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Starving the Donkey
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2018
Chasing a better life, we sometimes neglect the very things that give us the life we seek.
Sometimes hidden goals interfere with the bona fide riches of a flourishing life. Unconscious goals can direct our lives in disastrous ways. We chase these hidden desires, sacrificing many of the real joys of living, complicating futures and magnifying anxieties. A common and nefarious hidden goal is present moment ease. A spinoff of positive psychology is the demonizing of difficult emotions. Sadness, anger and guilt have been labeled as causes rather than reactions. Many modern theorists of positive thinking legitimize the defensive mechanisms of denial, avoidance, and suppression. Instead of a deeper examination of the complex causes of an emotion, examining internal thought process and external events, the simple-minded advice is to narrow your thinking, constrict your perspective, and blame the emotion on itself. To stop being sad, we are advised to quit choosing to be sad. While consciously directing attention to more positive aspects of living may be part of the answer, banishing all unpleasant emotions is not.
A wise and foolish monk pondered is recent ascetic journey into spiritual enlightenment. His simple diet of a small handful of rice each day had propelled him to new spiritual heights. As he travelled the land with his donkey, he wondered if the ascetic diet would also work for the burro. Once trained in the art of minimum consumption, the cost of caring for the animal would also plummet. The Monk began. He decided to slowly cut back on the donkey’s food. Each week, just a little less than the week before. As the weeks and the months progressed the ass seemed to adjust, not begging or expecting. But unexpectedly the donkey took to illness and died. “What a shame,” the monk thought. “Another few weeks and I would have had this donkey living without food at all.”
In our great search for happiness, we often fall for the same foolish wisdom as the monk. We presume happiness is disrupted by negative emotion. With distractions, positive mantras, and strict management of thought, we choke out the negatives. We falsely believe we are on a path of joy. Yet, in reality, we simply have starved our greatest guide to a full and rich life.
"We presume happiness is disrupted by negative emotion. With distractions, positive mantras, and strict management of thought, we choke out the negatives."
A young military father returned from a three-year tour across seas in a brutal and terrible war. Effective survival and duty demanded a blunting of emotions. At home, however, life with children and spouse did not fair well without the guiding wisdom of emotions. The empathy to connect was lost. The world became a gruff black and white. Unable to connect through analytical explanations, the children were raised with the coldness of logic. Divorce and estrangement soon followed. The father could have learned a valuable lesson from his teary eyed three-year old daughter.
Our greatest legacy as humans is the complexity of our brains. Not simply our consciousness; but also, the emotions. We intertwine these prodigious inheritances to conduct life in our dynamic and complex societies. When functioning well, utilizing all our gifts, we read emotions in the faces and vocal tones of others. We respond with grace and compassion. In these subtle connections, we find kindness, bonding with others and succeeding in life beyond careers and into our homes. We shouldn't starve the donkey; we should nourish it. Giving life to emotion, feeling the internal movements without condemning the feeling and then acting in line with intentions. With a healthy relationship with our impulses, we become great.