the six blind men and the elephant

six men and the elephantThe blind men and the elephant is an ancient folklore tale from India that has been told many ways and incorporated into teachings of Jain, Hindu, Buddhism, and Sufi traditions.

It is a tale of how, when we focus on only a narrow aspect of a situation, we see only part of the evidence – which is fine but we tend to assume that it is all the evidence there is. In the tale the six take turns to feel the elephant with their hands, each encountering a different part, discerning the qualities of that part . Each is each equally convinced that they, and only they, are right; only they can be right.

In this way our  information may be accurate but it is incomplete, lacks breadth, context or connection with other perspectives: so it is as “wrong” as it is “right”. We can see this easily in the tale but it is not so easy to see in the situations that we encounter and are immersed in.

“Though each were partly in the right,

and all were in the wrong”

This version below is a short but artful animation by a Mumbai arts-house Phat-Phish and set to the words of the 19th Century poem by John Godfrey Saxe.

As it is for voices so it is for psychiatry

In the Jainian tradition there are at least seven ways of seeing any given situation. So, if you have information from one: what do the others say?

This is a very different way than the tradition of “I’m right you’re wrong, shut up” which, since we are so immersed in it, we may come to regard as the one way –  when it is not: there are likely at least another six.

…If you hear Voices
If you have a powerful, convincing voice that is telling you something, that information might be useful to you -but it’s also worth consifdering what else do you know? what can you learn from the other six ways of seeing the situation you’re in?
Be curious, ask, take the time to find out,  then decide what’s best.

…so in in mental health 

Also, if a person is in distress and struggling, the biomedical diagnosis from a “healthcare factory” would most likey be some version of “broken-brain-chemical-imbalance:drug-em-up.”

..but, again,  what of  the other six ways of understanding this situation?

…and what might we learn from them? and what if we put them together?

How might seeing from multiple perspectives offer a fuller understanding and a fuller response that might be both helpful and more healing?
…and less harmful.

Seeing the whole elephant

When we create for ourselves opportunity to stand back a little we give ourselves a better chance to see the whole, with all senses and with more ways of knowing – with what is offered by all disciplines.

We can experience the whole elephant.

…and just like tiggerz, the wunnerful thing about elephantz iz: 

elephantz iz wunnerful thingz.


Lest you find this version a bit colonial or oppressive , try this version in which the men are from round the world and rather than blind, they are blindfolded…and invited to take part in an experiement.

Which leads nicely to the question: to what extent do both our culture and our chosen  discipline blind us to what we know, and what we can know?


psychiatry – in recovery

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2 Responses to the six blind men and the elephant

  1. Great 🙂 I guess any ‘belief system’ can blind us to what we know and what we can know….


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