A Matter of Priorities

by Christopher Lovejoy on September 16, 2012

Ultimately, contentment is a matter of priorities, but before I give you my take on arranging priorities to ensure contentment, I’d first like to reveal a formula that I call the fulfillment formula.

Note: if math is not an easy subject for you, then I would suggest that you scroll down to where it says “At a more practical level …”. You’ll get the gist of what’s being said here from that point onward.

Please understand that this is not a formula for success, but a formula that offers a perspective that places contentment into a context that includes happiness, freedom, and fulfillment:

f(x,y,z) = x + y + z

Note: the function f(x,y,z) can be read as “f at x, y, and z”.

where f(x,y,z) = personal fulfillment as a function of x, y, and z

where x = being content with who you are and what you have

where y = c1 + c2 + … + c?, the factors that contribute to being happy with who you are, what you have, and what you do, connecting contentment to freedom

where z = feeling free to be who you are and to do what you do with what you have (this is your prime indicator, indicating how content, happy, and fulfilled you are)

The variables x, y, z imply that we are more or less content, more or less happy, and feel more or less free. Fulfillment as a function of x, y, and z also implies that we are more or less fulfilled.

A quick note about happiness: the realization of happiness goes far beyond contentment. By itself, contentment is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the realization of happiness.

A discussion of sufficiency is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say here that the sum of factors c1, c2, …, and c? contributes to a synergistic effect that brings about happiness.

The sum of these contributing factors (c1 + c2 + … + c?), which lie between x and z (contentment and freedom), include transparency, vitality, authenticity, responsibility, and initiative.

At a more practical level, these are always good questions to ask ourselves:

  1. Am I content with who I am and what I have?
  2. Am I happy with who I am, what I have, and what I do?
  3. Do I feel free to be who I am, to do what I do with what I have?

To the extent that I can answer yes to these questions is the extent to which I feel fulfilled. If I’m feeling relatively flat in response to my answers, I take that as feedback rather than failure.

I’ve been thinking about these ideas and feeling my way through them almost daily for the past two years and my sense is that contentment is but a piece of the overall picture of fulfillment. Having said this, I think it’s an invaluable piece. If you’re looking for fulfillment, this is where I would start.

With this in mind, let us now read what the Tao Te Ching has to say about contentment.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 3

The words of wisdom that follow sound funny to the modern ear, but I invite you to read them from the point of view of someone who is curious (if not concerned) about the well-being of the whole.

Putting a value
on status will create

If you overvalue
people begin to steal.
By not displaying
what is desirable,
you will cause
the people’s hearts
to remain undisturbed.

The sage governs
by emptying minds and hearts,
by weakening ambitions
and strengthening bones.

Practice not doing …
When action is pure and selfless,
everything settles
into its own perfect place.

Ref: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao

Let us now dig a little deeper for some hidden meanings.

My Impressions of the Verse

If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that this verse was being addressed in particular to political leaders who have the ear of their sages for advice on how to govern their people.

In this day and age, however, people are encouraged to be their own leaders, to cultivate their own leadership qualities; the beneficiaries of this advice could be any group of people, including family.

With respect to the source of this sagely advice, you might say that the sage occupies the capstone at the peak of the pyramid, at the pinnacle of power, with a commanding view of life from the top.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that souls incarnate over and over again through the eternal, cyclical ages, picking up skills and abilities along the way. This is why child prodigies exist and this is why pre-adolescents can pick up a skill and demonstrate an ability with terrifying ease and speed.

Let’s just say that the soul of the sage has been around for a very, very, very long time. Knowing this, the sage is all too aware of the essential cumulative issues that drive humanity onward:

  • at the level of stewardship: bondage or service?
  • at the level of artistry: destruction or creation?
  • at the level of warriorship: coercion or persuasion?
  • at the level of scholarship: theory or knowledge?
  • at the level of communication: oration or expression?
  • at the level of ministration: zeal or compassion?
  • at the level of sagacity: tyranny or mastery?

This is just a rough sketch and hardly does justice to the complexity involved, but everyone is learning their lessons at a different level, preparing, struggling, or moving through one to another.

In this light, the experience of lasting contentment seems like a pipe dream (except for retirees and convalescents). Still, let us take a moment to learn about contentment from the sages of ages past.

The advice that follows would encourage us to get our priorities straight – to put (and keep) money, status, wealth, power, pleasure, and belongings in their place, to assume control of the objects of our desires rather than have them control us, and to restore the balance between seeking and having.

Putting a value
on status will create

When I read this, I wonder: has something been lost in translation?

Status has value. If you manage currencies, information, and/or people with grace and ease, your skills are invaluable. The status that comes with utilizing these skills is nothing to be ashamed of.

Flaunting your status, however, will create contentiousness.

Ostentatious displays of status are usually coming from those who pursue money and power at any cost. Needless to say, drug and drink feature prominently in their nefarious pursuits.

Those who get lost in the pursuit of more money and more power for their own sake get cut off from the natural flow of life, making any experience of lasting contentment next to impossible.

The more they get, the more energy they need to safeguard, protect, and pursue what they get.

The adage, no rest for the wicked, applies here.

But the wicked
are like the troubled sea,
when it cannot rest,
whose waters cast up myre and dirt

~ Isaiah 57:20, King James Bible (Original Version)

More darkly still, the “haves” build virtual fortresses around their accumulations and leave it to their militarized enforcers to beat the “have-nots” into submission when they get out of hand.

If you overvalue
people begin to steal.
By not displaying
what is desirable,
you will cause
the people’s hearts
to remain undisturbed.

Notice here that the sage is not saying “do not value your belongings”.

Rather, the sage is saying, quite rightly I think, “do not value your possessions past the point where others are compelled to envy, vandalize, and steal them (with or without abandon)”.

Many a millionaire are smart: they live in relatively modest homes and drive relatively ordinary cars. Smarter still, they contribute significant portions of their earnings or holdings to worthy causes.

In these times of austerity, garages for fancy cars might also be a good idea.

The sage governs
by emptying minds and hearts,
by weakening ambitions
and strengthening bones.

Let’s be clear: sages govern by proxy; they advise those who appear to govern.

This part of the verse would encourage us to help others to keep their ambitious pursuits in check, relieving their hearts and minds so as to loosen attachments and temper passions.

The advice here is intended to channel egocentric ambition into meaningful pursuits that contribute, directly or indirectly, to “strengthening bones” – to ensuring that people get enough to eat.

This advice implies a change of emphasis: from “what’s in it for me?” to “how might I serve?”

Practice not doing …

When action is pure and selfless,
everything settles
into its own perfect place.

Practice not doing? Could this be a prescription for idleness? For laziness? Not at all, although I must admit that idleness does have its advantages, soulfully and creatively speaking.

“When action is pure and selfless, everything settles into its own perfect place”: could this be the very definition of contentment? If so, why is it so hard for the bulk of humanity to realize?

You’ve likely heard it said that human beings are selfish by nature, but selfish is a loaded, ambiguous term of self-reference: i.e., “enlightened self-interest” or “thinking only of me, myself, and I”?

There’s a strong case to be made for enlightened self-interest, for positive selfishness, which I won’t address here. Having said this, action pure and selfless has appeal if viewed in the right light.

Lao Tzu is famously quoted as saying “the way to do is to be”, i.e., your doing flows best from your being.

Just be: two simple words that are loaded with meaning, and yet, not so easy to practice in such a way that everything settles easily into its own perfect place when action remains pure and selfless.

Can I trust myself? Can I trust who I am? Can I trust who I am with you, and you, and you?

Could I allow myself to cultivate and assume an attitude of humility that fosters such trust?

In Source we trust? In Self we trust? In Tao we trust? In God we trust?

Good questions all.

Implications for Personal Fulfillment

As I mentioned earlier in this post, if you’re feeling unfulfilled, or if you’re looking to be more fulfilled, I would advise that you start by looking at your relationship with lasting contentment.

I say “lasting contentment” because, for most of us, mere contentment is a relatively easy thing to experience (a waif can be momentarily content chewing dry bread in a filthy hovel).

I’ve already explored the possibility of attracting and manifesting a lasting source of contentment in my post, A Context for Contentment, which I published in late April of this year.

With reference to this post, I’d like to summarize the key takeaways from the verse above.

First, in and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with money, status, wealth, power, pleasure, and belongings. Even those who aim to replace money and wealth with a common heritage recognize their value in the interim (perhaps only because they feel compelled to do so). The problems arise when these material objects of desire are pursued inordinately or constantly for their own sake. Such pursuits expose a blinkered understanding and appreciation of value in human life, relegating contentment, happiness, freedom, and fulfillment to an extremely narrow range of value.

Second, I’ve observed that being content with who you are and what you have is an inside job. The catchphrase, energy flows where attentions goes, applies very well to this observation.

Thankfully, you have a few options that you can exercise in daily life, if all that you feel that you can do is to experience mere moments of contentment in a busy, hectic day:

  1. deliberately stretch those moments, either in terms of length, breadth, or depth
  2. contemplate the wisdom of allowing yourself to be swept up by a busy, hectic day
  3. open the heart of your soul to exploring new and fresh sources of contentment

pause, breathe, smile

Third, I recommend a deepening of appreciation for not doing, in the following light:

Simplicity, patience, compassion:
these three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts,
you return to the Source of being.

Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Fourth, I encourage a contemplation of what it means to be truly rich, as follows:

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Last but not least, be grateful for who you are and what you have; a daily gratitude journal might help.

Having enough, by any measure, is different for everyone. Lose the envy; if someone is blessed with the skill and wisdom to contribute much of value to others, they deserve to have all that they desire.

In my next post in this series, I’ll be exploring a perspective that can support you in adopting and better appreciating the wisdom of living contentment that I’ve shared with you in this post.

Next up: Living Infinitely


This post is one of many in an ongoing series that began here.


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