Chapter 46 – Contentment (All the Brave Horses)

When the world follows the Tao,
horses run free to fertilize the fields.
When the world does not follow the Tao,
war horses are bred outside the cities. 

There is no greater transgression
than condoning people’s selfish desires,
no greater disaster than being discontent,
and no greater retribution than for greed.

Whoever knows contentment will be at peace forever.

Translation by J. H. McDonald (1996)

Horses are but one example of how the natural world may be used to destroy or to bring forth life.  Of the horses I have known in my time,* every one of them would prefer grazing Year of the Horsetranquilly and contentedly to fighting and facing death.  Unfortunately, in this world it is not the horses that make the choices. The choices are made by humans.

What could cause a human to choose to fight when every horse would advise against it?  Lao Tzu mentions several causes here – selfish desires, discontent and greed.  He also tells us the antidote for such thinking.  It is contentment which will bring peace forever.

Since great minds think alike, echoes of these sentiments may be heard across the centuries:

Socrates is reported to have said:  “Contentment is natural wealth; luxury is artificial poverty.”

Herman Hesse wrote:  “This happiness consisted of nothing else but the harmony of the few things around me with my own existence, a feeling of contentment and well-being that needed no changes and no intensification.”

The Dali Lama has said:  “When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more.  Your desire can never be satisfied.  But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’”

And I think I will be content to leave this comment at that.  I want to listen to John Stewart singing “All the Brave Horses.”  If you would like, you can click here for the YouTube version.


*I am writing this in the Year of the Horse and I have mentioned a horse or two that I have known in my essay discussing what to expect during this year.  You can click here to read those thoughts.



  1. Good chapter commentary, Louis. Sorry your horse kicked you, glad you survived, and it appears horses value cooperation, are inherently opposed to grandstanding, and good – if harsh – teachers.

    Your post brings forward some random thoughts of my own about horse manure and selfishness:

    Researchers at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center are studying whether human infants are hard-wired to make ethical and moral judgments about right and wrong. They’ve found that very young children are natural helpers and often act in altruistic fashion, and have a sense of fairness which manifests in acts of helping others in distress as well as sharing the profits or rewards given for a shared task, even if all the proceeds for the task were given to just one of the participants.

    They have also found that children arrive in the world with broad-spectrum, pro-social predispositions. In other words, until it is nurtured out of us, human beings find it natural to be cooperative rather than confrontational and to create harmonious blends rather than individual dissonances. If you care to pass this on to a disciple of Ayn Rand, be careful. The word “altruism” is a hot button for them which often produces shrapnel.

    I just struggled through the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” and found it ironic that the Wolves of Hollywood would make such a picture and not see their own reflection therein. Only an intimate familiarity could so accurately depict the depravity of such selfishness, greed, insensitivity, and self-serving, destructive moral emptiness. I despised the fact that human beings were capable of even making such a movie, let alone actually indulge in such blind, destructive depravity.

    On the other hand, I watched the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” which won the 2013 Oscar for Best Documentary Film. It’s about the great back up singers in pop music – gifted musicians all, devoted to unselfishly produce a “blend” together – who, from the 1960’s on, imbued the music they cooperated in with transcendent expressions of our humanity through their vocal art. I noticed that while cooperation without ego produced the resulting perfect blend and the transcendental expressions emanating from the music, there was an odd nod given to the ego of the “star.”

    My own take was that true stars were defined as being leaders who served the blend by providing a central focus and direction which cooperated with – rather than exploited – the backup singers and cooperatively created a mutually crafted, exquisite musical environment. The selfish evil of Phil Spector – a wolf of Beat Street – and the ambient aggressive assertiveness of some of the other “stars” left me cold. Their egos were too much in evidence, their pursuit of self-centered victory more apparent and less representative of our true humanity than the joy of the process embraced by the backup singers.

    As time went on some of the backup singers found themselves in the limelight, up front in the star’s shoes as it were, and yet it was evident to me that when they went there they took that cooperative spirit, that devotion to the “blend” which creates the sublime, transcendental effect transmitted to the listener. When Lisa Fisher sings with Mick Jagger it’s not about being a “star”, it’s about moving fluidly into the subtle, vital vibe of the moment, and skying on it. The best music is always unselfish, because selfish music does not lend itself to sharing. It doesn’t cross over to the beholder, and what often happens is only an acknowledgment and glorification of the personal achievements of the “star.”

    I once saw Tommy Bolin commandeer the stage at Tulagi’s in Boulder from John Lee Hooker with a mind-blowing guitar riff which was remarkable for its technique but utterly egotistic, uncooperative and self-glorifying in that place at that time. After the riff was over and the local fans paid Tommy’s ego its due, John Lee Hooker said, “You go ahead on,” and relinquished the stage to Bolin. A perfect example of the difference between fluid movement and the hard, loud insistence for its due by the personal ego. I was pissed, I’d gone there to listen to John Lee Hooker.

    One thing that sticks with me from the movie is something Dr. Mabel John said. She’s a former Stax-Tamla Records singer who became a minister. When she saw the weight which many singers carried as a result of being used and exploited and unrecognized and marginalized, she wisely counseled them to look beyond how they had been treated, to look beyond that message which told them they were of less worth than others because they had gone unrecognized, unlauded, and so felt they had become faceless, anonymous, minor cogs in the great music machine.

    “Check out your worth,” she said. “Because your worth is more than that.”

    • Wow – so many concepts here.

      I am somewhat aware of the studies done at Yale. Looking at the results you mentioned through the lens of my bachelor’s degree in psychology and the fact that I sometimes discuss such things with my daughter who has a master’s in educational psychology, combined with my reading from time to time of A Course in Miracles and The Way of Mastery, I could make the argument that there is a point in human development at which the ego expands and the illusion of separation and the accompanying “fears” come into a child’s life. I don’t want to go any further with that discussion now because I would like to talk about movies.

      The most recent film I watched was 42, which as you probably know centers on Jackie Robinson “breaking the color barrier” in major league baseball. One scene that stands out is the Phillies’ manager shouting racist remarks at Robinson until one of the Dodger players – a man who had previously signed a petition stating that he would not play if Robinson was on the team – crossed the field to confront the manager. Back in the dugout, that Dodger sat next to Jackie Robinson and there was an awkward silence until Jackie said, “Thanks.” The other man replied that he had to do it because they were on the same team. Thus, there are times when the illusion of separation breaks down even among adults.

      After Jackie’s baseball success, he was joined by Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, then Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and many others. That got me thinking about the part baseball played in the larger civil rights movement, and then about the music of the movement.

      I recall listening to songs by Pete Seeger and Sam Cooke and Peter, Paul and Mary and many others – songs that had been around for years but were adopted by the movement – songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Bob Dylan gained his initial fame based on movement-oriented songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Only a Pawn in their Game,” “The Ballad of Emmett Till” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Those thoughts, in turn, got me thinking about Len Chandler.

      Chandler was never a big star, and most folks today have never heard of him; but he was a force in civil rights music back in the 1960s. He was a classically-trained African-American musician and a contributing editor of Broadside Magazine. When Dylan first came to New York, Len Chandler was already there and became one of Dylan’s mentors. The most commercially successful song he wrote was (interestingly) the Serendipity Singers’ version of “Beans in My Ears”; though most of his work was much more serious. He is probably best remembered (he is still alive, but not performing) for “To Be a Man.” Other strong songs include “Keep On Keepin’ On,” “Time of the Tiger” and “Bellvue.” “Nancy Rose” is a great love song and “Missionary Stew #2” is another humorous work (a talking blues).

      In the early 1970s, Chandler joined Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Holly Near and others in a tour of towns located near military bases to perform overtly anti-war material in shows for thousands of military personnel who were also opposed to the Vietnam War. That tour was chronicled in a 1972 documentary, FTA. Apparently the movie was only around for about a week and then it “mysteriously disappeared.” That’s what it says on I didn’t know about FTA until very recently. I have watched clips from the movie on the internet, but have not yet seen the whole thing. I think I should watch it soon.

  2. As I study hexagram #3 of the I Ching, it talks of horses as well. Horses have the power to carry us forward at record speeds (compared to on foot) but we must move in an appropriate direction or we could get really lost. As a yin force in our lives, they allow us to determine the direction.

    I have noticed that the movies and shows are quite sick these days. Is it me or is it getting worse?

    • Amy, I generally try to avoid watching television (except certain sporting events) so I cannot say much about current TV shows. The last two movies I have seen are 42 and Frozen and I did not think either of them was “sick.” There are always those who believe that a vital role of art is to shock the general population. Consider famous movies like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs or even Deep Throat. Those aren’t movies from “these days,” but you could argue that they are as sick as anything we have today – or are at least the progenitors or todays sickness. Back in the mid-19th Century, books like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs presented a very “sick” picture of life to the world. There are even many parts of the Bible that offend almost everyone’s sensibilities. I think what may have changed today is that a larger portion of society seems to accept the shocking as more normal than it has been accepted before. I generally try to avoid or ignore those things, though; just as I ignore television shows.

      With respect to the I Ching, I enjoyed reading your comments on the third hexagram. The horses there did not seem very happy with the new beginnings, as mostly they were retreating from situations that appeared to be dangerous. As you consider the Book of Changes, you might enjoy this poem by Ron Padgett, entitled “Ladies and Gentlemen in Outer Space”:

      Here is my philosophy:
      Everything changes (the word “everything”
      has just changed as the
      word “change” has: it now
      means “no change”) so
      quickly that it literally surpasses my belief,
      charges right past it
      like some of the giant
      ideas in this area.
      I had no beginning and I shall have
      no end: the beam of light
      stretches out before and behind
      and I cook the vegetables
      for a few minutes only,
      the fewer the better. Butter
      and serve. Here is my
      philosophy: butter and serve.

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