How An Elephant Taught Me to Deal with Drama

How often do you experience something painful, either emotionally or physically, and you fairly quickly find yourself getting dramatic about it? That is, how do you deal with drama?

By that, I just mean getting pretty emotionally jolted or worked up when something unexpected happens.

Or maybe you don’t get worked up, but you do start to tell yourself stories about what this incident must mean about you, your life, your past or your future?

I want to share a story about that time in Thailand when an elephant stepped on my toe.

Sounds like a great set up to a joke, right?!  I wish it were.

At the beginning of our 2.5 week trip, we had the pleasure of spending an entire day with a pack of elephants at Patera Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai.

Here, every person gets the opportunity to feed, bathe and care for a pachyderm for the day.

While feeding my teenage elephant, Nam, one of the little babies who was about 3 years old had taken a liking to me (or maybe I took a liking to her, let’s be honest).

(Here is my little friend, pre-toe step. More pics and a video below!)


Anyway, she kept coming over to play. And while these animals are quite conscious of the bodies around them, almost humanly so, we got tangled in a dance so to speak and the little baby stepped on my toe.

Let me rephrase ‘little’, because really, I am talking about 600 lbs. of elephant weight on my toe!  Eeek!  How she managed to only get the forth toe, I will never know.

You know those moments that are so incredibly painful they take your breath away?

That was this.

I froze in both pain and fear as she swaggered her cute little self away. Elephants are SO gentle that I really believe had she known she stepped on my toe, she would have said she was sorry:)

When our group gathered with our guides, I limped over as smoothly as I could, not wanting to let on to what just happened.

My attempt at composure was not because I was trying to ‘tough it out’ or push down my own suffering, but rather because I noticed that the moment the pain set in I started to panic!

My mind was RACING.

“Is it broken? What if I need surgery? What if I can’t walk? I have broken my toe before and I couldn’t put on a shoe for weeks! Do I need a doctor? Where will I find a doctor? Will it ruin our trip? This is really bad, omg!!!”

Have you ever had something difficult happen, and right in the middle of feeling the actual pain, disappointment, or hurt, your mind zooms like a rocket into the future about what it all means?

It’s a commonplace go to when we feel vulnerable.

There was also something else I noticed.

Because of the state I was in, I had a sense that if I told the other participants what happened, THEIR fears and concerns about the whole thing would get tangled up with mine.

I would likely allow their opinions, ideas and worries to have a strong influence over my experience as opposed to ME deciding how I wanted this experience to go.

At that moment, it felt more empowering to breathe and do my best to stay calm, and not let my pain or panic get the best of me. It’s hard to deal with drama!

When we are injured, physically or emotionally, there are usually two things that happen to us.

One of my favorite meditation teachers, Tara Brach, calls it the TWO ARROWS.

The Buddha tells the parable, “If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?”

The first arrow is the THING that happened. The elephant stepped on my toe. The guy broke up with you. You had a bad experience at work. Someone yelled at you. You got very sick. Etc.

This first arrow, so to speak, is largely now out of our control. It happened. It is happening. It is what is real. We can’t change it.

This doesn’t mean this thing is not painful, disappointing or uncomfortable. The pain (again emotional and physical) of these situations is quite real.

But the second arrow is the one we have more control over.  This is the fear, blame or worry that we bring to the situation.

The second arrow usually is the one that says, “How could this happen to me? Why do I attract bad things? Will I ever find happiness? What did I do to bring this on? Who can I blame for it?”

It’s the STORY we tell ourselves about what is happening.

Interestingly, the second arrow is also quite painful. Maybe more so because who responds well when we are pressured to answer these kinds of ‘unanswerable’ questions?

But this is the arrow that we have some control over.

Each time my mind wanted to wander into the future, trying to give my experience some meaning that didn’t yet exist, I would simply breathe and bring my focus to my toe.

It would have been easy to fall into stories like ‘ALL elephants are dangerous.’ Or ‘this was a terrible idea, now my vacation will be ruined.’ Or ‘I must have done something to deserve it.’

But to badly deal with drama, as in DRAMATIZING the pain (i.e. making a story about it), would have made it all worse. It would have been like shooting a second arrow into myself.

I just kept breathing. I sat down and took a moment. I put my leg up. I drank some water. I sent a boatload of love to my toe, to my little elephant friend and to myself.

The next time you find yourself in a painful experience, I invite you to do the following.

1. First, pause.

Before you react, take a moment to sit down and just be still.

2. Then, recognize what is actually happening in this moment. Not what you think it means about you now that you have been ‘injured.’ But what is ACTUALLY happening inside your body and heart at that moment.

3. Finally, allow yourself to open up to a greater sense of presence. This sense of presence will allow deeper pieces of wisdom to rise up within you.

This wisdom will likely direct you as to what actions you may need to take next.

By taking this time, we move away from simply reacting to a more compassionate approach, which is responding with more clarity.

It worked out that my toe is indeed fractured. And in some ways, I am quite certain Life is encouraging me to slow down and chill out. The last few months have brought on a lot. (That’s for another post.)

Fortunately, it did not in any way ruin my vacation. It was the best trip of my whole life. And I love elephants now more than ever. I mean, how could you not?  Check out some of these pics.

IMG_7989 IMG_7992 bestieselephant

This video is of a baby who is only 2 weeks old (he is not the one who stepped on my toe). They can walk within an hour of being born. So he is just playing and slipping and sliding in the mud.

Below, I would love for you to share: what came to mind for you when reading this? Is there an area of your life you feel you are shooting yourself with a second arrow? What can you do to shift that? How do YOU deal with drama? I would love to hear from you.

With love,
Erin Stutland

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