The Dynamics of Contentment
A friend of mine once acted in a Broadway musical that starred a the legendary figure of the British stage. The script was a disaster, the director a tyrant, the cast a freakish assemblage of mis-matched personalities. Everyone in the production seemed permanently on edge. Everyone, that is, except the Englishman.
One evening over drinks, my friend asked him his secret. “Dear boy,” said the Englishman. “I’m a contented man. You see, I have a boat. I keep it docked at the 72nd Street pier, and every few days I take the boat out for a sail. When I’m on the water, all the stress just blows away.
A few years later, my friend ran into the Englishman on the street. The man had changed dramatically. He looked drained, thin, and sad. My friend asked if anything was the matter. “Well,” the Englishman said, ‘You know I got divorced.” “I’m so sorry to hear it,” my friend said. The Englishman gave a hollow laugh. “Oh, the divorce isn’t the problem,” he said. “The real problem is, my wife got the boat.”
As my friend often says, this story needs no commentary, because most of us know how it feels to lose something or someone we thought was the source of our contentment. Even more discouragingly, we know how it feels to go out on our own version of that boat, only to discover that this time it doesn’t bring us contentment.
The dictionary defines contentment as ‘the state of satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.’ What the dictionary doesn’t say is that contentment is a state we have to bring up from inside ourselves -often in the teeth of loss, disappointment, and change. That’s because, as most of us figure out by the time we get to grade school, we can’t count on anything external-anything we can ingest, live in, kiss, spend, or achieve– to go on satisfying us forever.
Clinical psychologists call this the problem of the hedonic treadmill. Suppose you win the lottery, marry your beloved, take your company public, publish your novel to universal acclaim. You feel great for a while. Then, little by little, your prize becomes part of the furniture, and you find yourself looking for another hit. That’s because we all have what recent studies have labeled the “happiness set point”, an internal default setting that we inevitably return to, regardless of life’s rewards or setbacks. In other words, a chronically depressed person will settle back to his normal down mood even when everything seems to be going well, while an optimist will tend towards good cheer even in the midst of sickness and disaster.
Yet some psychologists, most notably Martin Seligman in his books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness, argue against the determinism of the inalterable set-point. Echoing the texts of yoga, Seligman maintains that working with our own thoughts and feelings can radically change our capacity for contentment-without resorting to Prozac.
The key word here is ‘work’. Seligman’s underlying point-here, psychology aligns itself with yoga-is that contentment is something that has to be practiced. Most of us know how to practice discontentment. We routinely sabotage our good moods by worrying about the future, comparing our achievements, looks and body weight to others, or telling ourselves negative stories about our lives and relationships. The yogic practices for getting to contentment are simply tactics for reversing these tendencies, for retraining our minds to view life from a different perspective.
Stop and Breathe
One of the watershed moments in my journey to contentment happened in the nineteen-eighties. I was about to give a presentation to several thousand people. I had been asked to change my talk at the last moment, and as a result I was late for the program. As I raced down the hallway, I could feel my heart thumping, my breath thready with fear. My mind began a familiar spiral into despair-I knew I’d never pull this off in my current state.
When, out of nowhere, I had a realization. I suddenly saw that it wasn’t necessary to give into my panic. I stopped, in the middle of the hallway, and began to coach myself. “Breathe,” I said. “You’re fine. Suppose you do mess this up. You’ll still be a good person..”
This was such an unexpected thought that it almost didn’t compute, since like most over-achievers, I fully believed that my self-esteem could never survive a failure. Yet as I said it, I became aware that there was indeed an undercurrent of good feeling underneath my panic, a faint part of me that actually was ok. And then I made a radical inner shift: I gave myself permission to hang onto that feeling. As I resumed my race to the podium, I deliberately, consciously, stayed with the breath, and the feeling of okness. I don’t remember how other people reacted to my presentation. I just remember that while I was doing it, I felt good. And, in a high pressure situation, that had never happened to me before.
Steps to Short Term Contentment
Until that moment, I had never realized how much we deny ourselves contentment. Even when it surfaces, we often put off feeling it, thinking that we’ll get around to contentment when we’ve finished what we have to do, or achieved what we have to achieve, or built the life we think we want. So, in the short term, there seem to be two levels of accessing your own contentment. One involves working with the various tools that help counteract the entropic pull of dissatisfaction. Talking back to your judgmental inner voices, perhaps, or taking a moment in the middle of a tough day to stop, feel your feet on the ground, and breathe from the diaphragm. Thinking of something you’re grateful for and whispering “Thank you.” Taking a walk in the fresh air, or doing a yoga posture. The level is to learn how to hang onto the feeling of contentment when it arises. And that’s the hard part.
Long Range Contentment
As a thirty year student of contentment, I’ve come to the conclusion that getting to lasting contentment-the kind that’s there even when the bottom is falling out of your life– is a transformative journey. It requires an inner realignment that includes moment-to-moment practice, but also goes much deeper. In fact, getting to contentment demands that you look squarely into the causes of your own dissatisfaction.
The Message of our Discontent
Discontent isn’t random, nor is it simply the result of your temperament and habits of thinking. Any feeling of dissatisfaction contains a message, a built-in wake up call. When we feel discontent, it’s almost always because we’re out of touch with our most authentic self, and with the desires that come from our heart’s core. That’s why we rarely acheive a condition of lasting contentment until we are willing to examine our own feelings of dissatisfaction, trace them to their source, then found a way to make steady contact with our own source of internal nourishment. The first process is often called self-inquiry. The second usually involves meditation. Of these, more later.
For now, let’s start with the basics. You’ve probably heard the classic prescription for shifting from dissatisfaction to contentment, because it’s found in every one of the great wisdom traditions. Whether you read the Stoics and Epicureans of Greece, the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism, Indian texts like the Yogasutra and the Bhagavad-Gita, or St Paul’s kick-ass Letter to the Corinthians, you’ll discover that the bottom line practice for contentment is to give up wanting what you don’t already have, and learn how to accept what you cannot change. Here’s how one yogic commentator puts it: “?just as to escape from thorns it is necessary only to wear shoes and not to cover the face of the earth with leather, so happiness can be derived from (the practice of) contentment and not from thinking that I shall be happy when I get all I wish for.”
Exercise: What I Have is Enough
You might try experimenting with this yogic affirmation. Breathe in, and think to yourself, “What I have is enough”. Breathe out, and think, “What I am is enough.” Breathe in and think, “What I do is enough.” Do this for several minutes, noticing the feelings that arise.
Become aware of both the feelings of peace, and the feelings of resistance that might come up. If you’re like most contemporary Americans, some part of you is going to have a series of doubts: ‘Yes, this is a nice exercise, but what about my dreams and wishes, the achievements I require of myself, the skirt I have my eye on at Banana Republic, the ideal partnership I want? What about my calling to do something about preserving the environment and help farm workers get a living wage? How am I supposed to be contented if I don’t accomplish all that?” In short, you may find yourself wondering if this practice isn’t just an invitation to goof off, a justification for social inequities, or a consolation prize for losers.
Yet, practicing being content with what you have is not a synonym for resignation. Resignation is about despair. Contentment comes from seeing the intrinsic goodness in what is. It’s actually a powerful platform for action, because it removes the desperation that so often accompanies our doing. The practice of contentment is not for wimps. Not only does it require a willingness to accept yourself and your situation, it also demands that you be willing to change yourself in ways that may be uncomfortable precisely because they are so freeing.
Contentment in the Crunch
I came to understand this recently as I watched my friend Joel navigating his way through a major life crisis. Joel is not his real name-in exchange for letting me tell this story, he asked that I protect his privacy. But Joel’s journey is paradigmatic-it shows in high relief the steps that take us to steady contentment.
When his troubles started, Joel had what appeared to be a highly successful professional life. A recognized authority on large-scale change in organizations, he received handsome fees for speeches to business groups around the world.
In 1999, Joel got an idea for an e-business. His plan was to get it up and successful, cash out, and use the money to finance what he really wanted to do. A year later, just as the Internet bubble was bursting, he came down with severe strep pneumonia. In the nine months it took him to get back to normal, his business venture went belly up, and the stock market tanked, wiping out most of his investments. His wife wasn’t working. They had a mortgage and private school tuition to pay, decimated savings and almost no income.
That part wasn’t so bad, he says. It was spring, and he spent a lot of time out on the lawn, watching the birds and ruminating, something he hadn’t had time to do in years. His friends told each other that Joel’s illness was turning out to be a blessing in disguise, a much needed opportunity to get some rest.
It got harder, though, when he began looking for work. His lecture gigs had dried up, and when he looked for corporate jobs, no one would hire him. For Joel as for so many former surfers of the 1990s economy, the early years of the 21st century offered an unremitting series of head blows to the ego. “We were broke,” he says. “I was completely failing in my obligation to support my family, and the financial insecurity was really scary for my wife. All the external moorings-the things you count on like praise and satisfaction in work — were dropping out of my life.”
The main things Joel had going for him were his wife’s willingness to hang in with him, a habit of meditation, and the teachings of the spiritual path he’d been following since 1979. He is a student of Siddha Yoga, a tradition that emphasizes integrating your inner practice with your daily life, and Joel had, as he puts it, “somehow developed enough of an understanding of how life works to accept what was happening.”
Happy Even When You’re Unhappy
The clue that Joel found himself working with was a koan-like statement from spiritual master Swami Muktananda’s: “Meditation gives you the power to be happy even when you’re unhappy.” He’d always heard that as a promise that regular meditation practice puts you in touch with the state of wholeness beyond the superficial mind, the part of us that can withstand assaults on our well-being. But as he thought about it, he realized that Muktananda’s statement could be interpreted in a broader sense-not just as a kind of pr for meditation practice, but as encouragement to accept unhappiness when it comes, instead of trying to escape or bypass it.
“This was big for me, because I have a real attachment to being happy. But the more I relaxed into the situation, the better I got at dealing with it, and the more I was able to feel ok with whatever was going on.”
Accepting What Is
It seems paradoxical that contentment could start with giving yourself permission NOT to be contented. But we don’t change our state by resisting or running away from it, anymore than we get rid of unfulfilled desires just by telling ourselves to give them up. The first step in the journey towards contentment is always to stop and let yourself be fully where you are in this moment-even if where you are is frustrated, out of sorts, insecure, scared, full of dissatisfaction, thwarted ambition, or anxiety. Usually we’re afraid to do this, imagining that we’ll end up wallowing in misery. But accepting your situation is very different from giving into self-pity. Unlike wallowing, acceptance lets us relax the inner muscle that keeps trying to control the uncontrollable, and frees us from the terrible stress of pretending that everything is ok when we know it isn’t.
An Exercise: Investigating Discontent
Moving towards acceptance starts with letting yourself be present with what is happening. Think of it as a form of investigation. Close your eyes and focus on the breath. Let the breath be the anchor you use to keep yourself steady as you begin to investigate your feeling. Now think of something that brings up your feeling of dissatisfaction or discontent, of wanting something you can’t have. Notice how it feels, and see if you can find the tendrils of your own discontentment in your mind, in your body. As you feel them, say to yourself, “It’s ok to feel this way. It’s ok to have this experience.” Now, if you like, you can ask yourself ‘What’s behind that feeling of frustration? What’s inside the sadness? What’s underneath the fear?’ Observe what arises, simultaneously focusing on the breath. After a while, you should notice your inner landscape of feeling starting to morph. Keep it up for a while, and you’ll notice that the stuck feelings dissolve, or turn into something else. Don’t expect that this exercise will have you smiling and cheerful in a moment. But you’ll probably notice after a while that these feelings aren’t static. They shift and change, all by themselves, because that is the nature of feelings.
Oddly enough, it’s our resistance to our feelings and our situations that keep us stuck in them. When we accept what’s going on, without resistance, we make room for things to change. How that happens is mysterious, but the act of acceptance seems to connect us to our own source, to that subtle level of being where stuck energy, stuck relationships, and stuck situations start to straighten out even before we have actually done anything to move them.
Ask the Right Questions
But if contentment in the moment starts with acceptance, getting to long-term contentment inevitably involves asking yourself some basic questions. This is the beginning of discovering what sort of inner transformation is being asked of you.
As job opportunities dissolved in the distance, Joel finally began to ask himself what message he was supposed to be getting. Part of it, he realized, was about financial discipline-it was time for him to discover how to make do with less. But when he asked what the deeper lesson might be, he saw that he really wasn’t right for any of the jobs he was seeking. As much as he might want the security and perks of a corporate job, he didn’t like working inside corporate culture.
Joel had always known he wanted to write serious fiction. In his early twenties, he had decided that this was economically unrealistic, so he had given it up. But now, with everything he tried to do crumbling in his hands, he saw how much of his life had been spent in conflict between what he really wanted and what he thought he was supposed to do. The current crisis was demanding that begin acting in alignment with his deeper dreams.
The first step was to decide to start working on a novel.
“Just committing myself to writing changed everything,” he says. “Once I was no longer at cross purposes with myself, everything else started to fall into place. I realized that my day job also needed to be something I found meaningful-that nothing would work for me otherwise”.
These days, Joel nurtures his novel in his spare time, while making a reasonably good living as an executive coach and traveling conference monitor. His family is not out of the financial woods, and he’s frustrated that his travel schedule leaves little time for writing. But he enjoys his day job, and more, he feels content with himself.
“I know I’m not safe from another catastrophe,” he says. “But all this has made me fairly expert at living a difficult life. If something bad happens, I know I can deal with it.” He’s arrived, in short, at a state the yogic sages would applaud-the state of living without fear of what is to come. I’d call that contentment.
Living Your Own Life
Two of the classical yogic strategies for living with contentment show up in Joel’s story. The first, of course, is the strategy of accepting what is. The second is a lesson we are all taught (and generally ignore) in high-school: that lasting contentment can only come when you are being your authentic self. This, I find, is nearly always the real message behind our feelings of dissatisfaction. In order to move towards a state of sustained contentment, Joel had to settle a fundamental question, a question that all of us can ask ourselves: am I living my own life, the life that expresses who I authentically am? Or am I simply living the way my culture and family and peers the people around me think I should be living? What do I need to do and who do I need to be in order to feel authentically myself? If you ask yourselves these questions, and listen for the answers, surprising shifts occur. And these shifts will hold the clues to your personal path to contentment.
Not everyone gets to choose their means of livelihood. Yet each of us can find ways to authentically express our personal strengths and gifts-the qualities of character that belong to our essential being. We know when we’re doing this, because that’s when we feel most deeply aligned with ourselves. We know when we’re not, because that’s when we feel off-kilter. In our culture, where the dream of being ‘special,’ of having a big destiny drives us even when we don’t know it, the experience of real alignment often comes when we begin to allow ourselves to be, well, ordinary.
Miles, a teacher and spiritual counselor from New Mexico, told me recently that the most important shift he’s made in the last few years has been releasing his need to be impressive. “Sometimes one of my students will invite me to dinner, and they’ll have invited their friends to meet their teacher, and I won’t have anything to say. A few years ago, I’d have forced myself to hold forth for them, to perform. Now I can just be there, be as dorky as I am in that moment, and feel fine about it.”
Authentically Yourself: Finding your own Dharma
This quality of being authentically yourself, just as you are, without pretense or struggle is what we really mean by integrity– the ability to fully integrate even the uncomfortable, difficult parts of yourself into the whole, so that your thoughts, your words, your body language, and your actions all express your deepest values. In the yogic tradition of India, the inner truth that integrates all the different parts of us is called swadharma-literally, one’s own law– and real happiness is said to stem from our ability to follow that inner law, the path that rightly belongs to us.
Your swadharma is your inner compass, the path you follow to wholeness. People often used to ask my teacher how they could find their swadharma, their own personal mission or destined path. He would say “Your real swadharma is to know your Self, the divinity within you.” On my own journey towards contentment, I’ve always found that the question “Does this thought or action or decision take me closer to my own divinity or not?” is one of the great shortcuts to the truth in any situation. My ego might have all sorts of opinions about what’s good for me. The inner Self simply knows that behind all situations, challenges, opinions, behind all questions of preference is the ground of what is, and that when we rest in that ground, we’re open to the grace that is the real source of contentment.
Everything we do to come to the state of contentment rests finally on our ability to occupy our own ground, the state of pure being that lies behind our thoughts and actions. As it was for Joel, regular meditation is one of the keys to that state-and finally, the bottom line for finding contentment. “It was my vipassana practice that showed me how to find the essence inside every moment,” one woman told me when I asked her how she was dealing with her own tough time. “Anytime I can stop, breathe, and feel the pulsation of life inside my body, I can feel contentment. I know at that moment that it’s my mind and ego that’s worried and upset. My deeper being is always just fine.”
A Practice of Meditation
What she is talking about is what I call the fundamental gesture of meditation, a core practice in nearly every eastern tradition. Here is a basic practice for experiencing a meditative state.
Exercise: Simple Meditation
Sit with your back upright yet not rigid.
Close your eyes.
Listen to the sounds around you, without trying to identify the sounds, make sense of them, or push them away.
Feel the sensations inside your body.
Follow the movement of the breath, the entire arc of inhalation and exhalation.
Notice the thoughts that are coming and going. Do this without trying to make sense of them, or avoid them. Every time you notice yourself following a thought, as soon as you become aware that you’re thinking, bring your attention back to your breath.
Now, bring your attention into the center of your chest, beneath the breast bone, inside the body. Feel the pulsation of your own heart beat. The rhythm of your heartbeat is the rhythm of life. Each heart beat signals a new moment, a new present. Just be with it, allowing the breath to flow naturally. You aren’t trying to change your state, or ‘get into meditation.’ You’re simply being with yourself, in this moment, as you are.
The pulsation of the breath and the heart beat are the anchors for natural contentment. They are always there, in the moment. To make contentment last, to make it a condition of our lives, we practice letting go, and acceptance. We find our heart’s real calling, our authentic sense of self. We learn how to inhabit ourselves by following our swadharma. Yet, in the highest sense, contentment is the gift that comes when we touch the timeless essence inside a particular moment of time. That means that it is always accessible. In any moment, no matter what else you may be feeling, you can open the door to contentment by giving yourself permission to stop and be with yourself. Focusing on your heart beat. Feeling the pulsation of the breath. Saying to yourself, “Whatever I have is enough.” All these are doorways into contentment. It can sneak in any second. You just have to open the door, and let yourself accept that its there.
© Copyright 2003-2006. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.