Back in my early personal development days, I spent many hours with pen and journal in hand trying to create ‘values hierarchies’ – lists of things that mattered to me in the order that they mattered. My lists would vary from year to year, but would inevitably look something like this:
- Financial Success
I would then spend my time trying to ensure I experienced each of these things on a daily basis to align my life with my values.
As I’ve gone deeper into my exploration of the principles behind the inside-out understanding over the past eight years, one of the things I’ve really noticed is that how I think about my values has fundamentally changed. Whereas in those early days, each line item represented a category of experience to be pursued and cultivated at the expense of anything lower down the list, my more recent reflections have been showing me that what matters most to me in any moment is more thermometer than thermostat. That is, my “values” seem to shift according to my state of mind, so I can tell how centered and peaceful I am in my self by what seems to be important to me in the moment.
When I’m caught up in my thinking about “getting somewhere” and “being someone”, my values hierarchy seems to look something like this:
- Survival/Not worrying
- Growing my audience/Selling lots of books
- Getting rich without getting greedy
Then, because I feel so guilty about focusing on such unenlightened, earthly, egotistical things, I quickly rewrite my list to make myself sound like a nicer human being:
- The well-being of the planet
- Making a difference in the world
- Being a good husband, father, and friend
What’s interesting is that all of those things actually do matter to me. Survival strikes me as an excellent idea. Worry sucks. I would indeed like to sell lots of books and get rich, and I fear that Mr. Greed may one day head up a hostile takeover and become the acting CEO of my business. By the same token, I really do care about the well-being of the planet, I’d love to think I’m making a difference in the world, and nothing matters more to me than my wife, family, and friends.
But here’s what I’ve noticed:
When I’m at home within myself in a relatively settled down state of mind, my list of what matters to me shifts.
What matters most becomes far more internal and far less “mercenary” or “worthy”:
1. The peace and presence of the divine
The traditional rule of thumb in values work is that “unmet needs motivate”. But in my experience, the peace and presence of the deeper Mind works in the exact opposite way, following what I sometimes call “the Winnie the Pooh principle”:
The more it snows (tiddly pom)
The more it goes (tiddly pom)
The more it goes (tiddly pom)
In other words, the more I am experiencing the peace and presence of spirit, the more that experience is the only thing that matters to me. Unlike physical hungers, which burn bright until sated and then disappear, my longing for connection with the larger Mind more closely resembles what in the Sufi tradition is called “the perfect thirst”. The perfect thirst is one which is perpetually satisfied but never quenched, that we may always be drawn to continue drinking from the well of spirit.
So the more I experience peace of mind and connection to a larger whole, the deeper I want to go into that experience. The more I have it, the more I want it. And since peace, love, and spirit are infinitely renewable resources, I can drink from that well every day until the end of time and the level of peace, love, and spirit in the world will continue to rise.
2. A feeling of goodwill towards others
It was a bit of a shock to me the day I realized that for all the years I’d spent studying and teaching how to create rapport – essentially the art of getting people to like and feel comfortable around you – I’d never really spent any time learning how to get myself to like and feel comfortable around them. This 180 degree shift in perspective had the two characteristics of all great insights. On the one hand, nothing changed but everything was different; on the other hand, I felt like a complete idiot for all the years I’d been going about things completely backwards.
Fortunately, the desire to live in a good feeling with and towards others extends all the way to my own little self, and I’ve learned to forgive myself almost as easily as I forgive the people around me. It’s not that we don’t all behave like idiots from time to time; it’s just that I can see the innocence in it more often and let go of my thinking about it more easily.
3. Seeing life with new eyes
One of the reasons that Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol has continued to enchant audiences for over 150 years is that it’s an unapologetically hopeful ghost story. We can all identify with the Scrooge-like judgmental thinking about scarcity and greed that takes over our heads from time to time. We can all recognize that if our past and present were held to direct account, we might not like what it reveals about our future. But most of all, we long for the possibility of waking up tomorrow with fresh eyes and realizing that our fate is not yet sealed and (to go from Dickens to Natasha Bedingfield) the rest of our lives are still unwritten.
So the “secret” of what matters most is simply this:
The soul values different things from the ego.
And in seeing that, our relationship to what matters most changes. Rather than think of our “values” as ideals to pursue, we can use them as a barometer for how close or far away we’ve gotten from our true nature. And fortunately, like Scrooge waking up on Christmas Morning or George Bailey finding Zuzu’s petals and realizing he gets a second chance at living his wonderful life, finding our way back home is never more than one thought away.
With all my love,