Why is contentment so difficult to realize, and how does one find inner stillness, satisfaction, and peace of mind? This article focuses on a basic orientation of our culture that seems to keep us forever discontented, and also suggests some simple, practical ways to find contentment in the only place and time it can be found — here and now.
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of Spirituality & Health.
You can't buy it, force it, or pursue it, But you can open your eyes and see it.
Doing more of what you have already done isn’t the answer. More consumer goods, more work, more vacation, more lovers will not lead to greater contentment.
In our modern lives there is an epidemic of discontent. It is the tragedy of our times that no matter what we achieve, how much money we earn, or how many blessings come our way, more is never enough. For every desire you fill there is always another one coming just on its heels. You may own a house in Aspen and make more money than God or Bill Gates, but still the feeling of fullness keeps slipping away. That’s because contentment is not the result of what you have or even what you do in life.
Consider a time when you were really content, a moment when your inner yearning was filled. Maybe you were watching your child eat his first birthday cake or take her first steps. What a satisfying, fulfilling experience. Perhaps you were out fishing on a tranquil mountain lake or walking peacefully in the woods, far away from the deadlines and pressures of work and the insistent nagging of chores around the house. Or it may have been at work, when you fell into the rhythm of your tasks and engaged fully with what you were doing while time slipped by unnoticed.
Such moments fade all too quickly. Often you don’t know that you have walked across a corner of heaven until days or weeks later when you become nostalgic for what is missing. Then you try to reproduce the conditions that led to contentment. You bake another cake or return to the woods. But it’s never quite the same.
Why is contentment so difficult to realize, and how does one find inner stillness, satisfaction, and peace of mind? Our book, Contentment: The Roots of Our Discontent and the Way to True Happiness (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), examines a variety of psychological and spiritual factors that govern our ability to find contentment. In this article, we will focus on a basic orientation of our culture that seems to keep us forever discontented. We will also suggest some simple, practical ways to find contentment in the only place and time it can be found — here and now.
The Roots of Discontent
Our society teaches us that the only reality is the one we can hold onto. It values outer experiences and material possessions. Accordingly, we look for contentment out there and live with a “just-as-soon-as” mentality: “Just as soon as I get my work done, I can relax.” “Just as soon as I get married (or my divorce comes through), I’ll be content.” “Just as soon as I earn enough money, I can spend time with my kids.” “Just as soon as I get a nicer boss… a better job...a bigger house...a new car....” And so our contentment slips through our fingers like quicksilver — waiting for another time, a different place, a better circumstance. What a painful way to live.
As you have probably already discovered, doing more of what you have already done up to now isn’t the answer. More consumer goods, more work, more vacation, more lovers will not lead to greater contentment. Instead, you need to develop greater awareness and personal understanding. Contentment comes from the inside.
Part of the genius of the Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung was to recognize that in modern life the personal self is assigned too great a task. We are taught in Western culture that each of us is a separate, isolated self. We forget that there is a deeper layer of experience that we share with our whole culture and with all creation. This Jung called the collective unconscious — a source of wisdom, purpose, meaning.
We live in an age of “I” consciousness. We’re convinced that life can be measured, understood, and controlled solely through our conscious will. The isolated individual tries to find contentment in novelty, excitement, power, prestige — all through manipulating the external world. Cut off from the collective unconscious, we become filled with anxiety and insecurity.
Connecting with Something Greater
In China, Taoism instructs that in any circumstances the right action is that which serves the Tao, the greater intelligence that works around and through us. In medieval Christianity the highest achievement was called the Unitive Vision, in which “Thy will becomes my will.” India’s Hindu tradition teaches that the world is infused with divine energy, and a most holy prayer is Tat tvam asi, or “that (Brahman or God) art thou.” The Bhagavad-Gita tells us, “The world is imprisoned in its own activity except when actions are performed as worship of God.”
The modern conception of “I” is quite the opposite of what is described in these religious traditions. We can’t get rid of this “I,” but there is a way out: The “I” must learn to serve something greater.
To achieve true contentment our egos must circle around a steady, unmoving center, a source that is undisturbed by the whirl of life that goes on around it, whose security does not depend upon ever-shifting external events. Jung wrote that the decisive question for humanity today is, “Are we related to something infinite or not?”
You can’t just go out and acquire this divine perspective. Turning spiritual pursuit into a project or going after enlightenment as one more goody to make the “I” happy will only lead to disappointment. So we are caught in a vicious circle. In seeking contentment we are like the proverbial donkey with the carrot suspended from a stick before his nose. If he stands still, he does not catch it, and if he chases after it, he does not catch it. What can he do?
The answer is this: you don’t need to do anything. To pursue contentment assumes that there is something the “I” can do beyond its ordinary tasks, and this very conceit is the problem. You cannot acquire contentment as if it were a consumer item, but you can open your eyes and see it. Contentment comes to us as a gift of grace.
Heaven is Other People
In the Hasidic tradition there is a great emphasis on finding the divine in daily acts, particularly relationships with other people. The wonderful Jewish scholar Martin Buber made a useful distinction between “I-and-it” versus “I-and-thou” relationships. In “I-and-it” relationships we treat other people as objects — things that can be controlled, ignored, manipulated, and used for our own selfish purposes. Modern lives are filled with “I-and-it” relationships.
There is a yearning in each of us to be fully met by others, to be accepted for who we are and to be imagined by others as the best person we are capable of being. In “I-and-thou” relationships other people are perceived as carriers of shared humanity as well as divine potential. Instead of treating other people as objects to be manipulated, you look for the best possible experience in every circumstance.
What would your day be like if in every interaction with another you treated that person not just as a means to some end but as the very point and fulfillment of your life? How might it feel if you were treated this way? Such a day would surely bring some measure of contentment.
The great mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that marriage, properly understood, is recognition of a spiritual identity. By marrying or committing to the right person you create the potential for a greater whole. When there is conflict, each partner must learn to sacrifice his or her “I” for the unity of the relationship. It is not a matter of “my” needs versus “your” needs, but what is needed by the marriage. For example, if your will is pitted against the will of your partner, ask this: “What is needed for the greater good? What will contribute to our goal as a couple, or as a family?” Of course, this requires that you let go of your “I’s” desire to control and get its way. Properly understood, marriage can be a spiritual exercise, the realization of two into a greater one.
Recognizing the divine potential in any situation cannot be reduced to a tidy formula, but one general guideline is to ask yourself what is needed for wholeness in any situation. Instead of asking, “What’s in it for me?” you consider, “What is whole-making?” What is required for more wholeness will be different for each person, and it changes constantly. You must realign yourself each day, each hour, and each moment. When we can live in this fashion, it has a profound effect on the quality of our lives, creating the conditions for the gift of grace.
Just as soon as...
I get my work done, I can relax
I get married [or my divorce comes through], I’ll be content
I earn enough money I can spend time with my kids
I get a nicer boss
I get a better job...a bigger house...a new car
The Simple Gifts of Contentment
Here are three of the 18 gifts of contentment we identify in our book. Some require deliberate effort, but many are available just by being more aware of our inner lives.
The Gift of Your Heart’s Yearning:
This is a useful exercise for listening to a voice of wisdom that exists outside the "I." Find a quiet place and close your eyes. Place your hand over your heart, and draw several deep breaths. Now think of those things on which you spent money, time, and energy during the past week. Consider how each of these items contributed or detracted from your contentment. As you continue to breathe calmly, shift your attention to your heart. Ask what is required for its contentment. For what does it yearn? Don't try to answer right away for your heart; just wait and listen. When you have an answer, compare this with your earlier list. Hold the two side by side in your mind, and notice what feelings arise. Then consider investing some of your money, time, and energy in what your heart yearns for as opposed to what your head desires.
The Gift of Letting Go:
To let go may be seen as a failure from the point of view of the “I.” But just as there is a time for seizing hold of life, for taking control and applying your willpower, so there is a time for surrendering to forces that are greater than you. Think of a time when you have followed a determined path, doing everything possible from a conscious standpoint to reach a goal, but you still fell short. Recall what it felt like. Now look inside. Who or what in you tells you not to let go? Why does it need to be in control? Spend some time getting to know this inner aspect of yourself. Now imagine the situation again, this time letting go of your willful agenda. How might your experience have been different?
The Gift of Confusion:
In modern culture, confusion is identified as a mistake or even a madness. In truth, the unconscious reveals itself in moments of disruption . Confusion is an opportunity for your true self to appear. Instead of rushing to remove confusion, try approaching it as rich with potential. Don't be in such a hurry to chase away these moments through willful action. Try to sit with your confusion, to go more deeply into it with an attitude of expectation. In short: don't just do something; stand there.