What is contentment? Is it happiness? or simple satisfaction? Or, is there more? Here are some words that I associate with contentment: peace, tranquility, relaxation, feeling ok. But, isn’t there more? When was the last time you felt content? After a nice meal? After completing a project? While watching your grandchildren play? Looking out at the ever-changing, always present, ocean?
According to Jillian Pransky, (Deep Listening) contentment is more than just happiness or satisfaction. It is the ability to be ok with how things are right now, regardless if we perceive them as “good” or “bad.” It is the ability to accept things the way they are. Period.
We spend so much time trying to fix things, and other people, trying to make things (and people) “better,” that we forget how to simply be where we are, with whatever circumstances we are facing, with no need to change anything. “Things” will change anyway, so why do we need to orchestrate?
There was a farmer who grew excellent quality wheat and every season he won the award for the best grown in his county. One year a reporter from the local newspaper interviewed the farmer and learned that each Spring the man shared his seed with his neighbors so that they too could plant it in their fields…
“How can you afford to share your best wheat seed with your neighbors when they are entering their crops in the competition with yours?” the reporter asked….
“Why that’s very simple,” the farmer explained… “The wind picks up pollen from the developing wheat and carries it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior wheat, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of all the wheat, including mine. If I am to grow good wheat, I must help my neighbors grow good wheat”…
The reporter realized how the farmer’s explanation also applied to peoples’ lives in the most fundamental way… Those who want to live meaningfully and well must help enrich the lives of others, for the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. And those who choose to be happy must help others find happiness, for the welfare of each is bound up with the welfare of all..
I’ve had this Buddha for almost fifteen years. I got it before I understood anything at all about meditation, or Buddhism. He sat in the middle of my “medicine wheel garden,” in Northern California. I planted herbs and flowers that were rumored to heal everything from arthritis to depression. I wanted them to take over and grow wild. This plastic Buddha sat there and watched as I put all my hopes and dreams into making natural medicine. Nothing much happened though. The sage did well. And the rosemary. But everything else needed sun and heat, and we were living under a persistent bank of fog for the seven years we were in that house. I decided that the Buddha was not a wizard with magical powers to make things grow. I left him in that brown, uneventful circle to suffer in the cold and wind and rain.
Even though he had disappointed me, I took that plastic Buddha with me when we moved. He lived in a storage shed for a couple years, lonely and forgotten while we traveled around, looking for another “perfect” place to live. Finally, almost as an afterthought, when we settled again, I put him in a new garden. This one was filled with flowers and shrubs and more weeds than I could name or keep under control. Still, he sat there, left hand on his leg, facing up toward the sky, right fingertips pointing toward the earth, face serene and unscathed by the rejection I had forced on him. He was not fazed by the four inch hole in his lower back that had happened in his first snow storm. No big deal. He just sat there, observing, breathing, smiling faintly.
And that is the lesson he gave me when I was finally ready to listen. Stop trying to control nature. Work with it. Sit quietly. Watch. Notice. Breathe. Be the witness.
Sometimes the river takes us in a very different direction than we intended. We fight, we lose. We accept, we survive.
Here is something I read in a recent yoga class from Rolf Gates’ Meditations from the Mat:
“At a Native American gathering in Arizona for the 1999 summer solstice, a Hopi elder said, “There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold onto the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history we are to take nothing personally, least of al ourselves, for the moment we do that, out spiritual growth comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves, banish the word ‘struggle’ from your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred way, and in celebration. WE ARE THE ONES WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR.”
“We only work to 70% of our ability,” said the tai chi teacher. “There is no need to push any farther.” Wow. What a relief! Imagine being ok with doing only 70% of your work every day, getting 70% correct on your latest math exam, or brushing only 70% of your hair in the morning. It’s kind of freeing, huh?
I read a book while I was in graduate school called “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” It was a very dense and difficult book for me back then. But, back then, I was only functioning at 70% of my potential, so….Anyway, the gist of this book, and a cardinal rule of psychology, is that parents do not need to be perfect. They just need to be good enough. Again, wow. Once I realized that, I think I breathed completely for the first time since giving birth to my first child in 1978. Good enough. I could actually claim that badge. I was a good enough parent. Not that my child would agree, but that is beside the point. I felt good enough and that was what mattered.
Another fine book was called, “I’m OK, You’re OK.” I remember reading it way back when, and then I remember looking at the faded yellow binding on my bookshelf for a few decades after that. I never read it again. But that binding made a difference in my life. Every time I looked at it I reminded myself that everyone, and everything, is OK. No doubt. It’s all OK. Wow.
I like 70%. It’s my new favorite number. But only 70% of the time.
And the solid, straight path eventually led to a small boat on a calm river. But, what lies beyond that cloud in the distance?
Solid ground. That’s my thing. Hands, and feet, in and on the earth. Rivers, lakes, streams, waterfalls, and the ocean are treasures for my imagination. But, when I’m actually IN the water, something significant changes. It’s like that dream of driving a car, from the backseat, with no brakes or steering wheel, and you’ve got kids depending on you. Usually I get through it, or the dream ends.
But, this, well this is something else. Rowing a boat down a river would be heaven compared to the uncertainty we are facing now. Regardless of the challenges ahead, I know there is always a winged creature watching over me. An angel? Maybe. A fairy? Perhaps. A bird? Most likely. Somehow I think I would be more brave and comfortable flying through the air than floating on the water. Strange, huh?
One day I will get in that boat and calmly start rowing toward the horizon. But, for now, the earth is my sanctuary, my sister, my reliable friend. She calls me when I don’t feel like working. She whispers in my ear, “You know you will feel better if you come outside and connect with me again.” The river can wait.