August 18, 2010

Satisfied in a Discontented World.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction.

As I’ve begun work on a new book investigating yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas in American politics, religion and culture, the one that has been jumping out at me the hardest has been Santosha, contentment. It’s a challenging one; humans appear genetically wired to feel discontented, given our pre-Industrial Age history and the innumerable struggles we’ve encountered along the way. The problem with always looking ahead, of course, is that where we are is never good enough.

In politics, midterm elections are fast approaching and the sorry affairs of political figures are growing more transparent (i.e. Nevada’s Sharron Angle claiming that the media should only ask the questions she wants to be asked, and the McCain-Palin flip-flop on cap and trade pre- and post-election). After all the political fire that was raging not even two years ago around Obama’s campaign, the only group currently active is the sadly named Tea Party, varied and undefined groups of minor constituencies spread across the country. The argument over whether they’re helping or harming the Republican cause in November remains to be seen, although the trouncing of Sarah Palin-endorsed candidates in the primaries is one indication that all is not well for them this side of Juneau.

But what Republicans, conservatives and Tea Partiers are continually bringing up—discontent—is an important indication of where America is at as a culture. Recent polls show that Democrats are not especially pleased with the current administration either, but that majority is speaking with their silence. The longest war in American history, coupled with continual healthcare reform and unemployment benefit stalls, not to mention this idiotic, archaic ban on gay marriage (with at least one ray of light breaking through Tuesday in California), are all factors feeding this dissatisfaction. Meanwhile a thinly disguised veneer of racism continually makes itself known through the speeches of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, whose fans concoct the strangest theories about our president and officials, that have no basis in fact. This is not a healthy situation.

I call it the heaven syndrome: some place in the future, everything is perfect. This illogical mindset becomes a beacon of light for people who are frustrated that the way they want life to be is not working out. The major problem, obviously, is that at the moment there is nearly 6.7 billion (and growing) different opinions of what life should be sharing one planet, and we have to find some way to make them all work together.

The biological drives that caused us to be discontented with an existence of running from bears and thunderstorms forced us to evolve our systems of shelter, food distribution and medicine, which inspired a great many people to put serious thought and science into how to make things better for humanity. Millennia of improvements have brought us to a time when, at the very least, the possibility of being connected to so many people at once is our everyday reality. The so-called “golden age, a place in the past that was perfect, is a farce, not to mention an excuse for not trying to make things better now. But we have to first recognize that “better” does not mean “backwards,” as in extending tax cuts for the wealthiest people in our country, as in telling two humans that love one another they cannot marry, as in campaigning with the idea of secession and state rule because federal law does not permit you to force people to show identification for no good reason, as in protesting a community center that happens to contain a mosque in an area that can really use such a thing to heal properly.

America has a lot, and while there is plenty of legitimate suffering, so much of it is in our heads—the Buddha’s first principle, revisited. Instead of celebrating a time when so many possibilities exist, refusing to change (and more importantly, to grow) is damaging us, as individuals and as a culture. To find the root of your unhappiness, you have to entertain the idea that there are many, many ways to live in this world, and that dialogues that push the conversation forward will always serve us better than monologues that never leave our heads. Then, when you scan the periphery of what’s around you, you might realize things are not really as bad as they seem, and that such an attitude is contagious.

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