This is the time of year when international school teachers begin to pursue jobs in new locations if they are planning to move to a new school the following school year. There is a lot of appeal to moving to a new school in a new country. It is exciting to explore a new culture, to enter into a new world that holds a different way of thinking, living and being as there are always valuable things to learn from other cultures, and living in one makes you examine your own life and values.
On the other hand, there are also good things to be said for staying in one place and going deeper into the reality you are confronted with in the culture you are currently in? How can you learn what the place you are living has to teach you about yourself? I find it challenging to live in a city as big as Delhi, where to get out of the city takes a few hours, and where access to nature is limited. Something in me longs for a walk in the woods, needs the opportunity to stare out at the sea spreading into endless space. Something in those experiences feed me and reconnect me to Life, and help to restore me to wholeness. Nothing like that exists near me, however, and so the task is to learn how to be happy, truly content with the situation I am in, and that is challenging.
Sometimes the notion of moving to a new location slips into my mind, or going on a holiday, but in reality, doing these things would not bring me contentment in themselves, because they are only temporary solutions to the deeper need we all have of how to find contentment. Going on holiday or moving to a new situation could be an excellent thing to do, however, they are not a long term solution for living a contented life. Moving or going on a holiday would only mean trading some things I long for with a different set of things I long for.
No situation in life provides a person with perfect contentment, of course, or if it does, rarely does it last for long. Life has a rhythm of ups and downs. St. Paul said he had found that whatever state he was in he could be content. For most of us, learning how to be content in whatever situation we are found is a life long challenge. Taking on the perspective, however, that difficult situations can enable us to grow and can in fact help to teach us how to be content no matter what our outward situation is like, if we open ourselves to the lesson. That’s not always an easy lesson because it requires practice–consistent focused effort and attention over time. As a result, we would sometimes rather distract ourselves with something that will pump us up and make us excited about this or that. New things can be wonderful. They activate and energize our brains. If we are always in a state of excitement, however, we don’t know how to deal with the opposite side of that experience. We won’t know how to live normal, everyday life very well. We won’t be stable or content. We will always be swinging between high and low.
Our modern culture seems to be built around the idea that “too much is not enough,” as someone I know describes this perspective. How do we be content with what is? How do we focus on becoming more of who we are in the midst of a media driven world that constantly works on our emotions to make us feel that we are never quite right or enough, that we need to be who others say we need to be, that we need to keep our competitive edge in whatever it is we do in order to be taken seriously?
I just finished reading Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl’s book, Contentment. The authors state that discontent is important for our growth. Johnson and Ruhl are Jungian psychologists who suggest that we need to honor our discontent. “…if you can stand to live in paradox long enough, then transformation takes place and a new consciousness is born. This occurs when one has stopped trying to maneuver external reality so that it will work out as the “I” desires. Contentment, the authors say, requires energy, and we need to learn how to say “Enough is enough,” and they go on to name several things that people can practice to help them regain balance in their lives so they can live purposefully and become whole.
The first thing the authors mention that can help us on this path is to honor the sabbath. “We all need a sabbath, whether we are religious or not. Without the pause of the seventh day (or sabbath), life simply becomes an indistinguishable blur and monotony rules…Don’t let duties and responsibilities from the week, even work around the house or social obligations, spill over and claim your energy on this day. Make it a priority to preserve an oasis of rest, contemplation, and spiritual renewal.” Keeping the sabbath is a challenging, radically uncommon thing to do in our culture. It goes directly against the thinking that more is better and affirms the idea that you can rest that what you need will be there for you when you need it. Rather than thinking that everything you have or do is totally from your own effort, you are trusting that you will have time, that things will work out. You are letting go of the control and setting aside the kind of thinking that everything you have is through your own efforts.
A second thing Johnson and Ruhl suggest is fidelity to the moment. The authors explain how St Benedict’s novices took the vow of “fidelity to the moment.” Its purpose was to help those who have just begun their spiritual journey. The idea is to concentrate on whatever is directly before you in the moment. Give your full attention to it in what you say, do and think. My mother taught me as a child that doing the dishes can be a sacred act, if you do it with concentration and an open heart. Everyday acts can be holy, can be offerings of ourselves.
Another thing the authors suggest is to take some time to just be. Reduce the to do list. This is a challenging one, as lists can be never ending for people that are goal oriented. I am reminded of how Thoreau could sit in his doorway at Walden Pond all morning, absorbing the sun and watching the light, and feel it was a day well spent.
Attending to the heart is a further practice that brings contentment. The authors suggest that you find a quiet place, close your eyes, place your hand over your heart. Take some breaths then think of the things you’ve put your energy into during the week. Evaluate how each has added to or taken away from your contentment. Continuing to think of your list, shift your attention to your heart, and ask it what is required for contentment. What does your heart yearn for? Wait and listen, they suggest. Compare lists, and then consider investing some time, money, or energy into what your heart yearns for rather than what you head desires.
The Dalai Llama in his poem, “Never Give Up” says, “Too much energy in your country/ is spent developing the mind/ develop the heart. Tobin Hart, also talks about the importance of keeping children’s hearts open to wonder as they grow and is exploring more of how schools and educators might include practices that help young people learn how do this. The practices he suggests, such as deep listening, use of reflective questions, freewriting, use of poetry and concentrated language, guided relaxation, and other suggestions as well, are different ways of helping us attend to the heart.
Spending time in nature is further activity that can enable you to reconnect to what supports life in yourself. Take a walk in the rain, in the woods, by the sea, in a park. Listen to and watch the birds. Getting out of the door and on to your balcony for a few moments, if you have one, or just staring out the window and noticing what the leaves on a tree are doing, or growing a small plant in your window and taking care of it each day are all ways to spend time with nature in a small, simple way if you can’t easily go for a walk in the out of doors. Satish Kumar, when he was visiting Delhi, suggested that part of school children’s day should be spent in nature, caring for it, so that they learn to make the connection with nature. When we spend time with nature, we learn to feel our connection to it.
Find home. Consider what home means to you and find what the gift of your own home is. Johnson and Ruhl suggest. What is within the circumstances of your own life that is worth affirming as a treasure? We may search the world for our treasure but what we look for is often right in our own home. Like the scarecrow, tin man and lion in the Wizard of Oz, we carry with us what we most treasure, but perhaps we are not noticing what it is we have. How might we notice what it is we have in our home. The practice of noticing these things and also expressing gratitude for these things on a regular basis can help shift our perspective. Gratitude helps bring greater physical and mental health.
There are several other practices that Johnson and Ruhl suggest in their book, but I will post only these for now. The difficulties we confront in our lives are our teachers. They are our opportunity where we can practice how to take the opposites of our lives and put them in a new framework. We can approach them from a different angle, breaking old patterns perhaps, so we can see things differently and begin to live differently. I view it somewhat like what happens when writing. Sometimes you have to let a draft sit for a time and go out and live, do something different, then come back to the piece and read it out loud or have someone else read it out loud, or you might need print it off. You have to do something different with the work you have made so that you can see it anew. Then you can revise what you’ve done and see where to go. It’s a back and forth process and it involves waiting and listening very carefully to the bigger picture of what it is you are trying to say or do. Life is like that too. You put old problems in a new framework so you can learn how to change and become new. Then you persevere. Slowly, over time, like all normal growth processes, contentment grows. It is the work of our life, is why we are here. I am still learning.