The story of Mohini

Mohini was a white tiger who lived at the palace of the Maharaja of Rewa until the director of the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC bought her for $10,000. The people working at the zoo planned to build a natural habitat for her, but it would take several years to complete—so in the meantime, they put Mohini inside a twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor.

Several years later, the biologists working on Mohini’s new habitat finished their work. It was beautiful, spanning several acres with hills, trees, and a pond. But, the story goes, when Mohini first saw it, she found a corner of the habitat and paced around there, as if there was a twelve-by-twelve-foot cage. She would live within a square of that corner for the rest of her life, pacing around it until she wore the grass out.

The popular lesson to draw from this fable is to be present and accept what’s happening. When you resist, you also inadvertently create the conditions you don’t want. Freedom is possible, if you’ll just look around.

Of course, the takeaway is more complicated than that. Some things are worth accepting, and others are worth standing up for (or against). Alain de Botton writes in The Consolations of Philosophy:

To generate the energy required to spur us to action, we are reminded by jolts of discomfort—anxiety, pain, outrage, offence—that reality is not as we would wish it. Yet these jolts have served no purpose if we cannot subsequently effect improvement, if we lose our peace of mind but are unable to divert rivers; which is why, for Seneca, wisdom lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mould reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquility….

It is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn’t as to rebel against something when it is. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction.

These borders—between accepting and resisting, as well as our assessment of what is necessary and unnecessary—are unclear and constantly changing. Something may seem impossible to you until you stumble upon a new opportunity, or come across a new piece of information that you were missing. In many ways, we are all Mohini (or the grown horse tied to a chair meme, or the fleas in a jar), and it’s not always so clear when we are in a cage or when we are in the habitat. You and I need to constantly try new things, unlearn old beliefs, and learn how we can grow.

Wisdom and reason are helpful in discerning between accepting the things we can’t change, and applying ourselves to change the things we can. There are others, too—audacity, patience, curiosity—that can help.

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