The Bigger Picture

“In my work with professional women, I’ve seen that happiness continually escapes them because, first, they don’t understand exactly what will make them happy. They just don’t know themselves well at all.” – Kathy Caprino, Senior Contributor to Forbes Magazine

“I sometimes still get confused about my real priorities (maybe it is a lack of wakefulness, clarity or sheer stupidity) because I fall too often for the easy quickly fixed ones, which are probably not real priorities. … I like your emphasis on recalling what is most “experientially” sacred to us and what we feel most inspired by in life (maybe a good ritual to start the day) and then attend and nourish that even if in small ways.”

Five minutes after the last week-long retreat I led, my son and I were sitting on a lawn looking out over the expansive grounds and lush gardens, and he asked me, “What do you think the participants are taking with them from the retreat?” I thought about it for a moment and replied, “Hopefully, a greater sense of their real priorities and how to go about fulfilling them.”

Such a retreat, which is meant from the start to explore the bigger picture of life, is removed from the kinds of daily obligations, concerns and distractions we usually juggle. The intention is to dive into the priorities, experiences and yearnings that we may have forgotten about or never saw clearly in the first place. As you suggest in your comment above, that’s often tough to find in our day-to-day lives. Your choice of the word “confused” is well placed. And that confusion can become dangerous if it goes on for too long, as well articulated by Kathy Caprino in her Forbes magazine article, ‘The Top 8 Things People Desperately Desire But Can’t Seem To Attain’, which addresses what is often missing in the lives of those who are externally successful, many of whom make hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year:

“What’s so intriguing about these responses is that it’s becoming more obvious with each passing year that the things we humans desperately long for today are not only universal and timeless, but also have become even more elusive and challenging to access and sustain, even as we ‘evolve’ and develop in this tech-frenzied, time-crushing world.”

Now, I don’t believe that Forbes magazine is going to solve the universal and timeless questions of what people desperately long for, or even what real priorities are. But it is good news that those who have made it in the world of social, career and ambition achievement are noticing that they desperately long for something else even so.

Of course, each of us has to determine what our most important personal priorities are. The list of the 8 most desperately longed for priorities in the linked Forbes article – in order, happiness, money, freedom, peace, joy, balance, fulfillment and confidence – seems significant enough, I suppose, although I wonder how much of the bigger picture these people are actually looking at. (For example, where is love, trust, relief from suffering for those they care about, or improvement for the afflicted world in which they live? I’d guess that having your own happiness and money as your first two priorities for too long would basically guarantee failure with all the rest on that list.) In any case, it is important to actually take the time and focus to seriously explore what our real priorities are, and I applaud all efforts to do so.

In my own explorations of the bigger picture, I’ve found that what we most desperately long for extends from our intrinsic values. I wrote about those values in this blog back in March 2015 and you can find that post here. For simplicity, though, I’ll list the five most essential universal and timeless values below (universal because they exist no matter what your race, age, gender, religion, political preference, education and beliefs are; and timeless because they are embedded as the primary themes in art, music, literature, myths, symbols and rituals in all cultures throughout recorded history):

1) Care / Protection

2) Fairness / Reciprocity

3) Ingroup / Loyalty

4) Authority / Respect

5) Purity / Sanctity

At a glance, those probably look like abstract ideas that you wouldn’t place on your top priority list. But if you look back over your life, isolate each of these intrinsic values and make them concretely specific, then look again, you may find that these are indeed what make up the bigger picture. For example, let me delineate this list with specifics that have consistently shown up in conversations with colleagues, friends and clients over decades in their most revealing moments…

  1. The care and protection of our wellbeing and vital enthusiasm for living, of those we love, and of our most treasured experiences; and being cared for by those we love.
  2. Fairness and reciprocity in our personal and professional relationships; and corrections made for abuses, negligence or blatant disregard of trusts given.
  3. Being oneself within a group of dependably loyal friends, family or colleagues who share the same interests and intent, and participating in activities and conversations that are exceptionally meaningful, rewarding and fun.
  4. Finding our true place as the authority of our chosen vocation and spheres of expertise, and receiving the appropriate acknowledgment and respect for all it took to get there and sustain it.
  5. Knowing and having consistent access to something, someone, someplace that generates the experiences of awe, serene faith and a return to innocence – an intuitive sense that the most important things are okay after all, now, and will be over the passage of time.

If you make your own list from these five intrinsic values with precise names, places, activities and designs, you will at least have greater clarity about what you deeply if not desperately long for, which is worthy knowledge from which to envision and construct real priorities. I don’t think we can do that in one sitting, nor can most of us access the necessary clarity as a ritual in-between juggling our daily obligations and practical concerns. But I do like the (also universal and timeless) ritual of stepping back from the usual grind once a week to reconsider what the bigger picture is and our place relative to it. And perhaps a couple of times each year for a longer length of time in an environment that allows for and promotes such reconsideration and exploration.

Making and having one’s own list, though, is not just a word or a thought game. A list is part of the process of clarifying awareness – a sort of map to those desperately longed-for destinations. In my last blog post, ‘Intensity of Aliveness’, the key point I was making is “setting alight the ideas by getting out of our heads into visceral engagement.” To define the bigger picture is an important, even radical start; then there is the traveling to the destinations – actually living in accordance with our real priorities. By doing so, we don’t only see and understand the bigger picture, we enter into it.

Image: Celestial map from the 17th century, by Julius Schiller

5 Comments Add yours

  1. JR says:

    When I first read your post, I thought “Wow, that is me”, as in the subject has been a nagging internal question I’ve been constantly preoccupied by. In fact it is about me, like it is about many people I know. I’ve become externally successful; I have a solid job and recognized career that I do well and am complimented for. I have more money than I know what to do with, and I’ve never been this stable. And yet, I’m not as happy as I was 10 years ago when I had none of that.

    The 5 universal values you described in detail… I know your writing enough to know that you took a hundred years to pick each word, that every one is exactly intended (in contrast to most writing which aims for somewhere around the mark). So as I read your descriptions I am taking the words precisely. The effect is visceral. How much is wrapped up in those longings we might dare to resurrect or recall to ourselves… the disappointment uncovered in hopes deferred or let go… Beautiful.

    On another note, the post helps bridge the gap of time since your last event and give my memories clearer context.

    Thank you for this vast post and all the possibilities within it that I’m already working with under the surface.

  2. R. says:

    Thank you very much for this in depth enlightening view of the bigger picture and for helping us clarifying / redefining our priorities. I deeply appreciate your input and the passion behind it.

    I find the 5 intrinsic values extremely fascinating and they make total sense. As I see them they can then act like a magnifying glass to clarify or reinvigorate some of our deeper (sometimes lost) essential priorities or longings. As you said it is not going to be done in one sitting and will require patience and muscles. As I age I have seen my priorities changing and I’m a big fan of the stepping back rituals as long as some concrete actions do follow!
    I will confess that I have made priority lists in the past and it is very easy to forget or ignore them. We all need to come back to our “map” regularly enough so that we can check that we are still travelling in the right envisioned direction.

  3. SmokyRose says:

    When I first read this post, especially your delineated list of intrinsic universal and timeless values, I was wondering if what you’re pointing to is really true. That is to say, are these really what we long for more than anything else? After some days of considering my own life and listening more carefully to those around me (including what I pick up from the news and articles I read), I’m thinking that Yes, this is true. I’m not necessarily sure of how to live according to these or be true to them, but I see your list as a kind of “Lost and Found.” Meaning, those who are deeply lost – for example the people innocently caught up in the war in Ukraine where everything else is stripped away – would certainly agree with you completely. And those who are “found” – I’m thinking of my own best states when I’m not obsessed with my pursuits or even personal betterment issues – naturally find themselves with this kind of deep clarity about the bigger picture or what, beyond all else, really matters.
    I was also thinking that you nicely nailed that last item on your list: “consistent access to something, someone, someplace that generates the experiences of awe, serene faith and a return to innocence.” That’s a simple phrase that sums up the essence of what people seek through all faiths.

  4. Mihai says:

    During a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed parts of this article. We stayed with “participating in activities and conversations that are exceptionally meaningful, rewarding and fun.”, for a while wondering what would make such engagements exceptionally meaningful.

    An image came, from the retreat you mention: someone with good diction and esthetic sense of stage presence was asked to read an article linked to the topic we were conversing about.

    One interpretation could be that an opportunity was created so that the person’s skills (maybe even priorities) could be set alight in front of the group. At the same time, the level of presence and precision in the room could lead to the discovery of refinements and the deepening of the already well-sharpened skills.

    This was a simple action, maybe not necessarily easy to create, which we found to be exceptionally meaningful because it enhanced everyone’s experience in the group, it showed care, it set the frame for more reciprocity, it encouraged “Finding our true place as the authority of our chosen vocation and spheres of expertise” and, for the brief time that the article was read, it aimed at rediscovering “an intuitive sense that the most important things are okay after all”.

  5. aka Guy says:

    “The bigger picture” was wisely chosen.

    “Such a retreat, which is meant from the start to explore the bigger picture of life ..”

    In a world with more intelligence and less consciousness, “the bigger picture” is reduced to the next large smart tv screen available. 😅

    Each day passing humanity is falling behind. Spiritual search and work, as we know it, might get illegal soon or under the label of mental illness. It is imperative to see the big picture now!

    WIth that said, what do we possess inside ourselves that allows us to see the big picture? Once we understood that Mind and brain (the mind of perception) are two different things, we set the mode to access “a larger me” potentiality or “the bigger picture”.

    We carry within ourselves an extremely curious observing awareness that shows us, in the right conditions, a glimpse at the big picture but that dissipates and fades away at the level of intellect. This is something we are born with and that we use for learning as a baby and a child. One learns by observing parents first, people and surroundings. This is a natural function that is eventually overthrown by education.

    In former times, one could learn a skill by watching others performing their art. One would learn on the spot and acquire more than a skill. They would acquire life experience and competences. One became a craftmen by crafting.

    A little story:
    In the north of Québec huge dams were built for hydroelectricity. They used gigantic trucks with 13 feet high wheels to carry the waste material. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Lectra_Haul_giant_mining_truck-Asbestos%2C_Quebec.jpg)

    One winter one of those trucks stopped working in a difficult field access. They brought mechanics who spent long hours looking for the problem but with no results. All the time, an eskimo on a snowmobile was watching. After a while, he went to see them and said: ” the problem is the fuel pump “. The workers started laughing and the eskimo left. Then the goverment sent a bunch of engineers to resolve the issue. They spent weeks investigating and testing to find out that the fuel pump was the problem.

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