Be content with what you have;rejoice in the way things are.When you realize there is nothing lacking,the whole world belongs to you.— Lao Tzu
A couple of weeks ago, sitting on my therapist's off-white couch with feathers poking out of the cushions, I said something I never imagined saying...
...I feel content...
I never saw it coming. In fact, if anything, I imagined myself to be the opposite of content. Restless. Anxious. Frustrated. The list could go on. Yet in that moment, and since then, I've been thinking a lot about the notion of contentment.
When I was in Rome earlier this year, several of the churches we visited had cloisters: secluded areas for the lives of those monks, nuns, and novices who resided within. Places for silence, stillness, and prayer. Sometimes these cloisters were very well landscaped or housed artifacts from the life of that particular congregation. Other times, they were simple and nondescript. Regardless, whenever we entered one, this calmness descended on me time and time again. A peacefulness that I simply could neither explain nor understand, mostly because it didn't do what I expected it to do:
...it didn't take away the pain
There's this myth that has been running around for, well, centuries that tells us a good life is one devoid of pain or suffering. If you live with misery, you did something wrong. This myth tells us that, eventually, pain goes away. Within Christianity, or at least my experience of it, we're told to basically shove our experience of pain under the rug and "Rejoice in the Lord always." Yet as I learned from Heart of the Buddha's Teachings last night, joy and suffering are inseparable. The two must, in some respect, always coexist. We cannot experience joy without first experiencing its absence. I've come to believe that the same is true for contentment.
Perhaps true contentment happens not before or after the storm but at its epicenter, at the eye of the hurricane. In the midst of tumultuous winds and rain and hail and lightning and thunder, maybe, just maybe, that is where we are able to find stillness, find the place where we are settled and grounded and rooted in what it is that makes us who we are.
I just finished my last semester of seminary (as I'm sure you've heard by now), and am about to enter the world of the employed. My student loan debt is insane. My relationship has exited the honeymoon phase and we're working on, well, what it means to be really married. My weight is up after not smoking for four months. My relationship with my parents is nonexistent. My faith is, well, in flux between demolition and renovation. Many friendships have ended, or at least faded into the background. Yet in the midst of all this change, transition, and flux, I find myself feeling okay.
And this has become my mantra of late: I'm okay
Here's the most surprising point, and it needs to be stated explicitly: contentment is not the same as happiness. Contentment isn't the warm, sunny beachfront with bright colors, clear skies, pleasant music, or easy friendships that society makes it out to be. The skies are a little cloudy, overcast. The temperature is either unbearably hot, bone-chilling cold, or, well, meh. It's silent, and maybe there aren't that many people. Maybe the beach isn't covered with the fine sand of the Bahamas but the rough gravel of a shore long abandoned. There's a mountain nearby, rocky, jagged, obscuring the skyline. The wind bites a little bit, and every few steps you take you stumble a bit. But you keep breathing.
You notice the up and down of your heartbeat. You feel the blood pulsing within your veins. You know and notice that slight tightness in your chest or throat that comes from the burden of debt or isolation or uncertainty. And yet you keep going. Or maybe you stop for a moment and sit down, feeling the dampness of the ground beneath seep through your jeans. The waves are choppy, cutting against each other like skilled swordsmen. You taste the copper on your tongue. You look around, both hoping for and dreading any potential company you might find. But you keep breathing.
This is my experience of contentment. I know it doesn't sound all that great, but that's okay. Maybe yours is different, less bleak and more shiny and pristine. But if it isn't... if you end up on the same gravelled shores as me, then you will not be alone. We can keep breathing together. We can reach for the other when they stumble. We can stare out over the waters in silent anticipation of some moment of stillness, of calm. Most of all, we can simply be.