, swatting a ball of scrunched up paper back and forth (that’s Christmas sorted, then!).

None of this puts me in control of the elephant, of course. But it does soothe the elephant, and makes it harder to spook.

What soothes your elephant?

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