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Seek Contentment Not Indulgence

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

It's been a long time since I wrote a poem! Just kidding, I don't know how to write poems. I'm actually just translating another verse from Lao Tzu's Dao De Jing, but I did try to make the translation sound poetic! If I had to name this poem, I would call it, "Seek Contentment Not Indulgence."

Excessive sights blind the eyes.
Excessive sounds deafen the ears.
Excessive flavors numb the tongue.
The thrill of hunting makes the mind reckless.
The rarity of treasures harms people's goodness.
Hence, the sage seeks contentment not indulgence;
Thus, eliminates the later and cultivates the former.

Original Text: 五色令人目盲;五音令人耳聾;五味令人口爽;馳騁田獵,令人心發狂;難得之貨,令人行妨。是以聖人為腹不為目,故去彼取此。

Source: Dao De Jing, Chapter 34


In our materially rich world, seeking sensory stimulation and sensory highs has become so common. Excessive visual stimulation, such as binge watching TV all day, can hurt the eyes. Excessive auditory stimulation, such as going to a rock concert, can hurt the ears. Excessive flavoring can numb our taste buds, requiring ever more flavoring in the future to feel the same level of taste.

Excessive mental stimulation, or thrill seeking, makes our minds reckless. We lose common sense and are likely to do things that hurt us, hurt others, or both. For example, people who indulge in drugs will hurt their brain, and when they get drunk or high, they might do irrational or careless things that end up hurting others. People who do extreme sports have a much higher risk of accidentally killing themselves.

When people encounter rare and precious things or opportunities, they might become selfish and lose their virtues, doing all they can to grab that object or opportunity for themselves, regardless of what harm it might cause to others. Virtues like kindness, humility, and wisdom are what make humans admirable and superior to animals. Is it not shameful to only care about one's own desires at the harm of other people?

Given how harmful indulgence is, the wise sage cultivates contentment and guards against indulgence.

Contentment Comes From The Middle Way

The Middle Way means using the right thing, in the right way, in the right amount; not too much, not too little, just right.

For example, when cooking a dish, we don't just use any random flavorings, we use the flavorings most suited for that recipe. We also don't put a random amount of flavorings, we put the right amount so that the flavor is not too strong, not too weak.

Similarly, when seeking mental stimulation, we should seek it from proper and healthy sources, such as good literature, soothing music, uplifting conversations. But even these good things must be done in appropriate amounts. Too little has no effect; Too much is counter-productive.

The Deception of Indulgence

Perhaps some people might argue, "But it is so pleasurable to indulge! What's the point of living if I can't let myself indulge once in a while?"

First, I would ask, "Would you accept $10 from me today if you had to pay $20 back to me tomorrow?" Similarly, you might get temporary pleasure from indulgence, but the amount of suffering you have to pay later is much more. The craving for that high again is suffering. The inability to reach that high with the same amount of substance is more suffering. Sensory highs are too short-lived to be worth it. Contentment, on the other hand, is a long-lasting good feeling without any suffering attached.

Second, I would ask, "When you indulge, are you the master of yourself, or are you a slave to your indulgence?" Indulgence leads to harm. What kind of master would harm themselves? It is slaves that get harmed by a cruel master. Is it not shameful to let ourselves be a slave to a cruel master named indulgence?

Some people are able to cut off addictions right away. Others need to do it slowly. Each person needs to find the method best for them. For example, I used to play a lot of video games. At first, I cut back on video games by spending more time on reading self-developing books. After a certain point, I cut off completely because I know there is no benefit to playing video games.

I also used to eat a lot of unhealthy sweets. I then switched to healthy sweets like dried fruits. These have health benefits as long as they are not eaten in excess, so I still eat them now, just in appropriate amounts.


Do you indulge in anything in excess? If so, how can you become your own master again and cultivate contentment?


Weekly Wisdom #219


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