Contentment vs Improvement

Meditating Patrick.

We spend every waking moment attempting to improve our experience. To get to the end of our to-be-happy list in order to finally be satisfied. Training from a young age, we become masters in setting goals that hold the promise of happiness, working hard to reach them, and once reached, we move the goalpost a little further still. We invest time in education (to get a better job), and then in work (to get a better salary), and then in a house (to live a better retirement), and eventually, in a coffin. We spend time with our loved ones. We produce works of art. We capitalise on an opportunity. We leverage an idea. We optimise our schedules. We profit from an encounter. We get the most out of our holidays. We maximise our sleep. We get our money’s worth.

Capitalist vocabulary is pernicious – and exhausting. So the Buddhist (or Stoic) invitation to accept the present moment comes with a flavour of rebellion, of finally jumping off the hamster wheel and surrendering to the sunshine. But our minds are so unfamiliar with just being, that we either get distracted and find that our legs have found their way back to the treadmill once more – or become so excited by the idea of the present moment that we find ways to sell it. We think: what can I do with all this sunshine? Well: mindfulness apps for our smartphone, yoga classes for our stress, new editions of Stoic classics for our Amazon wish-list, carpe diem mugs for our productivity-enhancing coffee, and inspirational quotes for our Instagram thread.

God is not dead. He is monetised! And just like that, we become specialists in molding millenial traditions into ammunition for the consumer economy – often with good reason, because how else are we to make a living? But we can all smell the fish’s fart in the water. To accept the present moment is not a technique to “rid” the mind of thoughts, to relieve stress, to sleep better, to increase productivity. It is the experience of recognising that contentment will not be found in the next job, the next relationship, the next accomplishment, the next purchase. (– If only this changed in my life, I would be perfectly happy! – Yeah, right. You said that last time.) On the other hand, taken naively, the phrase would suggest that there is no point in doing anything to improve our lives, or the lives of others – because look! The present is enough. Consciousness is wide open, and free from a neurotic sense of self – if only we paid attention to it. If only we stopped being caught by the claws of dissatisfaction (dukkha), and became as equanimous as a Tibetan nun, perfectly satisfied to sit in a cave for the rest of her life.

It is the privilege of gods to need nothing. And of godlike men to want but little.
Diogenes of Sinope

Yet it is equally clear that a civilization made only of cave-monks and cave-nuns, however full of wisdom & compassion, would not be a civilization of human flourishing in its broadest sense. [Perhaps I am wrong on this point. What do you think?] There are many other things we are right to care about and to improve: poetry, physics, medicine, raising children, botany, sexual relationships, carpenting. These things are compatible with the mind of a cave-monk, but require dedicated effort. One is unlikely to spontaneously write down Einstein’s equations for general relativity, or compose Debussy’s Clair de Lune, while meditating in a cave. Human creativity may no doubt be enhanced by a certain satisfaction with the present moment – but also a desire to learn & create that moves us forward into the next moment; sometimes mindfully, sometimes not.

Growing the spirit into the body

This presents us with something of a paradox. What is the point of finding a new job, or moving to a new city, or studying biology, or writing this essay, if we spend most of our time lost in thought, never quite scratching the itch of dukkha? How can we really be content while longing for change, in some form or other? Sam Harris writes about this topic with great lucidity. He suggests that our predicament is something to be sustained, balanced on the ridge, rather than conceptually resolved:

Everything we want to accomplish: to get in shape, to learn a new skill, to find a better job, is something that promises that, if done, would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope. I’m not denying the importance of achieving your goals, or maintaining your health, or keeping your children clothed and fed, but most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying logic of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present. We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now. Real mindfulness is the act of accomplishing this journey in each moment, even as we work to change our lives for the better.
Sam Harris

The Tibetan master Geshe Tashi Tsering, in his book on The Four Noble Truths, skillfully resolves this paradox by emphasising that « a desire for improvement is not the same as an attachment to improvement. » (The Pali term for attachment would be taṇhā, literally meaning thirst, but often translated to craving, grasping, clinging or even greed.) Desire is compatible with contentment as long as it does not lead our minds to contract around it, to crave for its results, to grasp for it in the illusion that it will be our ultimate source of joy. Because a desire, even when fulfilled – especially when fulfilled – is never quite so satisfactory as to leave us in a state of permanent peace. There remains, unless we have trained to the point of being at peace in every moment, a certain sense of – what next? A whisper of anxiety – or a mid-life crisis. The goal is therefore not to resign improvement altogether, but to stop pretending it will ultimately make us happy. To let go of our grip around its throat.

Another way to thread this needle is to replace the phrase « accepting the present moment » with « to be at peace with the present moment ». To be in harmony with reality, in all its glory & adversity. In our most cherished friendships, and our most toxic habits. When framed this way, the paradox begins to dissolve: being at peace with the present does not imply we ought to become utterly listless. To stay seated on one’s cushion and think, nihilistically: there is nothing to change for the better, nor for the worse – let me retreat to my cave. On one level, this is true, and psychedelic experiences or prolonged meditation retreats can attest to the utter perfection of every moment. But it is oh-so-easy to transform this into a thought that we are done with the work of life. That with a touch of mindfulness, everything will be alright.

Not so. We are fragile creatures (with minds of great potential). We must therefore practice, and practicing also entails a desire to move forward, to improve our lives, to benefit others today and tomorrow. We must tend to our gardens, to plough our fields. To understand the movement of the stars, the falling of the apple. To express beauty and joy in words & colour & rhythm. It is one thing to accept the present moment with resignation. It is an entirely different thing to be at peace with it – and yet move with great courage to improve our lives, and those of all sentient beings, in the next moment, and the next, and the next. This peace of mind, this sense of openness and equanimity, can be trained. I heartfully encourage you to try. There are a hundred ways to get started – feel free to reach out for any recommendations. I am only beginning – but I will ask my teachers for you. :-)

Thank-yous. This post is deeply indebted to Sam Harris. Truly grateful to his every-day invitation to meditate, and his capacity to thread many needles in one breath. I highly recommend his Waking Up app as a starting point – though one eventually needs to come into contact with a physical teacher, and a physical community. I thank Casa Virupa for being this community in my life, and my teachers Laia, Glòria, and Lama Norbu, for their incessantly wise and compassionate teachings. I thank them also for pointing me to Geshe Tashi Tsering’s book, The Four Noble Truths.

Post-scriptum. It is easy enough to mock spiritual materialism, and the carpe diem coffee cups (delivered tomorrow by Amazon if you subscribe to Prime!! Hand-carved by a ceramic artist on Etsy!!). But the idiom really is beautiful, especially in the presence of its significant other half:

carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
[seize this day, and be the least gullible for the next.]

We are guaranteed to reach the day that will be our last.
How kind, how loving, how generous would you be – if today was it?