Eight years ago I was working at one of the top ten corporate law firms in the country. The money was great, I had my own office, I had access to the company’s biggest clients, and I worked alongside some of the most powerful and well-respected partners in the field. Despite the status and perks that came with the job, I was desperately unhappy. Grueling hours, difficult personalities, and high stress levels contributed to my discontent, but as we all know, these experiences aren’t specific to corporate law firms. More often than not, they are a routine part of corporate life, regardless of the profession.
So what was it? Why was I so unhappy at this particular job? The answer revealed itself to me as I witnessed an uncomfortable exchange between a partner and two associates—the values of this firm aren’t in alignment with my calling. In other words, I wasn’t ethically in sync with the corporate objective that influenced every facet of the firm. This realization opened me up to the possibility that I could be working elsewhere, doing something entirely different—something that reflected my values.
After two weeks of interviews, I was contacted by two different companies with job offers. The first was with a nonprofit, offering a great salary and a strong benefits package. The second offered an opportunity to work in a creative environment (which I always wanted) but for less money and a junior title. There I was, at the figurative crossroads. Which position would lead me down the path of empowerment and happiness? If I had based my decision on the limited perspective of my ego, there would have only been one choice, but by utilizing the principles reflected in “The Sacrificial Cow” parable, excerpted from THE TAO OF HAPPINESS by Derek Lin, I allowed my heart to choose the right job for me instead of my head. I’ve never been happier and you can be too. Open yourself up and allow the simple life lesson told in the following excerpt to be a lasting influence on your life.
The Sacrificial Cow
A royal envoy came to a village to look for its most famous resident, Chuagn Tzu. When he found the sage, he bowed and said: “Master, I bring greetings from His Majesty, King Wei of the Chu Kingdom. The king is a great admirer of yours and would like to offer you an invitation.”
Chuang Tzu smiled at this, and the envoy continued: “His Majesty has great plans for the kingdom and needs a sage such as yourself as his royal minister. This is a position of tremendous power, Master. You’ll live in luxury at the palace, with nothing but the finest clothing and food, and all must bow to you with the greatest respect, because you will represent His Majesty in everything you say and do.”
The envoy thought Chuang Tzu would be excited by this offer, but Chuang Tzu did not seem especially impressed. He asked the envoy: “Have you ever seen the cow that is prepared for sacrifice at the annual festival? The peasants drape a beautifully embroidered ceremonial cloth over it and feed it the finest feed, as much as it wants. When they lead it to the temple for the ritual, all villagers in sight kneel down and pray to it. Have you ever seen it?”
This question was so unexpected to the envoy that he could only nod in response. Chuang Tzu then asked: “When the cow is about to be slaughtered for the ritual, do you think it wants to be there? If you were in the cow’s position and aware of what will happen, would you not rather exchange places with the calves out in the field?”
“Of course I would, Master.”
“Even if that means giving up the finest clothing and food, as well as the respect of the people who bow down to you?”
The envoy finally understood. Chuang Tzu smiled again. “I think you know my answer now. Please convey my gratitude to His Majesty for thinking of me.”
The first message in this story is a warning against the overzealous pursuit of power. So many of us compete with one another to climb the social ladder, but at what cost?
It is not uncommon to see high achievers who have neglected their health and relationships. Publicly, they may seem like the royal minister, commanding others and enjoying all the good things in life. Privately, they may feel more like the sacrificial cow about to be slaughtered.
The second message in this story is about the temptations we chase after. The blanket to cover the cow represents the material things we desire; the feed for the cow is the physical pleasures we seek; the praying of the villagers is the attention we crave. Chuang Tzu’s message is that these seemingly attractive things, carried to an extreme, can lead us down a path of destruction. The festival may be a celebration for the villagers, but for the cow it is the end of the road.
Does this mean Chuang Tzu wants us to refrain from having any kind of material success? Is he teaching us that a life of poverty is a life of happiness, like the carefree happiness of the calves in the field?
No. The Tao is not about poverty. It is about awareness. Being aware means understanding what you are getting into, not just for the present but also for the future. Never be the sacrificial cow, being led around by the nose with no clear idea of what will happen next.
When you encounter a choice in life, it is like coming up to a fork in the road, where you have to choose which way to go. And offer like the position of royal minister is like a path that looks good initially but turns out to be difficult and hazardous. The farther you travel down such a path, the worse it gets. By the time you give up and turn back, you’ve already wasted too much time and effort.
Not all choices in life are like that. You may receive an offer that is in tune with the Tao. It can be a genuine opportunity that leads to fulfilling work, personal growth, and great benefits for you and others. It is a path that may not seem remarkable at first but turns out to be easy and safe. The father you travel down this path, the more you enjoy yourself.
Use Tao cultivation to help you choose wisely at the crossroads of life. Bring a higher level of awareness to all the choices you make, and always look beyond the initial impression to perceive the underlying factors. That is how the Tao can warn you against the dangers of the road and show you how to navigate away from hazards. Think of it as the ultimate GPS… for the spiritual journey.
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