Only Contentment

It is only contentment, but it sweats you out before you’re allowed to make acquaintance.

There’s a good chance that we might never have required religions if people believed contentment was easy to get. In desperation, man must have thought it an exclusively providential achievement, and went on to devote his energy towards an unseen entity expected to be powerful enough to help him attain it. In other words, most have given up contentment as a cause that cannot be accomplished without divine enlightenment. Fools.

And yet, if it was easy, capitalism would have been long extinct.

Contentment, however, cannot just be satisfaction. It is so much more than a mere full stomach or wallet. It is the emotional fortress that assures that even if there isn’t a full stomach or a full wallet, life’s still good. How does one achieve that depth? Height, even? Like numerous droplets joining to form a big, heavy one, small happinesses will perhaps form a pithy one heavy enough to fall, and drench parched surfaces. I do not know. It does seem logical, though, that happiness of the deepest sort will guarantee contentment of that calibre. But why is it so complicated?

Interestingly, like all complicated things, contentment can be looked at from many perspectives. From one, you tend to think that contentment leads to inertia and stagnation. If you’re really satisfied, why strive towards a higher plain? From another, if you’re contented, your life is without an itch. Nothing to scratch, no meat to give to psychologists and self-help gurus. Guaranteed nirvana.

The real trouble is when you do not have a firm footing in either — when you believe that contentment would be a nice little cosy nook to sit in and munch your favourite sandwich, but you keep slipping off the floor. My trouble with contentment is that it is too enticing to ignore, even as it is too murky to strive for. If happiness could be absolute, would there be any need for ambition? If there is no ambition, where is the colour in living?

Even though one is tempted to equate contentment with deep happiness, it is probably best to not do so. For if they were, indeed, interchangeable then perhaps there wouldn’t be any need to live, hope, expect, aim at. “You might be satisfied with this painting you’ve painted today, but don’t make the mistake of feeling contented.” There have been numerous such small instances in which my mother, in her own way, tried to differentiate between the two — satisfaction and contentment. I like her definition. When you’re satisfied, it is a momentary exhilaration, willing to give way to more exploration. If you’re contented, you’ve arrived. The choice is yours — you want satisfaction from a particular task, or do you wish for contentment in it? Where does happiness come here, really? At a glance, it seems it figures in in both the cases. Happiness is an emotion that cannot be ousted from any state of being, really. (Unless you’re really adamant about it. But that’s another discussion.) If you look deeper, you realise that an existence in which there is no rush for anything, in which time and place and state of being do not matter, does really offer a better possibility of making you happy. If a certain conditions are met, of course. The presence of a person, an object, a status. Or so we think.

What is even more mind-boggling is that just the opposite could be stated for the relationship between satisfaction and contentment. “You might want to be contented with your life, but don’t make the mistake of feeling satisfied with what you do in it.” Seek more. Reach higher.

And so the murkiness grows.

In the translated version of the Tao Teh Ching I have, there is an alarmingly spartan advice to achieve a non-chaotic life:

By not exalting the talented you will cause the people to cease from rivalry and contention.

By not prizing goods hard to get, you will cause the people to cease from robbing and stealing.

By not displaying what is desirable, you will cause the people’s hearts to remain undisturbed.

Therefore, the Sage’s way of governing begins by 

Emptying the heart of desires,

Filling the belly with food,

Weakening the ambitions,

Toughening the bones.

In this way he will cause the people to remain without knowledge and without desire, and prevent the knowing ones from any ado.

Practice Non-Ado, and everything will be in order.

It never was easy, was it?

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10 thoughts on “Only Contentment”

  1. Wow so much to ponder here… I’ve never thought of the relationship between satisfaction and contentment.
    Your mother is wise. I love her definition.
    “When you’re satisfied, it is a momentary exhilaration, willing to give way to more exploration. If you’re contented, you’ve arrived.”

    During this period of the Olympic Games when the world comes together in “peace” are any of the athletes really satisfied or content with their silver or bronze medal? And if they came in 4th (which translates to 4th in the whole world) do they spend the rest of their lives feeling worthless?
    Perhaps we should follow the wisdom of the Tao Teh Ching:
    “By not displaying what is desirable, you will cause the people’s hearts to remain undisturbed”
    and not send our young people to compete with each other.

    1. I do not understand, Rosie. What is desirable, or talented is there to be — noticeable and palpable. How can they not be on display? If they are not exalted where does the intention of improving oneself come from? What is the gauge?
      As far as the participants in the Olympic Games or any other such event are concerned, “peace” is just a ruse, I guess. Where there is competition, there is war. Be it with weapons, or with cushions.

  2. I agree with dearrosie. I’ve also never contemplated the difference between satisfaction and contentment.

    “…most have given up contentment as a cause that cannot be accomplished without divine enlightenment.”

    This much I know, I have moments of utter contentment and they come from deep within, not from the aide of an divine influence, drug, or possession.

    You’ve given us lots to think about, Priya.

    1. I agree that contentment comes from within. But unfortunately there are so many who visit places of ‘divinity’ to find it, somehow. Strange, eh?

  3. yesyesyesyesyesyesyes – and that you summed it up in the quote from the Tao …
    We live in a world of polarities – contrasts – doubtless in order to experience these very things as souls in bodies. And so the moment we believe we’ve captured a feeling, it mercurially vanishes, to be replaced often with its opposite. Being able to hold the balance in this dance is, I believe, the heart of true contentment. Acceptance of what Is.
    Blessings on the day, Priya.
    Excellent post.

    1. “Being able to hold the balance in this dance…” 🙂 I picturised it and found that it quite fit the way I live my life. Sometimes the footfalls are firm, sometimes wobbly and unsure. Sometimes the feet step on the other people’s feet, sometimes they get stepped on. Between all of this, the balance is so eccentric in coming.

      Very best wishes to you, Bela. I absolutely fell in love with your tree. And the house is lovely. Especially the floor. (And I am going to copy/paste this on Facebook, too.)

  4. The questions you ask resonate with me. But the end had me mouthing a wide ‘What???!!!’
    “Practie non-ado”??!! and “in this way he will cause the people to remain without knowledge and without desire” !!!!!

    I have felt satisfaction. Countless moments of momentary exhilaration for tasks well-done, but contentment, I am not sure what it is exactly. The way Bela puts it, “Acceptance of what is”, comes closest to the answer in my mind.

    (P.S. – Where is the ‘Like’ button on this post?)

    1. Lao Tsu was difficult to understand, and sometimes agree with. My mouth is still wide open with many things.

      “Acceptance of what is” Yes, of course. But what if you want to change what you’ve accepted?

      1. I hope it’s okay to assume that’s not a rhetorical question.
        I am (still) learning the hard way, that it’s not possible to ‘change’ everything you have accepted. ‘Acceptance of what is’ is like the least-resistant path to move forward. That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s tougher to accept than all the other reactions & emotions, us humans are capable of. It is a challenge for me everyday!

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