- Photo: Ashley Webb
The latest celebrity Buddhist, Mick Jagger, can’t get any.
Neither, it appears, can I. To be satisfied, I’d have to arrange my life and the world to conform totally to my liking—and stay that way:
– I would cease being chronically ill, enabling me to travel to the ocean and body surf.
– My two grown children and their families will move in next door — one family on each side will do.
– The daytime temperature outside will range from 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit—always.
– Politicians on both side of the aisle will come to share my views.
– All oppressive regimes will immediately transform into democracies.
Notice that my satisfaction (which can also be thought of as my well-being or as we tend to call it in this culture, “happiness”) is contingent on external circumstances. I’m asking the world to conform to my liking, to my desires. But it’s not going to happen. I knew it before when Mick Jagger sang in another one of his songs: “You can’t always get what you want.” As Thai forest monk Ajahn Brahm said: You’d be asking the world for something it can never give you.
There’s only one way to find personal satisfaction or well-being in this life: to let go of our craving for the world to always conform to our liking.
The Buddha said, “I teach two things: suffering and the end of suffering.” In teaching suffering, he was instructing us to look
deeply at this lack of satisfaction that is so much a part of our daily experience. In teaching the end of suffering, he was instructing us to investigate the cause of this dissatisfaction so that we can learn how to put an end to it.
To look deeply at this dissatisfaction, we have to turn our attention inward and watch what goes on in our minds. When I do this, I often find a low-grade unease, irritation, restlessness and occasionally anguish. When I look for the cause of this low-grade suffering or dissatisfaction, I find that it stems from the world not conforming to my liking.
Dissatisfaction is built into our experience of the external world. We can’t make pleasant experiences last, and we can’t prevent unpleasant experiences from arising. We can no more control the temperature outside than we can the greed-fueled machinations of a political dictator. Life simply refuses to always be the way we want it to be. We can refuse to accept this fact, but it only increases our dissatisfaction.
So, the cause of our dissatisfaction is this tendency to live in a constant state of what I call “want/don’t want.” We want pleasant experiences to last and we don’t want unpleasant ones to arise. For example, that unease I referred to in my own mind is often present during a pleasant experience because I want it to last forever even though I know, deep down, that it can’t (whether it be a good time with a friend or a beautiful sunset).
The good news is that we can we put an end to this suffering—to the dissatisfaction with our lives—by learning to open our hearts and minds to the world as it is as opposed to how we want it to be. (In Pali—the language of the Buddha—one word, citta, refers to both heart and mind.) It’s a lifelong practice, but it’s never too late to start.
Opening to the world as it is means accepting the transient nature of pleasant experience and the inevitability of unpleasant experience instead of constantly trying to get the external environment to conform to our liking. I’m quite sure that you won’t get through this day without encountering some unpleasant experience, whether it be your computer crashing or an unpleasant encounter with another person. Personal satisfaction and well-being is not dependent on what experiences we have, but on how we respond to them.
The Buddha said we should “keep our cool” when those unpleasant experiences inevitably arise, so we can react to them skillfully instead of out of anger or aversion. Skillful action is action that alleviates suffering for ourselves and others as opposed to increasing it. Skillful action starts from a place of calm acceptance of our experience as it is, both personally and globally. Acceptance is not the same as indifference or resignation, both of which carry aversion or that “don’t want” with them. We can be both accepting and pro-active in working to improve the world around us. Indeed, because calm acceptance gives us to space to reflect on what would be the most skillful action, acceptance is the best starting point for compassionate action.
Accepting our life and the world as it is takes courage. Frederick Nietzsche called it amor fati or “loving our fate.” Looking inward at my own dissatisfaction, seeing its cause and working to accept the world as it is—not clinging to pleasant experience
and not recoiling from unpleasant experience—is, for me, the equivalent of Nietzsche’s “amor fati.”
The Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, calls this state of serenity and contentment “the happiness of the Buddha.” When I’m able to rest in this state, remarkably, it brings me closer to others. I can feel their dissatisfaction because I know my own, and so, more and more, I can respond to them with compassion. I see that, no matter how different our world views are, our struggles are the same.
The only way to reverse the name of that Stones song and get “satisfaction”—that feeling of well-being and, yes, even happiness—is to stop expecting external circumstances to conform to our “wants/don’t wants” (aptly called tanha or “thirst” in the Buddha’s language). Can’t get no satisfaction? Look inside instead of outside yourself.
Toni is the author of the How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, winner of the 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award in Self-Help/Psychology. She can be found online here.