Over the course of the last decade, I’ve seen my perspective on financial issues change radically many times. I started off as a person who spent money freely without any consideration for the future. That gave way to a person who was very careful with money and about his own future.
From there, things grew through several stages. I became quite proud of the choices I had made. I adopted a bit of pride and smugness in comparing my own financial choices to others. I began to be obsessed with moving faster and faster toward financial independence. Then, at some point, I began to step back from all of that and see things in a completely new way once again.
One of the first posts I wrote for The Simple Dollar was Ten Financial Bulls: Moving From Desperation To Financial Enlightenment Using A Zen Parable. In it, I took a classic Zen Buddhist parable that had brought me a great deal of peace at various points in my life and compared it to what I saw as a path to financial success.
Looking back on it now, I can see that I made those comparisons from a very different position from where I am at now. I believed I had achieved most of – if not all of – the steps in that journey at the time. Today, I see that I have actually achieved very little.
The lessons I take from Ten Bulls today are much different than what I took from them years ago, and so I think it’s time to look back on that parable that has served me so well over the years with a set of fresh eyes.
1. The Search for the Bull
In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.
Most of my life up until the last several years involved an endless struggle for meaning and for understanding my place in the world. Why am I here? What should I be doing with my life?
Although I had those questions in my heart – like many people do, I’ve found – I didn’t have the first clue as to how to answer them. When I did try to address it, through things like religious experience or studying philosophy, I would find myself tired and unfocused and without any answers that I didn’t already have.
My life’s journey felt largely empty. I wanted there to be a grand meaning, but I had no idea where it was.
At the same time, modern society is built to make it easy to drown those feelings in immediate pleasures. It is so incredibly easy to spend your money and your time chasing quick, fleeting pleasures – a rich dinner at a restaurant, a latte at the local coffee shop, yet another superhero movie with a plot you’ll forget in three days, countless hobbies and diversions that require an endless supply of stuff. All of those things provide a big surge of pleasure when you lay your money down, allowing you to forget your cares and worries for a little while.
But those cares and worries return. Spending money on simple pleasures is a powerful temporary fix, but unless you have infinite resources, it does not provide an eternal answer. Eventually, you find yourself right back where you started, seeking deeper meaning but never quite finding it.
2. Discovering the Footprints
Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.
I think my first steps beyond bouncing back and forth between empty searches for meaning and spending money on short term pleasures came from the birth of my son, both during the months of my wife’s pregnancy as well as in the months afterward as I experienced being a father. For the first time, I was forced to start addressing some difficult truths in my life.
Then, suddenly, in my first real burst of insight about my future, I discovered what you might call my first set of footprints, and once I saw those, I began to see them all over the place.
The truth that I was beginning to see was that the choices I made today, the choices I make in this very moment, have real consequences regarding the choices I’m going to be able to make tomorrow and next year and when I’m old. Those choices and their consequences also ripple out into the lives of the people I care most about. At the time, I began to see the ripples as they would spread across the innocent face of my infant son.
3. Perceiving the Bull
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?
Most of this parable of the Ten Bulls is about someone tracking a bull and what happens after the bull is discovered. Since it is a parable, it’s clear that the bull represents something else.
What is this bull that I am tracking, you might ask?
For me, at least, I see the bull as being the side of me that makes impulsive choices without really recognizing their consequences. It’s the side of me that yearns to run wild. It’s the side of me that can take me on incredible journeys if I allow it to, but it can also lead me straight into disaster.
This third step, in my eyes, is the realization that the “bull,” as I see it, is a part of me, but it is a distinct part that I can observe and control if I allow myself to do so. The “rational me” (represented by the “I” in this story) and the “impulsive me” (represented by the bull in this story) both live within my own skin. Digging into the relationship between the two and getting them to work together is what I find that much of the rest of the parable of the Ten Bulls is discussing.
In many, many ways in my life, I’m still sitting here at the third step in this parable. It is only in the most narrow of moments and specific experiences that I have seen anything beyond this. Beyond this point are mostly things that I understand to exist and that I have seen in brief, fleeting instances, but I have not yet come to truly incorporate into my life.
I often perceive the bull in many aspects of my life. I see him sitting there. I know what he is capable of. But instead of catching or taming the bull, sometimes I allow the bull to run completely free, without consequence. It is in those moments that I make mistakes.
My journey is far from over.
4. Catching the Bull
I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands
At that point in my financial journey, when I finally saw the bull, I sought to tame it through some incredibly strict self-discipline. I decided that the only way I was going to catch and control my sense of impulsive spending on short-term desires was to put some intense constraints on it.
So I locked things down. I practiced things like money free weekends. I tried every frugal strategy under the sun. I forced myself to spend money only within the strictest parameters to address life’s needs. I locked down a very tight budget and I willed myself to stick to it.
It was hard. It wasn’t fun. I felt beat up and miserable most of the time. My desire to spend without constraint was strong and getting it under control made me feel like life was full of misery and it wouldn’t get better.
I think that many people reach this point in their personal finance journey and they simply stop. For me, this stage is definitely the epitome of the hard path, the road less travelled.
5. Taming the Bull
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.
What I found is that, over time, several changes occurred to that strict self-discipline.
First, I discovered that some of the self-discipline elements were very self-defeating. They didn’t achieve anything truly positive in my life. I would do things that would take a great deal of time, for example, and it wouldn’t save me much money at all.
It took a while to really recognize which elements were self-defeating. I had to begin to really understand how I value certain things – free time, time with my children, my energy level, time with my spouse, time for experiences and hobbies, and so on – before I could realize how self-defeating some elements of over-the-top self-discipline can be.
For example, doing things like washing Ziploc bags was wasteful. In order to get them clean and dry, I had to spend a surprising amount of time. I came to realize that the solution wasn’t to start tossing Ziploc bags, either, but to move to resealable containers for everything.
I also began to notice that many of the truly sensible elements of that self-discipline – the stuff that really made sense and really worked in terms of spending less money without contributing an unbalanced amount of time to that effort – started to slowly become natural in my life. Buying generics became the natural way.
The bull slowly became tamed.
6. Riding the Bull Home
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.
This stage spawned most of the early content on The Simple Dollar. In many ways, I started to become an evangelist for the idea of financial self-control and financial improvement. I had a strong desire to share what I learned and thus I launched The Simple Dollar to share it.
We’ve all met people who are kind of evangelists for something new they’ve discovered in their life. They’ve mastered it to some extent and they’re really feeling the benefits. They want others to know about this great thing they’ve found. Some people do this better than others, of course.
It’s worth noting that I found this level to have a bad side, in a way. I began to feel pride and confidence in this self-discipline, knowing that I have improved, but, sadly, also seeing that others had not improved in the same way. I would see myself improving in that particular attribute in life, see that others had not improved, and thus view myself as somehow better in comparison and somehow view them as worse in comparison.
That, too, will pass.
7. The Bull Transcended
Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.
Within the specific barriers of personal finance, I feel that this stage describes my current feeling quite well.
In most ways, I feel as though the “bull” – meaning my impulsiveness when it comes to using and spending money – is so controlled that I no longer have to actively train it. In fact, the controlled bull has wholly become a natural part of my life.
I can internally sense when something is amiss when I make a spending error. It feels wrong when I spend money in a way that I shouldn’t. As with normal life, I naturally try to avoid actions that feel internally wrong, and taming the bull and transcending it managed to build up that internal sense of wrongness when it comes to money use.
I don’t need hard structures any more. I still budget and track my expenses, but that’s because I enjoy looking at the patterns that I can see in that data, not because I need the structure to keep me on the straight and narrow.
What’s often seen as “good” personal finance practice just seems completely normal to me these days.
8. Both Bull and Self Transcended
Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.
This is the point where I really begin to struggle with things.
I’ve come to realize that my inner self is full of bulls to be tamed. I constantly make poor choices when it comes to using time, using my words, using my energy, handling my emotions, being honest, and so on.
I am a gigantic collection of flaws and imperfections and, in many cases, awfulness. I am nowhere near the person I want to be.
And that realization takes me right back to the third stage in almost every aspect of my life. I mentioned above that I perceive myself to mostly be at the third stage in most aspects of my life because I see the flaws.
The possibility of what I could be – and how far I am from that – feels almost incomprehensibly vast. I feel as though I have failed in large aspects of my life since the beginning.
9. Reaching the Source
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without —
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.
If there are infinite bulls out there, if there is such a great distance between myself and who I could be, and that ocean is so vast that I can never really cross it, is there any purpose in self improvement?
If being the best possible person is just simply unattainable, what’s the point of all of this? Why bother to improve? It is often tempting to just shut down and give up, to return back to the first bull where I am completely oblivious to the bull and just acted on impulse in every regard.
The thing that keeps me from running back to that impulsive state is one simple realization. Life goes on. The past flows into the present, and the present flows into the future.
I have seen, over and over again, that the things I have done in the past shape what my life is like now, and thus the things I do now shape what my life is like in the future.
Making myself a more virtuous person – regardless of the virtues I choose – is hard. It is very hard. However, I’ve learned that in the moment, working hard on improving one of my virtues – whether it’s my financial responsibility, my spending habits, my honesty, my communication with others, my physical health, and on and on and on – turns out to be a great moment. I feel great when I push myself and I constrain myself and then I step back and think about and feel how I handle all of that.
I think about when I’m out of breath after exercise, or when I speak honestly and thoughtfully with someone else, or when I try out a better way of organizing my time. It can seem like a burden, like it’s the hard path, but when I let go and just step back and observe that moment, it feels great, almost as if I’m itching at a spot on my back that I can’t quite reach.
In other words, it becomes an appreciation of simply trying to catch the figurative bull. The process of trying to make yourself something better is worth appreciating all on its own, and it turns out that it’s a great moment. It is beautiful to see yourself stretch in a new direction and become something new, something that’s ideally more virtuous than what came before. The butterfly is beautiful, but so is the caterpillar and the cocoon.
10. In the World
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.
This final stage is something that I have the vaguest sense of, but it’s something that I am far from ever attaining.
The truth is that success and failure are part of who we are as people and they are just different responses to our experiences. Different people live differently, and it’s okay. They’re responding to the situations in their own life in their own way and, sure, it might be different than my own. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. It’s just different, and that’s fine.
When I write now on The Simple Dollar, I try mostly to focus on what has worked for me and what I have learned from that experience that improves my understanding of the world. I hope that it is just a buffet of ideas and options for you from which you can take what will help you with your own journey. I am not a role model, I am far from it. I am a person, however, and every person has something of value worth sharing. I hope that you can find it in my writings.
The moment is what matters most, and the future is just an infinite string of those moments. I like to think of it in terms of a necklace: a moment can be a pearl, incredibly beautiful on its own, and yet a string of them is a beautiful pearl necklace and a beautiful life.
A great day is one that’s full of those pearls, those moments. As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The beauty I see in a moment might be much different than what you see. I have come to believe that there is something great in every moment and my heart and mind hope to find it. I often fail at it, but sometimes I succeed.
Some days, the great days, I succeed a lot. I see a lot of beauty in the most ordinary moments. I find it when I push myself to be a better person in almost any aspect, among the thousands and thousands of bulls, or even when I step back and just observe the things going on around me.
And, yes, money does remain a part of that, perhaps even a big part. It’s an element of what makes it possible to see more beautiful moments, and to string together a lot of great moments. I don’t need money to experience the moment, but having enough money makes it easier to truly experience great moments through lower stress and a greater freedom to just lose myself in the now.
As I read through this article, I realize that it seems extremely philosophical at points, so I’m going to finish by breaking it down into something practical that can really help with your personal finance journey or whatever other life journey you find yourself on.
When you’re trying to change yourself, step back and focus on the moment. If you’re trying to improve your finances, ask yourself if, in that moment, you can move forward without spending. If you’re trying to improve your health, ask yourself if, in that moment, you can just take one more step or do one more rep or even just choose to get up off the couch in that moment.
That’s because, in the end, the bigger success you desire is just a string of moments where you made a small success out of that moment.
Then, appreciate those little moments. Relish the feeling of having done the right thing over and over again. Look at what that string of moments has added up to and what it means for all of the things you care about in your life – your relationships, your future, your career, and all of the multitudes of things within yourself.
It’s a journey, one that I find myself in the middle of and I suspect I will find myself in the middle of for the rest of my life. But this moment is beautiful in part because of what I have done to get here, and this beautiful moment might just play a part in making many more.