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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27 Responses to How An Elephant Taught Me to Deal with Drama

  1. Nicole says:

    OMG. I SO needed this today. I’ve been feeling down for days because of getting a “no” from a festival I applied for. I’ve been shooting that 2nd arrow into myself for 3 days! Moving on.

  2. Chantelle says:

    I LOVE elephants, so reading this made me think “one day, I’m going there, and I’ll help take care of them for a day too!” Didn’t know that was an option – sounds amazing!
    Also, love the double arrow analogy – completely resonates with me!

    Hope your toe is starting to feel better with rest!

  3. CS says:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE your post today Erin – great lesson, and one I’ve been trying to incorporate into my life recently. I constantly find myself inventing stories around the little mishaps in life, and suddenly I’ve put myself in not so good places.

    Great pics – one question though – why were you wearing flip flops around an elephant!!!! Sorry, the Jewish mama in me couldn’t resist.

  4. Genevieve says:

    Oh wow the second arrow resonates with me so much. I just didn’t get a job I applied for and I was pretty gutted about the whole thing. I allowed myself to believe a bunch of terrible things about myself for days. It was absolutely debilitating. Thank you for this.

  5. kara says:

    I was drawn to this because a girlfriend of mine just sent me information on elephants!I’m glad I read it, because it couldn’t be more relevant! The physical and emotional, are delicately interwoven! You handled it so well, great job! Wow, and what great experience to have! Namaste.

  6. LOVED your article, Erin, thank you so much for sharing! I have been thinking about this very topic all week as Lucas left for Maine on Wednesday. We made a pact that we were not going to shoot ourselves with a second arrow (love that metaphor!) even though most people think a loved one moving is cause for sadness. We turned it around and were so happy for each other and ourselves for this new chapter and all the exciting opportunities it will bring. When he pulled out of the driveway, I didn’t even cry! I had really come to believe that all is working out perfectly…

    Love to your toe!!!!

    • Erin says:

      Kudos to you for seeing the LOVE in this situation and no doubt it IS workout beautifully and perfectly. xo

  7. Samanda says:

    Wow! This is such a poignant, & perfect way to put this! I guy I’ve been in love with for a while, just got engaged(supposedly.). I all at once knew this was going to happen, was devastated(on some level), and also relieved. I hadn’t done much to let him know. So I’ve been shooting myself with the “I didn’t do enough” arrow. Over and over. But if I’m honest, it feels better than I care to admit. Because now I don have to go around and around, in my head, of, “Will it?” “Will it not?” “What should I be doing/trying?” “Should I just give up(Noooooo………..)?” Imma try hard not to shoot myself anymore. And breathe through the discomfort. Thanks! <3

  8. Barb S says:

    I truly understand about pain, especially emotional pain. However, I have prevented physical pain by immediately using Arnica gel whenever I have any injury. I have a tube on every level of my home and never leave home without a tube either.

  9. Michele says:

    Fabulous post! And so very apropos for me right now. First of all, just seeing and hearing about those special, sweet adorable creatures lifted my spirits. What a beautiful thing that you got to get so close to these elephants! Love!
    Secondly, I’ve had a cough/cold for over two months now. It’s been really challenging not to go negative and shoot that second arrow into myself with all kinds of worrisome thoughts. It’s been challenging for me to keep positive when I feel crappy. But, that’s exactly what I am practicing today. After hoping I would get over this with all my lovely herbs, plenty of water, rest, nourishing foods, acupuncture, Jin Shin Jyutsu, etc. I’ve decided it’s time to be much more rigorously loving and positive. So, I’m setting my timer on my iPhone for every 15 minutes today. And every 15 minutes I’m doing something to practice feeling amazing. My friend and I call it “feel good time.” And sometimes we text each other during the day and do it together. Just now, I did a happy dance. Pumping my arms in the air and smiling. It is amazing to understand how much control you have over our emotions regardless of the circumstances. I’ve been doing this for years and it really works! Once you practice being happy (for absolutely no other reason other than it feels good) you can call it up easily!
    This is slightly different from your experience, Erin, and I’m totally in awe of your ability to take a course of action in the moment that was not only best for you but helpful for everyone around you. I’m sure your story will come in handy for me and other situations. Thanks for writing it!

    • Erin says:

      I love the happy dance and love that you and your pals support each other in some feel good time. That’s amazing. Much to be grateful for knowing you have such beautiful support. Feel better dearest! xo

  10. Mary says:

    Darn those second arrows. I have shot myself repeatedly. Sometimes going back months later to give myself yet another whack. It serves no purpose beyond making me feel inadequate. It’s like an addiction. Pfft with that. No more.

    I would not shoot those second arrows at a friend so what does that say about me & how I treat myself? Ugh.

    These days, your meditation “I am enough, I do enough, I have enough… today”, is a lifesaver I murmur over & over while focusing on my breath & centering. There’s plenty of uncertainty around me but It doesn’t have to overwhelm me.

    P.S. Your “you are not done” email made me catch my breath. And I see a connection between that & these arrows. But that’s another tale.

    Hope your tootsie is on the mend!

    Love & light…..

  11. Jana says:

    Wonderful analogy Erin. I recently lost my job of 11 years through no fault of my own and instead of shooting myself with any more arrows I told myself that this is an opportunity for something bigger and better!
    I was so amazed by my lack of emotional distress that I asked myself if I was really checking in with myself.Hmm well apparently my heart and soul knew long before I did (although they did tell me last year it was time to move on and I listened) so now I am focusing on the present moments in my life and working out a plan to bring in the money I lost.

    So far things have been working out great! But I have been an arrow stabber of myself for years over a man I had a 14 yr relationship with whom I finally broke far enough away from so as not to hurt as much if he dates others (which he isn’t). Regardless, I started asking myself “Would you treat others the way he treats you?” and when my answer was NEVER! I asked myself, “Then why do you allow yourself to be treated like that by him?”
    So that was it and I said goodbye in a ritual and have steered clear of him since.
    Namaste Erin and I hope your toe heals quickly. Elephants are the BEST ever!! I really love the African Elephant with those big ears.

  12. Judy Denison says:

    IThis was timely as I know or hope that changes are coming my way. Your mi d races with thoughts of but, what if…I don’t have enough money, I have to owe on my taxes, not, get a nice return, get the job in the town that I want, but, can’t afford the rent!!! On and on. This came at a good time. I trust and I’m staying in the moment…

  13. Jaclyn says:

    My heart just melted when I saw these photos of you and your little elephant. It’s the cracking open of our hearts to connect to these amazing creatures from Mama Earth, or any creature like this that tugs at our heartstrings, that just make any day better, especially the days when you feel vulnerable. Your article was fantastic and the connection to the elephants just made it so much better…. I can keep look at these photos all day, Erin! 🙂

  14. Betsy says:

    What a beautiful example of saving a situation when you think it might be a disaster. I especially like this part:

    “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 myself.”

    It shows exactly how love trumps everything else.

    thank you for sharing.

  15. Andrea says:

    I read this on the way home from therapy where I was speaking about my reaction to a particular person and how angry I get regardless of the situation. It’s emotional pain and I am all in with this post. Somewhere in me I know all these steps but sometimes the universe intervenes and speaks to you to make sure you’re really listening. Thank you for this, for the breathing space and reflection. Speedy recovery and hugs xoxoxo

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Love this. I do this much too often. Work, personal. I have a great relationship but we live in 2 different states. I love to send that second arrow and question how we get to the next step. I am working on not doing this.

  17. Nora mcGuire says:

    This is a brilliant reminder to us all about the second arrow. Great blog post. I have gotten so much better over the years about not shooting that second arrow but it still sneaks in there sometimes. So thank you Erin. The elephants are amazing. Keep sending the love to your toe!! I African reflexology the fourth toe is your activity toe, so yes the universe was most definitely giving you a message to slow down.

    • Erin says:

      Oh my gosh! Really? The 4th toe is the activity toe?! How very interesting. And makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing this tidbit with me:) Thanks for reading and so glad it resonated. I appreciate your love! xo

  18. Krista says:

    I am such a futurecaster! I am always in what if mode and especially when something big or painful happens my mind gets the best of me. I cut my finger on a knife a few weeks ago and right away called my husband and said “ok so I’m trying not to panic but I know what I’m going to be like so I’m calling to let you know I sliced it bad” I had never done that before so I wasn’t sure if I needed stitches but I was sure I was going to have a full blown panic attack and I had to work in an hour! Turns out I just needed a lot of pressure for a long time but I was fine. I also had a procedure done in the hospital last week and I really had to practice deeps breaths and being present while I waited in the prep room for an hour, no sedation lol. At one point my heart rate was 145. Laying in a bed staring at hospital walls and listening to the commotion around me was surely a test , my goal in Life is to learn how to stay present because of this anxiety issue! Elephants are one of my totems so every time I see them in my house (not the real ones they wouldn’t fit!) I will now think of this lesson, and every time I have an OMG moment I will think of the real elephant in the room so to speak 🙂 thank you for sharing xo

  19. I was just about to ‘shoot the second arrow’ when I read this. Thanks for the reminder that this is the part I have control over! After I read this a flood of understanding and ‘this is really not a big deal’ washed over me. Going to deal with this scheduling conflict from this relaxed state going forward! Thanks Erin!

  20. Nancy Meyering says:

    I really enjoyed this post, and wish I had read it sooner, but maybe reading it now really helps me to see me in action doing this very thing! I had a situation just last night where the new supervisor of the new job I am starting on Monday called to ask about something they were questioning from my application. I’ve already given notice, changed and updated all my information for my new position, and the first thing I started to do was panic and worry and think they were going to withdraw their offer. I did what you said-tried to focus on other things, just tried to wait it out, but did spend quite a bit of time playing the what if game. In the end, my position is secure, but the panic is definitely real! And those questions-I think I asked almost all those same ones! Great refocusing and reminder to not let “things” out of my control try to control my here and now!

  21. Mandy says:

    Erin, this happened to me TODAY in Chiang mai. Elephant stepped on my foot. I want to elaborate further but need some time to process what you just wrote. I needed this sage wisdom more than you can possibly know.