What Really Matters?
The question ‘What really matters?’ is a vital one.
‘What does really matter?’ ‘What does really matter to you?’
I have asked this question of myself and of my clients for many years and several different facets have emerged. In this blog, I am going to explore some of the ways in which what really matters changes over a lifetime.
When I look at what matters to my teenage son it is not the same as what matters to somebody who is 70 years old. He is bound up with issues of getting independent, of group identity, of dreaming a way for himself in the world. Soon, he will be pursuing relationships in a more serious way. In the early years most of us want to do this. This is is what's most important to us then. Of course, behind this is the love and security of his home and his parents. This is the essential water within which he swims.
Now, for me at 61, what really matters to me is very different. I want simplicity, I want peace, I want to enjoy my relationship with my partner, Trish and our kids and I want to give back.
When I look back, some things have changed radically. I remember our children almost unable to contain their desire to have iPhones. They eventually got their first iPhones and were absolutely enthralled. They have since had new phones and it was exciting but nothing like as exciting as it first was. This happens. Getting a new car at 50 is not the same as getting one’s first car. The pursuit of the excitement gets considerably less rewarding over time.
But, it’s not only the pursuit of excitement that changes, it’s also the pursuit of pleasure. In our earlier earlier years we tend to think that we can learn how to experience happiness most of the time and we try to do this by pursuing pleasurable experiences and by trying to avoid unpleasant ones. This is, of course, Freud’s ‘pleasure principle,’ the motivation behind the instinctual side of ourselves.
Over a lifetime, however, one realises that one can only increase one's happiness to a limited degree and this is backed up by very solid scientific research. The research on happiness, for example, indicates that if we try to make ourselves happy by having one pleasurable experience after another this strategy tends only to have a marginal effect. Through repeated life experience, we begin to accept that, although it is natural for us to pursue a happy life, life will have its ups and downs.
What also tends to happen over a lifetime is that that the nature of the pleasures change. As one gets older, many people find the deeper reward in more subtle pleasures that come, for example, from acts of kindness, gratitude and silence. Of course, this may be masked by grumpiness, depression, bitterness or anxiety but the general trend is there.
It is also true that, as we age, we begin to realise that there are deeper motivations than the simple seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Here I'm talking about those things that are longed for deep in the heart, the things that give one meaning. So for example you may have a deep desire to write or to paint. And, if you do, it will be clear that these callings do not necessarily operate via the pleasure principle at all. Writing or painting may feel deeply right to you but they are not necessarily always pleasant. Often we have to work very hard to learn our craft and there are many blocks, barriers and failures along the way. But, something in the heart knows that this endeavour is important. Really important.
The pursuit of these deeper desires tends to lead to deeper satisfaction and the interesting thing to me about them is that, as one deepens this process, so one begins to realise that one is actually serving something else. Something else is living itself out through you. And, if you speak to accomplished artists, writers, therapists, spiritual teachers, and so on - if they are conscious - they will tell you that something writes, paints or speaks through them. That’s how it works when creativity and wisdom are at their best.
Now, the pursuit of the deeper motivations of the heart may be a stepping stone on a spiritual journey journey that begins with the ego driven by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain and then moves on to serving the deeper desires of the heart. This, however, is not the end of the road. Even if one is engaged with one’s heart’s deepest desires, there will still be the feeling that something missing - at least some of the time.
This fundamental dissatisfaction - Buddha's samsara - may motivate you to delve deeper for solutions and, if you do, you will notice that a factor that dramatically affects your experience is your state of consciousness. If you are very anxious, you will experience life as a series of threats. If you are depressed, the world will tend to look very bleak. If you are angry, you will find no shortage of things to get angry about. But, no matter how aware you are of this, mood states will still come and go.
So, you might dig even deeper and, if you are lucky, you will find a meditation class or a course in mindfulness or a spiritual teacher (or one of a thousand other ways of realising the same thing) and through that process you begin to become aware of a much deeper aspect of yourself - even deeper than the desires of the heart or the states of consciousness - and that is consciousness itself. Consciousness is the mysterious awareness that is aware of all that you experience. It is your deepest sense of identity – the ‘I Am’ without content. It is the you that is aware of all experience and, like it or not, it is a mystery.
Having realised this, we can see something absolutely vital and that is that what really makes a difference is where we experience life from. In other words, if we are firmly seated in our ordinary selves, then life just consists of ups and downs - good and bad experiences - and many fairly neutral experiences besides. But, if one is sitting in consciousness, then there's a spaciousness, a peace, a quiet joy and a profound sense that everything is okay, no matter what is happening. It’s not that ordinary experience stops, it just becomes much less dominant.
So, what really matters most varies over a lifetime. At any point in your life what matters most is what matters most deeply to you.