It is no longer cool’ to use the word ‘contentment’ for the simple reason that currently, the constantly heard or read words are aspiration, acquisition, more and growth. It’s time, therefore, to revisit the meaning of contentment.
True contentment does not ask us to end aspiration or advancement, but asks us to appreciate and enjoy what we’ve got before we can focus on getting more. Many, after getting something for which they hankered after, immediately begin a new search for something different; the process never seems to end. At times we even forget why we needed something or someone. Discontent can become an addiction.
Things, people and situations do diminish in charm or utility; you often feel the need for change. It is perhaps not practical to say: “I am content with my typewriter and have no desire for a computer.”
However, there seems to be a tendency to be dissatisfied with whatever one has, from possessions and relationships, to one’s city or country. Is the grass really greener on the other side? Unlikely.
There are two dynamics operating here. The locus can be internal; the person in general is restless, unhappy and dissatisfied. Or it is triggered by external factors; one’s discontent is caused by what one sees, desires or is tempted by.
Contentment was regarded as a sadhana, a spiritual observance, its focus being the mobilisation of one’s own mechanism of resistance to acquiring, intended to help one arrive at a state of needlessness. This is not easy even for sages.
It is helpful to see contentment as a state of being that brings with it a certain measure of wakefulness. This creates a sense of comfort with whatever one has at the moment – and is a cure for dwelling on what one lacks.
Contentment carries a component of thankfulness. Contentment may be described as a place between boredom and greed, between the burdensome and need for the novel. In Sanskrit, contentment is referred to as santosh and better translated as fulfilment, distinguished from ashutosh – one who gets satisfied easily but perhaps also temporarily.
In this age of quantity and variety, how else could one find protection against the virus of discontent? Masters across cultures have invited us to observe the beautiful effects of contentment, an invaluable asset that helps us find a positive orientation in life. Everyone cannot be a mahatma; we could at least try to find contentment in whatever way we can. “To know you have enough is to be rich,” offered Lao-Tzu; and so say the Taoists, Thoreau, Zen masters and Sufis.
Contentment offers us a method, a particular angle of viewing certain kinds of truths that are better approached and achieved by this path. Contentment does not mean closing your eyes and ears to reality, or shunning the new; it focuses on being discerning, so that we become ‘open-eyed perceivers’.
Where do we draw the line and say ‘enough is enough’ so that we can achieve balance between what we can acquire and what we can use, big or small? The wisdom of life, as always, consists in the elimination of non-essentials.