At the start of his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman introduces Aristotle’s Challenge - “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not easy”.
At the core of this 1995 publication, was the interplay between the emotional mind and the rational mind – our emotions and reason.
The positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt, chose a different analogy in his book The Happiness Hypothesis – that of the Rider – rational mind and its perspective – and the Elephant – our instinctive gut reaction to events and when the Elephant decides to do something – it can be very difficult and at times impossible for the Rider to have any influence at all.
For anyone to achieve a consistency of emotions and moods – it is better to have both in play – sometimes the Elephant will prevail and sometimes the Rider and then more often than not – they will work together – until a sort of truce prevails – which makes for a much easier life.
Today, it is becoming more important to have a higher ‘EQ’ than a high IQ – as being more emotionally intelligent allows for more social interaction within the family and at work, raises self-awareness, improves communications and often leads to a happier life in general.
Which one are you – the rider or the elephant?
And the answer is, to parody Aristotle’s Challenge – that depends on what you are thinking, what you are doing, who you are with, where you are and how you are feeling.
But the answer also depends on what you were thinking, what you were doing, who you were with, where you were and how you were feeling and whether you have brought any of that past activity into your present as a negative or a positive emotion.
Jean Paul Sartre, the French existentialist famously said ‘Hell is other people’ and so, for example, who you were with recently may have upset you and you are still attached to that emotion of taking offence to what was either said or done to you, leaving you feeling sad, angry, or embarrassed.
Having instinctively taken offence, (Elephant) it is often very difficult letting go of it, without very good reason, such as an apology, for instance. If there is no apology forthcoming however, you may hold onto one or all of these negative emotions, which combine to create the stressors that make you feel even worse – as stress induces raised levels of cortisol in your bloodstream. If you allow these emotions to prevails for weeks and even months – you may make yourself ill – as chronic stress has a detrimental effect on your physiology and particularly your digestive tract, which impairs nutrition and which has a direct impact on your energy levels and sleep patterns.
As the Elephant prevails and this downward spiral continues, you begin to feel depressed and you may seek advice from your doctor who will probably advise you take a treatment like a SSRI - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor - the designation for a class of antidepressants that work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain.
The interesting thing is, that you could increase the levels of serotonin in your body yourself, and not suffer the horrific side effects of SSRI’s – just by practicing the conscious breathing technique, which, after 5 minutes induces calm in you as the vagus nerve - often called the happy nerve, triggers off and raises the serotonin in your body, most of which - 87% - resides in your gut area.
However, once calm for a moment or two or even an hour – does that remove the effect of the emotion you are still holding onto?
Probably not – however during this moment of calm – you could bring in the Rider and ask yourself whether there is a good reason why the offence that you have taken and its consequences in emotional distress is worth the cost you are currently paying for it.
And that, of course, will depend on who was involved, what was said or done, how it was said or done, at what time it took place and how you were feeling at that time.
Letting go is integral to the teachings of Zen Buddhism and the practice of Non-Attachment - as being attached to any thought, event, person or material thing, can result in having an adverse effect on your relationship with yourself and, as is well known, having an adversarial relationship with yourself over an extended period of time, can have disastrous consequences for your physical and emotional health.
So now, in this calmer moment, you the Rider is trying to reason with you the Elephant.
The Rider will rationally (free of emotion) point out that the reason that you are not feeling too good physically and emotionally, is because you are still holding on to what was said or done to you and the Elephant will respond egocentrically (with emotion) that you (your ego) has been violated by what was said or done to you and that was why you took offence to what was said or done.
The Rider will point out that this is probably not a good enough reason to make yourself unwell and the Elephant will reluctantly agree as being physically unwell is not pleasant and negatively impacts much of what you do each day.
And so begins the process – and it is sometimes a very slow process, of letting go of the source of your negative emotions and return to an equilibrium – which is a state of physical health along with a calm and rational mind.
To accomplish this (in this particular scenario), the Rider has to convince the Elephant that sometimes taking offence is just not worth the emotional distress price that is being paid and in this way the Rider and the Elephant work together to bring about a resolution.
……until the next time…..