This article was originally published by the International Network on Personal Meaning in the USA and Canada.
Chen, Yu-Hsi, Ph.D.
Department of Religious Studies
Fo Guang University, Taiwan
Mainstream psychology is not concerned with greed, or excessive desires, as a morbidity that can lead to emotive disorders and mental suffering. Instead, it hypothesizes that the gratification of desires and wants is a necessary condition for mental health and happiness. Logotherapy has offered an insightful challenge to this Freudian view, arguing that the key to happiness lies in the discovery of meaning of life, not in the pursuit of gratification of desires. But this is a topic to be discussed in a separate article. Here I only need to point out that ancient Greek philosophers and Christian saints taught differently from Freudian psychology. The Bible also emphatically exhorts about the harmfulness of greed and craving. One important reason for this cognitive gap between modern psychology and ancient wisdom seems to rest with the acquisitive nature of a socioeconomic system that depends on the desire for gains as a motive force.
Oriental philosophies echo Christian ethics in this regard. Rather than seek the gratification of desires, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism all espouse its antithesis — contentment — as the source of happiness. Contentment in this context refers to a state of mind in which the potential psychic energy (known as libido in Western psychology) is transformed into a serene mental quality, rather than actualized as a desire that needs to be “gratified” or repressed.
Taoist sages Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu inculcated that craving for fame and wealth often resulted in moral depravity, and in many cases personal destruction. As Lao-tzu warned, “The greatest of woes comes from not knowing contentment; the greatest of faults comes from craving for gains.”1 He argued that the nature of humanity and, for that matter, of all creatures, was to live in a simple and plain way, no more than what was needed to maintain the healthy growth of the organism. Beyond that limit were “selfish craving” and “extravagance” that caused man to lose his genuine simplicity and spontaneity. Therefore, “A sage is free from excessive pursuit, enjoyment and expectation.”2 From Lao-tzu’s perspective, a sage is not the product of moral cultivation, but simply someone who lives according to his authentic nature — simplicity and spontaneity. This is an integral part of Tao — the great Way of nature. Alienation from Tao is seen as the root cause of all human problems.
Chuang-tzu picked up the same theme and used a vivid analogy to get across the message that contentment was in the very nature of all living beings. “Amid the exuberance of woods, a bird needs only one branch to build its nest,” he wrote. “And from the broad expanse of a deep river, a mouse drinks only enough to fill its stomach.”3 So, why do humans take more than they need? Chuang-tzu suggested that a human being could be happy with just a minimum of material means.
What are the implications of this Taoist thinking for modern people? First of all, one may raise the question that, unlike animals, human needs extend far beyond the physiological realm to cover psychological, emotive and spiritual needs. Even physiological needs change as civilization progresses. For example, people several decades ago were content with riding on a bicycle, but today driving a car has become a necessity. Does it make sense to compare human needs to the needs of a bird and a mouse? Do we have to give up the material amenities and comforts of modern civilization if we take the Taoist teaching seriously?
To be sure, ancient Taoists believed that simplicity of the mind could not be separated from simplicity of the life style. But the essence of the Taoist teaching is probably not that human needs are comparable to the needs of animals, but that we humans, like animals, can and should live a simple, spontaneous way of life by freeing ourselves from greed and craving for more than we need, regardless of how we define “need” in different social and cultural contexts. In their writings, the Taoist sages dwelt upon the harmfulness of greed as it could impoverish people morally and spiritually. On the other hand, “those who know contentment are enriched,” and “a contented person always lives in abundance.”4
While Buddhism also emphasizes contentment, it does not see material simplicity as a necessary condition. The Buddhist insight into simplicity and spontaneity centers around the transcendental quality of non-attachment and non-reactivity. Buddhist psychology has discovered a human potential for self-actualization neglected by Western psychology, that is, the potential to free the mind from its habitual pattern of grasping and rejecting, and of craving and aversion — a psychological mechanism seen as the root of mental suffering. A well-attained Buddhist can live in material abundance and yet keep his/her mind “detached,” i.e., free from the said mechanism. This means that he/she will be happy too if he/she has to live in poverty. From the Buddhist perspective, this insight of non-attachment and non-reactivity is the source of blissful contentment. It also suggests that the Western concept of “gratification of desires” can cover up the subtle psychological mechanism of attachment to what is desired, and it is precisely this emotive attachment that causes unhappiness and mental suffering. In Buddhism as in Taoism, the energy of desire can be “transformed” so that neither “gratification” nor repression is necessary.
Starting from simplicity, the Way of nature embraces the entire cosmic complexity in great harmony — in the integrated One. The two opposites of a dualistic pair are seen as balancing and complementing each other. Thus to the Taoist, the cycle of life and death is as natural as the cycle of day and night, and fortune and misfortune embrace each other. With this insight in view, contentment is possible even under extreme adversity. When Chuang Tzu’s wife died, he was grieved at first, but then beat a drum in joyous celebration. He explained that death was merely an extension of life, with each complementing the other; and if life was worth celebrating, so was death.
When the negative and the positive are seen as an integrated whole in harmony, life has no problem at all. All problems are created by man out of ignorance of the Way of nature. So we need not worry about anything. “Has a bird ever worried about its food for tomorrow?” the Taoist asks. Just relax and let go, and things will take care of themselves. Lao-tzu’s motto of “do nothing” (wu wei in Chinese) means that a wise person knows how to surrender his/her impulse to strive for gain, be it good health or good fortune, and allow nature to take its own course.
The importance of this teaching on “surrender” for spiritual cultivation and personal development cannot be exaggerated. For what can spiritual liberation mean if not the liberation from our bio-psychological impulse to strive to be different from what we are, or from the aforesaid mechanism of grasping and rejecting? Furthermore, it also has invaluable implications for modern psychotherapy, first because we know that emotive disorders such as neurotic anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc., are closely related to the impulse of striving, and secondly because the art of “do nothing” has proved efficacious in treating not only emotive disorders, but also physical illnesses. In fact, the therapeutic technique of “paradoxical intention” developed by logotherapy is a clinical application of the principle of “do nothing.”
To sum up, contentment as taught by Taoism has the following implications for modern society:
Luxury and extravagant consumption not only waste money, but also can be harmful to our health and mental well-being.
Craving for wealth and material possessions impoverishes us morally and spiritually, and freedom from such craving enriches us by enhancing our capacity for love, mental serenity, health and happiness.
Learning to develop a new insight that fortune and misfortune contain each other can help us avoid mental frustrations when misfortune strikes. The same insight applies to other dualities such as success and failure, health and illness, praise and blame, etc.
The impulse of striving to be different from what we are causes tension and stress, contributing to emotive disorders. Learning to master the art of “do nothing” or “let go” has enormous benefits for our mental and physical health.
In the Taoist philosophy, “do nothing” also means that we take action in a spontaneous, effortless way, and avoid imposing our subjective thinking and beliefs on others, especially when we are in a leading position. A successful leader is someone who can keep his/her mind open to all ideas and delegate authority and duty properly to those working under him/her. According to Taoism, dictatorship is doomed to failure because it violates the principle of “do nothing” and causes disharmony (though often disguised as “harmony”) within the group.
Meditation in “passive relaxation” not only helps improve our physical and mental health; it is also a good way to cultivate the art of “do nothing” as well.
Tao reveals that all is in flux. We invite trouble if we act against this cosmic principle by sticking to a rigid, self-righteous way of thinking.
Taoism teaches that Tao, the great Way of nature, has no selfish motives, that Mother Nature gives and nourishes without claiming anything in return. Learning from this cosmic virtue is the ultimate guarantee for contentment. So, the Taoist message of contentment does not imply a passive resignation to fate, but rather a selfless devotion and commitment to the well-being of humanity.
1 Quoted from Lao-tzu,, chap. 46.
2 Quoted from Lao-tzu, chap. 19 and 29.
3 Quoted from Chuang-tzu, Hsiao-yao-yu (Carefree Roaming).
4 Quoted from Lao-tzu, chap. 33 and 46.