THOR HEYERDAHL, the leader of the famous
Ra and Kon-Tiki expeditions, was once sailing to the Marquesas
islands in the south Pacific on a schooner commanded by Captain
Brander. Thor quotes the captain as saying:
It's all crazy, but they [the islanders]
want it, like everybody else. I detest our own civilization;
that's why I'm here. Yet I spread it from island to island. They
want it, once they have a little taste of it...Why do they want
sewing-machines and tricycles, or underclothing and canned salmon?
They don't need any of it. But they want to tell their neighbors:
look here, I've got a chair and you're squatting on the floor.
And then the neighbor also has to buy a chair, and something
else not possessed by the first one. The needs increase. The
expenditure. Then they have to work although they hate it. To
earn money they don't need.
In every society in which people can improve
their condition and become materially better off, they want to.
This is true, whether those people are rich or poor. They all
think (and so do you and I) that "if I just had a little
more than I do now, I'd be happier." We are discontented
by nature. Discontent is biologically wired into our nervous
system. And in a way, it's good if it gets people off their rump
and working on a purpose.
But the price is discontent. Can you work
toward a better future while being content? Yes, you can,
and there are two ways to go about it. One is by making your
goal a duty, not a passionate desire, and then simply perform
all the actions appropriate to the fulfillment of that goal as
a sort of meditation, with your attention on an excellent performance
of your duty, and without much thought or desire for the end
goal. That's one way.
Another way is to alternate passionate
desire working toward a good with earnest expectation
with an occasional "contentment break." This
is working toward your goal with your attention on the end, on
the benefits you will gain from the accomplishment of that goal.
This is feeling the desire for the goal, even making it an obsession,
and certainly feeling very strongly about it, and then once in
awhile, taking the time to appreciate where you are and what
you have, and recognizing the truth that no matter where you
are, there is much to appreciate, and no matter where you ultimately
end up, there is really no end, but only a further goal to reach.
How can you "take the time to appreciate
where you are and what you have?" You can start a propaganda
campaign in your head (read
more about how to do that here) using the statement, "That's
not a need; I only prefer it." Say this to yourself. Make
it a kind of slogan you say to yourself once in awhile. You can
use it for small things or big things. And the best time to use
it is when your passionate desire and positive expectation has
turned to stress or pressure. At times like those, allow this
statement to drift into your mind, and realize that the goal
you have set is only a goal you have set, it is not a
need, and you won't die without it. It is only a game you have
set up, a preference you have created in your mind, and not a
This realization itself can create a contentment
break because often the games we create for ourselves become
real, like an actor forgetting he's on stage and feeling fully
the emotions he's portraying. This slogan is like the director
saying, "Cut. Okay, take a break everyone." The actor
wakes up to the fact that this is all a game, that it's not real.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying reality is an illusion.
I'm saying that your goal is not real. It doesn't exist
out here. It exists in your mind.
Let me be even more clear. If your goal
is a thing, like a house, it may, in fact, exist in reality,
but the idea that you want to own that house, the goal
of you owning that house is your own creation. The idea I
want to own that house doesn't exist out here in the world.
It exists in your head. It's something you made up.
I'm not putting down goals. I love goals.
But sometimes you get so involved in striving for the goal that
you forget this is all your game. It starts to feel real
and serious and important. And as long as it feels good, fine.
Have a good time. Keep it up. But when taking your goal serious
starts causing you upset or stress or depression, remember it's
not a need; you only prefer it.
This is similar to a little trick I've
used for watching movies that become horrifying. Every once in
awhile, a movie maker will throw in something disgusting for
shock value. Times like that, instead of being repulsed (a sensation
I don't care for), I remind myself that this is a movie,
and I am watching special effects or good makeup or whatever.
I bring myself out of the trance of the movie, and it prevents
the feelings of shock or horror.
People do the same thing in any game
chess, basketball, poker. Games can be fun. But they can also
be stressful and angering and depressing. At times like that,
it's a good idea to remind yourself it's just a game.
As "just a game" it's not so stressful or angering
or depressing. But when you're so involved in it you forget it's
a game, those feelings are very real and painful. It's not a
good idea to stay detached from the game the whole time, because
you miss out on the positive side of being fully involved in
the game, something that can be very much fun. So only use this
slogan when your involvement turns into negative feelings.
The same is true about the things you prefer:
Your goals and wishes and intentions. When your child is misbehaving,
and your goal is to help her be all she can be, as long as your
involvement is enjoyable, be involved, be engrossed, and fully
participate in the accomplishment of your purpose. But when your
involvement turns to anger, remind yourself that it is only a
preference that your child becomes all she can become.
It is not a need. This allows you to step out of the "stage
setting" for a moment and think about it. It allows you
to calm down enough to deal with it well. Anger almost never
accomplishes what you want.
This slogan gives you a way out. It allows
you to pull yourself out of the painful struggle and brings you
back to what you really want: a positive goal, something you
prefer. From that frame of mind, you can enter the game and enjoy
it. What can you do or say that will, starting from where you
are right now, and where your child is right now, use this trouble
to move you toward your goal? That orientation and that frame
of mind will accomplish much more than a negative trance-like
involvement where it feels like a must, a need, a dire necessity,
or something that has to happen. That's no fun and makes
you less effective anyway, so you might as well drop it. And
if you can't drop it, remember that wanting to drop it is not
a need or a must either; you only prefer it.
Let me be extra clear here. The thing to
realize is that you're fine already you don't need
to accomplish your goals. You may want to, but realize
that it is want, for fun, not out of necessity. It is on top
of what you already have: you get plenty to eat already, you're
already warm enough, you already get plenty of oxygen. You're
fine already. You're there.
When researchers studied rural villagers
in Samoa, they found very low levels of cortisol, which is present
in fairly high amounts in most people most of the time in modern
countries. Cortisol is a "stress hormone." It is produced
by feelings of anxiety.
And when a Western anthropologist wanted
to study depression in the Kaluli people of New Guinea, his research
was cut short because they didn't have depression.
Many of our ills are caused by too many
choices, too much desire, too many possibilities. It creates
a kind of frenzy of ambition, and a mad scramble to attain the
"good life." But it also creates anxiety, depression,
frustration, and stress. Often chronic. We don't need all the
things we think are so important. We merely prefer them, and
when we realize that, we get a break from the stress.
Go ahead and have goals and pursue them
in order to attain flow,
but be unattached to the results, the outcomes, etc. Remind yourself
constantly of what you don't need to be happy or survive.
That's not a need; I only prefer it.