What do you really value?

One of the gifts of living mindfully is that you are able to discern what has real value in life

Buterfly sitting on hand / Understanding real value

There was a group of old Japanese men who would often get together to chit-chat and enjoy each other’s company. They would share news while sipping tea. One of their favourite things was to find expensive selections of tea and concoct delightful new blends.

When it was the turn of the oldest member to host the group, he served tea with an elaborate ceremony. His demeanour was meticulous as he carefully measured out the tea leaves from a golden container and prepared the tea before serving it to his friends who loved the exquisite taste of his tea. Indeed, they were so impressed that they insisted on finding out the secret recipe of his tea.

The old man smiled and said, “Gentlemen, the tea that you find so delightful is the one that the peasants on my farm drink. The finest things in life are neither costly nor hard to find.”

The myth around rarity

We tend to value things from the filter of our perceptions, which have been coloured by a lifelong belief—if it’s rare and owned by only a few others, it must have great value and must be ‘expensive’. Conversely, if it’s freely available to all, its value is low or even zero. In the Zen tale above, had the friends of the old man known beforehand that the tea they were served was not ‘exquisite’, they would have, in all likelihood, not perceived it as delightful.

I, too, grew up with this belief instilled by the society and reinforced in my days as a student of economics. I learnt about the inverse relationship between demand/supply and the price of a commodity. Simply put, when something is available easily and in vast quantities, the price tends to be lower and vice-versa.

I also learned that this demand/supply relationship is contextual and may change based on ‘market forces’. In short, while growing up, the basic idea—that rare equals precious—was firmly established in my unsuspecting mind.

Real value

One of the gifts of mindful living is that you call into question your thoughts and beliefs. As I grow in mindfulness, I sense that the way I have learnt to value things doesn’t work for me anymore. I have begun asking myself: why do I place greater value on inert stuff while I hardly ever think about the things that are most vital for my life, even if easily available? Air, water, sunlight, a good conversation, a loving hug… although absolutely vital, are free. And yet, don’t I take them for granted?

Such questioning has helped me understand that the real value of the stuff has nothing to do with its ‘psychological’ value. While the former is intrinsic and based on pure experience, the latter is shaped by beliefs, perceptions, social norms and the like.

No longer do I equate expensive or exquisite with valuable. Instead, I look for the real value in things and experiences. The more I cherish that which is of real value to me—regardless of its price tag or rarity—the richer I feel, and the more I am able to live my life fully.

A version of this column was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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