The Mule Trainer's Lesson

I recently told one of my clients an old joke about a farmer who couldn't get his mule to do any work, so he hired a famous mule trainer. The man came to his farm, immediately picked up a heavy stick and whapped the mule on the nose. "Don't train my mule that way!" the farmer demanded. The trainer said "Oh, I haven't started the training, I'm just getting its attention." 

The moral is that sometimes it takes a painful situation to get our attention. A major illness may prompt us toward better self-care, getting fired from a job may cause an important re-evaluation of career, a relationship break-up points to the need to develop better communication and intimacy skills, a DUI is a wake-up call to stop drinking, and on and on.  This theme is similar to another little post I've written about the positive value of painful consequences.  

I read about a Buddhist monk who once said that children in his culture learned how to meditate from a very early age while in America some people need to have heart attacks to appreciate the value of mindfully cultivating inner peace.  

Sometimes the need to pay attention grows louder and louder, like a train horn.  Other times it's the quiet voice that jolts us into greater awareness (it's one reason why I advocate being the softest voice in an argument).

I was thinking about this metaphor because from time to time in my Atlanta counseling and psychotherapy practice I feel like a reluctant mule trainer simply by sharing some aspect of reality or possibility to a client.  "This is what I think" is sometimes the most therapeutic moment I can offer.  I've often had clients thank me for speaking plainly, and a few times I've learned that even years later some small statement I made has had a far-reaching effect.

What does it take to get YOUR attention?


Bill Herrig LCSW, CSAT provides counseling and psychotherapy to adults in the Atlanta area.  He wants to make it clear that he does not advocate nosewhapping actual mules.

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