One of our biggest obstacles to contentment is that we don’t believe it’s possible… at least not yet, not now.
We are so accustomed to thinking that we can be happy only if certain conditions are fulfilled. We believe we can be happy, but only when we have a stable job, a partner, or our own house, for example. We think we’ll be content only when we achieve our goals, do what we’ve always wanted to do, travel to certain places, experience certain things. Contentment is a dream of the future.
Then when we fulfill that condition, does it really bring about fulfillment? Probably not. Then, we go on to the next thing. We conjure up another goal that we expect will bring contentment. We continue to look to the future for happiness. “When I can finally retire, and just take it easy–then I’ll be happy,” we think.
And by the time we retire, we’ll be too old and weak to engage in the activities that bring us enjoyment. Then what? Will we look towards the next generation? Will we expect that other’s happiness will bring us fulfillment? We imagine that when our grandkids are enjoying their lives, we’ll feel happy too.
With this kind of attitude, we condition ourselves to look towards external things for happiness. This lifetime habit is incredibly strong.
View of Permanence
At the root of this attitude is view of the lasting quality of our self and these objects that we seek. We have the idea that our careers, families, loved ones, emotional feelings, and even health are enduring, so we invest a lot of energy in acquiring and maintaining them. Even though in the back of our mind we know they are impermanent, they seem so real and stable. Only when there’s a shock, when one of these things changes or disappears, do we sense their impermanence.
By that time, we’ve already invested so much energy that it’s just too hard to let go of. It’s almost impossible to believe that we can be content at any moment. We are still caught in the idea that we can find something outside of us to rely on. If we lose one thing, if a loved one dies, then we can at least find another person to fulfill our emotional void.
So when someone tells us that, “The less you seek, the more content you’ll be,” or that contentment is in the present moment, we probably won’t believe them. Even if we do agree, something guttural within us says, “It’s not possible.”
For the fortunate people, they experience the jolt of suddenly dropping their seeking, and tasting a moment of contentment. For a brief period of time, all the expectation of happiness in the future falls away, and the mind experiences a degree of peace and clarity. With that comes a natural joy, not based on anything conditioned.
Maybe they realized this by laying down on the grass under the spring sunshine, just wanting to take a rest, and suddenly all their cares dropped away. Or someone asks them, “Why can’t you just be happy now?” and they drop all their anxieties. Or they just started walking very carefully, very mindfully, and found that walking down the street –even a busy noisy street–can be a most wonderful experience.
For these people, they were ready for such an experience. They probably were already cultivating a certain degree of mindfulness in daily life, developing self-awareness, or questioning their attitudes towards life. They were open to such an insight. They were willing to drop their seeking for contentment in the future.
Now the question is, are we willing to accept that contentment is possible right now? If you just stop seeking for a moment, relax yourself, breathe, and let your cares drop away, what is left? Not waiting for something to happen, what is your experience at this very moment? Even if the mind is filled with a flurry of thoughts and emotions, can you be content with whatever conditions face you?
The answer is yes, of course. Happiness is right here. Whether or not we can believe it, apply it, and maintain this experience is another thing.
But that’s what life practice is all about.