Balance Your Emotion and Enjoy the Moment

(By You-Sheng Li)

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A Taoist Fable of the Month

(January 2008)
A Note From the Author: Taoist classics easpecially Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu are famous for using fables, parables, and allegories to explore philosophical depth. Those fables are delightful to read but lend us some new perspectives to view life.

Small Understanding and Great Understanding

In the bare north, there is a dark sea called the pool of heaven. There is a fish that is thousands of miles across and nobody knows how long its body really is. It transforms itself into a gigantic bird called P’eng. Its back is like a mountain and its wings as broad as the clouds. It flaps up hurricanes as it climbs thousands of miles, cutting through the very souls of clouds and lifting the blue sky. Then it turns south and arrives in the depths of the Southern Darkness.

The cicada and the fledgling dove both laugh, saying, “When we want to fly, we can easily reach the lower branches of small trees, or if we fall short, we return to the ground. Why would anyone want to fly three thousand miles into the south?”

Small understanding does not get to where great understanding goes. Youth does not know what age teaches. For example, the morning mushroom does not know dawn from dusk; the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn.

The Following is from the book, A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy (chapter 11):

(4)               Balance Your Emotions and Enjoy the Moment


Taoists pursue serenity and tranquility of mind. A calm peaceful mind will be open to happiness at any moment whereas happiness can be elusive to people racing to get somewhere.

We live in a troubled world and are exposed to all sorts of emotional stimulators. It is normal to have anger, jealousy, hatred, and so on. But we have to keep those negative emotions to a minimum and do not dwell in them. To balance your emotions and enjoy yourself for the moment is our remedy.

In ancient India, a sage gave advice and consultation to his clients. A rich man benefited so much from the advice he received from the sage that he came back with a cart loaded with grain, vegetables, and meat to express his gratefulness. The sage turned his head to his manager and asked if there was a need for more food.

“No, sir,” the manager said. “We have enough for today.”

If every one adapted the philosophy of living only for the moment, our world would be a much simpler one. All our worry, anxiety, depression, and all the negative emotions of hatred, jealousy, anger would evaporate immediately.  All our conflicts, battles, and wars would become groundless.  

One of the major differences between a primitive primary society and a civilized secondary society is, the former did not consider the far future but the latter does. Many scientists are unhappy about the picture of a prehistoric paradise that anthropologists have depicted. They point to the existence of hunger and starvation in the primitive societies. If such hunger existed, it was mostly because of lack of planning. Today our problem is no longer lack of planning but is often the opposite, over-planning. In our well-planned, highly developed societies, starvation or even homelessness in the cold winter is still commonplace. The issue may be more complex than planning for the future.

We must see the trade off of our sophisticated planning for the future. When we look into the future we see a lot of uncertainty to worry about and prolong or even cement our negative emotions. The natural environment is much more transparent than our social environment where our rivals and enemies may even have more complicated minds than we have for the future, making the future seem even more obscure and dangerous.

I am not opposed to any planning but we must take its negative effects into account. One thing is certain --- you become much happier if you concentrate on the moment. I also believe that concentration on the moment is hardwired into our nature but the worry for the far future is not. The latter is part of our culture. Simplicity is our nature. The world is becoming too complex but our life does not have to be. One of the proofs that our life has become too complex is that our children study twelve years to prepare for it. We have ruined our primary society and let humans completely live in the large secondary society. Nobody can bring back the barrier between the primary group and the secondary society overnight but we can make efforts to block out those loud noises of modern complexity to protect our tranquil life.


            (5)        The Six Levels of Enjoyment and Happiness


1). The Biological Level: Whenever there is a biological desire there is a tension building up. Such mental tension dampens the feeling of joy and happiness and may turn it into unhappy feeling. Once the desire is fulfilled there is a release of the tension. The slow food movement asks people to relax and eat their meals slowly. It may help turn meals into occasions for mental enjoyment, like seeing a happy child’s face or an interesting painting.

2). The Social Level: We are social animals and we need other people to make us happy. Social contacts include physical touch, company, and social, intellectual and spiritual interaction.

A man and a woman are sitting on a bench on a balmy spring night. They haven’t seen each other in the last three days and that has been a long time for both of them. After the initial excitement and happy greeting, they are quiet now. The man wants to say something, and the woman stops him, saying, “You do not need to say anything. Just let us sit beside each other. I enjoy being with you.”

Thus being with each other is enough to release the mental tension and offer some joy. People often think sex is the purpose for such meetings. In fact the enjoyment of being with each other is independent from sex. When they miss each other they miss the person and not sex. Sexual arousal is triggered by intimacy, not simply being with each other, though there is no fixed rule.

In the family and the primary society, we know each other personally and trust each other. There is also a friendly atmosphere which soothes our souls and warms our hearts. There is no inequality. While there are differences there is no unfairness.

According to the Taoist view, the destructive factor of the secondary society is that social power and stratification invade the family and primary group. Some politicians have even advocated that our modern society includes only free, independent individuals.

3). The Cultural Level: When Lao Tzu described his primary society, he mentioned that the people enjoy their culture. But we must point out that not every culture is enjoyable. 

In his famous speech to glorify the ones who had died in fighting to protect the Athenian State, Pericles says:

“No other city provides so many recreations for the spirit --- contests and sacrifices all the year round, and beauty in our public buildings to cheer the spirit and delight the eye day by day… The Spartans toil from early childhood in the laborious pursuit of courage, while we, free to live and wander as we please, march out nonetheless to face the self-same dangers.”

Here Pericles pointed out the difference between the Athenian and the Spartan culture. The latter was a totally militarized culture with boys spending their lives in training campus. Such cultures are even more painful: infant cranial deformation and swaddling, male and female genital mutilations, and other physical cruelties.

The primary society is the ancient natural societies free of cultural cruelties. Taoists believe that basic human natures ---equality, kindness, friendliness and non-competitiveness are enough to enable humans to form a peaceful society. There is no need for physical cruelties of any kind to keep a society functioning as long as it is at the small state level. Large secondary societies often face the problem of instability, and thus various customs of physical cruelty developed to keep the citizens in check.

4). The Intellectual Level: Knowledge is the source for enjoyment and happiness. The obtainment of new knowledge is always a joy whatever age one may be. The joy is parallel to the interest one has for the knowledge. It is important to keep a mind that is full of curiosity for life and for new experience. Many elderly people go to university to learn only for the joy of it.

Intellectual exploration is for everyone, not only for intellectuals. We have to learn from children who always have great interest for new knowledge and also have great joy in learning it.

It is no surprise that one may eliminate unhappy emotions like anger, hatred, jealousy, and so on at the intellectual level though it is most difficult to eliminate them at all levels.

5). The Spiritual Level: Both aesthetics and spirituality require us to keep a distance from real life. Both secular happiness and unhappiness have vanished at this level. What one may have at this level is Taoist or spiritual happiness. Such happiness is not characterized by excitement and loud laughter but nevertheless it is a happy feeling. With no unhappy feeling as contrast, spiritual happiness is serenity and not far above the personal basic line of happiness.

6). The Cosmic Level: There is no difference between life and death, and no difference between happiness and unhappiness at this level. Being united with the big One and with Tao is the final, grandest happiness of all. Psychologists noticed that when two people love each other they have the desire to become one. With the same psychological desires, people long to be united as one with a larger entity such as the universe, God, and Tao.

Those who have near-death experiences report a great feeling of joy, assurance, satisfaction, and clarity of mind which they have never experienced before, and they do not dread to experience it again. With a good understanding and practice of Taoism, one may achieve such a state of mind without the near-death experience.


(6)   The Six Levels of Human Relationship


 It is not surprising that a major part of our happiness comes from our social bonds with others since humans are social animals. Holmes et all (2004) listed ten key factors for a happy life, and five of them are directly related to social bonds, namely charity, marriage, friendship, faith, and beauty. Beautiful people are happier because their good looks delight other people, brightening other people’s mood. Beauty may also have an aesthetic quality and bring the surrounding people into an aesthetic mood. Faith is the human desire to be part of a large whole. Many psychological studies have shown that helping others makes one happier. Charity is built into our brain.

The other five, wealth, desire, genetics, intelligence, age may also be related to social bonds indirectly. Wealth itself has no effect on happiness but the comparison with others makes one happy or unhappy. Desire here indicates those desires cultivated and stimulated by our social environment, such as getting a better job to support a family. Genetics is said to account for 44-55 percent of the difference in happiness levels but those levels are really the different reactions to the same modern society. Everybody is most comfortable at birth because that is when they are closest to nature. Intelligence is found to negatively affect happiness because intelligence is not well tolerated by our society. Age really means the social experience acquired with age. (Holmes et al, 2004)

Human relationships are the major source of happiness and unhappiness. Here is how they work at the six levels.

1). The Biological Level: The surge of emotions we feel when we are sexually attracted or see an adorable child remind us that we need others to make us happy. In fact it is essential to live and interact with others. We feel this need when we are alone and bored with ourselves. At such times anybody who sits in front of us will make a difference.

2) The Social Level: We each have several social roles to play or act. In the family, we are husband or wife, parent and child. A job and a position are required social roles. But we are all citizens in a country and passengers in a plane or in a bus, customers in a store, audience in a cinema and so on. Those roles define our position in the network of personal relationships in our society.

3). The Cultural Level: To ensure the social interactions are carried out smoothly, the society makes numerous rules and regulations to govern our behaviour in various social situations and occasions. It is the culture we are born into and brought with.

Some anthropologists insist that culture is essential to be a human being and other species like apes and monkeys lack the culture we have. Infants of six months, clinging to a teddy bear, make eye contact with their parents or caregivers, and then glance at the teddy bear, inviting their observers to share their experience with the teddy bear. An eleven or twelve month child can point, using his hand, to a moving toy with notable excitement,  and even say one or two words to call the name of the toy repeatedly. The child makes eye contact repeatedly to communicate his excitement with the observer. He certainly can read the facial expression of the observer, and he has no intention to possess the toy but only tell the observer how wonderful the toy is.

This born need to share experience with others lets humans explore some fundamental issues to form a common belief system as the basis for a human society. The fundamental issues include: How the world started? What are the basic elements of every thing? Why do we get sick? Who were our ancestors? Every culture has its own answers for those questions and so does modern science.

Language is also an important part of human culture. Except for the apes trained by humans, none of the animals have language but all humans have. If humans had the innate capacity for language, humans must have had language when they first appeared on earth unless we can prove humans have genetically changed substantially. Humans seem to have an innate universal capacity for categorizing and labelling objects, and basic grammar to organize those labels into language.  (D Premack & AJ Premack 2002)

4). The Intellectual Level: Social interactions are not always concerned with business but even on a business occasion, intellectual exploration can be involved. Exchanges of insights and information, the exploration of each other’s minds and experiences make up the intellectual bond among people.

5). The Spiritual Level: Both aesthetics and spirituality distance us from the reality of the secular world. When we reach a high level of both aesthetics and spirituality, we feel our hearts and our souls bond tighter together.

6). The Cosmic Level: We are all One at this level.

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A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy
An Anthropological/Psychological View
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You-Sheng Li, Ph.D.
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