”Contentment” is often described as either a state of happiness and satisfaction, or a sense of freedom from worry and restlessness. Though we are living in an era of extraordinary consumerism and materialism, contentment seems to evade many people who frequently feel unhappy, dissatisfied, worried, anxious, and restless in their lives.
If discontentment is permitted to remain unchallenged, then it will block every opportunity for satisfaction and erode happiness. That’s why the Buddha taught, “Contentment is the greatest wealth.” Here are ways to find and experience contentment… the Buddhist way.
It’s vital to be realistic. There will be good days, and there will be not-so-good days. So, why become despondent and agitated when things aren’t ideal? Let it be. Don’t add drama to trauma. Consider the attitude adjustment made by John Porcellino, an artist and Zen practitioner. He shared about a time when a major illness came into his life: “I was in terrible pain, and very frightened. It’s hard to keep your wits about you in such instances.”
His way of managing that time is inspiring: “When I got very ill, the first thing I thought, naturally, was ‘Why me?’ But just as naturally, the next thought was, ‘Why not me?’ Terrible things happen to people every day. Why should I be exempt? I saw my illnesses in the context of my practice. They were an opportunity to explore selflessness, patience, fearlessness.”
Cool the Flames
Fanning the flames of tense and uncertain situations erodes any sense of contentment. The antidote is an application of its opposite: coolness under fire. This philosophy was taught by the Buddha after encountering a group of fire worshipers. To them, fire was a symbol of purity and light, and was the center of their devotion. The Buddha mirrored their beliefs by showing them that everything is “on fire” in a negative way—the mind, the ears, the eyes, the tongue, the mouth. This burning flame appears as greed, jealousy, and negativity. The Buddha taught the fire worshipers the vital importance of cooling down the fire through self-inquiry, leading to contentment.
Be Careful When Telling the Truth
We’ve all had the virtue stressed repeatedly: always tell the truth. Yet there are times when doing that causes harm. When truth is used as a blunt instrument, it can destroy relationships and erode trust. Too often, someone who says “I’m just being honest” is really just being mean. Exercise caution when telling the truth.
The Dalai Lama says, “As a general rule, we should tell the truth. However, there are certain cases where this could be disastrous. For instance, when telling the truth could be hurtful, or not bring the slightest benefit, then it is better to remain silent.” He offers the example of a monk who is approached by scores of hunters asking him whether he has seen an animal pass by. “As a monk, he should tell the truth. But in this precise situation, if he is truthful, the hunters will find the animal and kill it. So in such a case, it is better to hide the truth.”
Swami Sivananda once said, “If you compare yourself with others, there will be discontent. This will distract the mind and destroy its peace.” Though most would agree with his observation, social media makes it extremely hard not to compare ourselves with others. Disconcerting thoughts emerge quickly: My body isn’t that great! I’m not successful enough! I can’t afford to travel like others! My wardrobe is deficient. I don’t have enough friends! Writer and certified health care coach Emily Holland, M.A., discovered her discontent rising when scrolling through social media one day: “I found myself comparing all aspects of my life, both internal and external, to a person I had never met. She was a stranger in every sense of the word, and yet somehow, her profile page caused me to question my accomplishments, appearance, and even personality traits.”
Ms. Holland took a self-corrective path by recognizing that social media doesn’t reflect reality, but rather showcases only the high points of a person’s life. She reduced her time on social media and engaged in skillful self-reflection, considering the many reasons she has to be content with her life. She now offers this advice to others who become captured by the comparison trap: “Next time you make an unfair comparison, instead of allowing it to make you feel poorly about yourself, view it as an opportunity for a little self-evaluating. Ultimately, social comparisons aren’t indicative of what others have that you don’t, but rather what you already have but aren’t quite aware of yet.”
You can bring contentment promptly back into your life by doing this simple meditation. It requires only a few minutes and is highly effective. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Gently slow your breathing by taking four or five deep inhales and exhales. Then bring attention to yourself—your body, mind, spirit, and life. Place one or both hands on your heart and slowly repeat these two sentences to yourself for two to four minutes: May I recognize the many good, positive things and beings in my life. May I be content and filled with peace. Conclude with 30 seconds of silence.
Focus on Simple Joys
That’s the advice of Leo Babauta, founder of the website Zen Habits and author of The Power of Less. He recommends seeking out “little things [that] can give you simple joys.” In his case, he does that by “taking a walk, spending time with a loved one, reading a book, eating some berries, drinking tea. These cost very little, and require very little, and can make me very happy.” Babauta suggests others do the same: “Find the simple things that give you similar happiness, and focus on those rather than what you don’t have.” This view is supported by author and monk Ajahn Sumano, who says, “I advocate this maxim: ‘Simplicity is sanity.’ Have just enough to live moderately. Keep in mind the words ‘good enough,’ rather than ‘more,’ ‘better,’ and ‘best.’ It’s foolish to use the human mind only to think about wanting.”
Remember: Contentment Is a Choice
“Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” says Viktor E. Frankl, a Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning.
An identical perspective is offered by Tashi Nyima, a Buddhist monk who teaches in Dallas, Texas. Ven. Nyima offers the reminder that any negative mental state can be transformed into a positive one: “Being alone and far from friends and family may be a fact, but feeling lonely is a mental state. Having physical difficulties may be a fact; feeling betrayed by the body and sorry for ourselves is a mental state. Deep discontent with our situation in life is a mental state; it is not a condition.”
Remind yourself whenever necessary that you do have the power to choose your attitude, so make the choice to adapt, adjust, change, grow, flourish, be content… and bloom!
Learn how to let go of anger the Buddhist way.