Can we cultivate contentment instead of happiness?
I know. “The cultivation of contentment” sounds more boring than “the pursuit of happiness.”
Ariel Gore’s book Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness discusses how the word happiness is related to the words happenstance, haphazard and hapless, which all come from the same root: “the Old Norse happ, meaning ‘luck’ or ‘chance’.”
“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness,” Charlotte Bronte wrote. “What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould and tilled with manure.”
Happiness, our cultural and linguistic traditions tell us, just happens. But much of what we do in life, our motivation stripped down to its essence, is with the hope of cultivating happiness. So which is it? Chance—ephemeral and improbable—or something we can intentionally plant and till?
These questions are potent on the level of how to work with suffering—the part of our experience we can have choices in, versus the level of pain—the part of our experience which is, despite everything, still inevitable.
We are sensitive beings: we are going to hurt. But how anxious are we going to get about that? How wound up? How anxious are we going to get about pursuing, ironically, happiness itself? Perhaps the energy of pursuit is better suited to sticking with what already naturally exists and cultivating that.
We don’t have total control over anything. Not. One. Thing. Instead of aiming for some ideal happiness—which, despite its carefree-sounding roots, we now associate with glamor, ease, wealth and prestige—we could aim for something a little closer to home: contentment.
Check out this description from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche about contentment, a cousin of the exciting-sounding, sexy-seeming happiness:
The tiger represents the practice of meditation. Its main element is chokshe, “contentment,” which is mindfulness and full presence. Sometimes “contentment” implies that we couldn’t get the best, so we’re making do. That’s not what we are talking about; in this context, we’re referring to the mind being satisfied with what is happening now. If we don’t develop contentment, we can never have what we want or enjoy what we have. For example, in a restaurant we might see somebody enjoying a delicious looking hamburger or some perfectly grilled tofu. The waiter comes to take our order and we tell him, “I want that.” But when we bite into our food, we’re surprised that it doesn’t taste as good as it looked. We thought we wanted what the other person was eating, but what we really wanted was their sense of contentment.
When it comes down to it, what we desire so much of the time is not more stimulus or excitement, but to be calm. Quiet. Peaceful. Present. To enjoy what we have and not want much more.
In another quote, Sakyong Mipham says, “Much of our stress these days is caused by simple lack of contentment.”
How? Why? Because, as he also says, “Contentment comes from knowing that everything it needs is contained in the present moment.”
In other words, when we aren’t content—and believe me, we can be content and also be in pain—we are suffering.
How is it that contentment could be useful for folks who are truly suffering? Whose situations are abominable? Inevitably, every time I post a dharma quote or teaching on my Facebook wall, a friend says something like, “Tell that to 14-year old sex slaves.” I appreciate such challenges, but I maintain it is the same thing. Human suffering is the same, at a base level.
I am not suggesting that we resign ourselves to our situations when they are dangerous or need change. Rather, if we can be fully present, we can figure out what resources we already have on hand. Trying to get out of a situation with aggression and speed, in pursuit of something else—whether it is escape or happiness or both—only denies of us our own strength and wisdom. Underneath all of our worries and anxiety, there is a basic level of contentment and clarity, waiting for us to access it.
Instead of finding that who we are without frills is boring, that the content of our lives is something to escape, we can cultivate contentment and enrich our already-existing supplies.
What if, in every decision, we could aspire to do as Sakyong Mipham suggests: “Each time we rest in contentment, generate compassion, and let go of attachment, we are moving beyond the stress and confusion that keep us trapped in a shortsighted view.” Because ultimately, “the cause of happiness and contentment (is) a compassionate mind. The mind of compassion is the source of lasting joy.”
Compassion—the main tool we all need to work with our suffering—is there, intermixed in the soil where contentment is, that we avoid on the road to another kind of joy. Contentment is our root—use the water of meditation, yoga, mindfulness practices, to help nurture your natural resources.
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Ed: Sara Crolick