Contentment: How Much is Enough?
The practice of contentment is widely recommended on the paths to inner illumination. The Buddha taught that the way to freedom from suffering is freedom from craving. And according to the gospel, Christ told his followers that whatever happens, the best prayer is: ‘Thy will be done’. Contentment, or Santosha, as it is called in Sanskrit, is one of the great inner qualities prescribed by Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita.
Even as a simple life-skill, it is clear that choosing to be content with what we have, and not to dwell unhappily on what cannot be changed, is a big step to inner well-being.
And yet, we often find it hard to practise contentment. It is easily smothered by strong, fast-changing moods and longings. And when we try to practise contentment, our sense of purpose may be deflected by questions arising in the mind like: why be content when something better may be possible? Will contentment stop me making efforts to improve the situation, or even to pursue a path of inner growth? So let’s consider the real nature and value of contentment, and how we can find it.
We all begin our life-experience looking for happiness and trying to avoid suffering. We make efforts to get what we need and enjoy, and we form connections with others whose interests coincide with our own. These efforts bring some successes, and inevitably, some frustrations.
At a certain point we realise that in pursuing well-being, it is best to be able to find some amount of good feeling that does not depend on our situation and the results of our efforts. We learn that sometimes, perhaps often, we can change the way things affect us, even when we cannot change the situation around us. In this way we all begin to understand the value of contentment, as a kind of happiness that is not entirely determined by our circumstances. But there will be differences in exactly what contentment means to us according to the goals we choose.
If we believe that the highest good is to be found in the life of the world, we will value contentment as a strategy to maintain positivity, conserve our energy, and to deal with difficulties.
This kind of contentment doesn’t mean resting satisfied with what we have attained so far; it is more of a life-skill that helps us to pursue our goals in the world, whatever they may be, and which might include real achievements in helping others.
Contentment will mean something subtly different if our highest aim is not for something or somewhere in the world, but to discover the reality that transcends the world we experience through our mind and senses.
Of course, the life of inner enquiry, and the life of effective action, are not entirely separate and often overlap. But what we have chosen as the highest potential we aspire to realise, will affect what contentment means to us.
While we are focused on what the world and human relations have to offer, we want enough contentment to help us achieve those aims. On the path to transcendence, the ideal is unconditional contentment, whatever happens outwardly.
When we consider the possibility of a contentment that transcends the effects of events, we are turning to the ultimate questions at the heart of all the wisdom traditions, questions that are directly addressed by the non-dual teachings.
The highest contentment is connected with the highest knowledge: the knowledge that our ultimate Self is not the body and mind which experience the joys and sufferings of the world; the knowledge that our inmost Self, the ground of our being, is universal, underlying and transcending all bodies and minds, unbound, invulnerable.
Santosha, lasting contentment, is based on the growing recognition that the ideal of inner illumination and liberation is possible, that the higher truth is the reality of our own nature.
If we choose to make the discovery of this supreme Self our highest purpose in life, challenges will present themselves. One challenge in particular will test our resolve and sense of direction.
As we consciously turn in the direction of inner illumination, we will be advised, and we will discover, that in order to dedicate ourselves and make progress on this path, we in fact need a reasonable level of material comfort and security, and to find this in honest, ethical ways.
Let us be clear and have no reservations about accepting this: to meaningfully pursue the path of Self-discovery, we need some worldly stability. And if we do not have this, our first practical task is to work towards it.
We might say: ‘Is it true that any material security is needed on the inner path? Surely, there have been inspiring examples of people who have achieved moral and spiritual greatness in conditions of extreme difficulty, danger and deprivation.’
This is certainly right, and we can learn much from reflecting on why it is. We notice that under such circumstances, many of the usual distractions of life are not present, and what matters most claims all our energy and attention. In this way hardship can conduce to inner greatness. A conscript soldier in the front line, or a prisoner of conscience in a cell, are removed from the conditions of normal life. And this includes the usual responsibility to provide for oneself, in an ethical way.
But most of us, most of the time, do have to deal with the challenges of ordinary life—thankfully! And this means fulfilling our basic needs. So, just when we thought to turn our attention away from material goals, we find ourselves obliged to pay careful attention to our worldly situation. This might look like an unfortunate worldly interference arising to obstruct our progress on the path. In fact, it is an opportunity for real growth. It is best seen as a test of our resolve and whether we are really dedicated to our ideal, or how far we might be harbouring a more or less conscious wish to avoid certain obligations.
Having recognised the need for stability in our worldly situation, the question arises: How much is enough? How much do I need? What is the right level of material comfort and security that I should aim to provide for myself and those whose lives are bound up with my own? And is what I do acceptably honest and ethical, in my own eyes?
Clearly, there is no one right answer to these questions. The response will vary much from person to person, according to many factors. And there is no reason to argue with anyone whose outlook is different to our own. What is necessary is that we clearly address this question for ourselves, and that we take on responsibility for the choices we make.
The path is open to everyone who is ready to learn. It is for each of us to ask the question: ‘How much is enough, and right, for me?’ And we do not have to wait until we have completely secured what we think we need: once we have faced up to the question, and started on any practical steps that are necessary, then we have the foundation on which we can build the great quality of true contentment. How then to find inner contentment that no changes could overwhelm?
One view is that we may do so by training ourselves to be strictly realistic, to have a mind and will that are in accord with nature. On this view, we will see that sufferings like old age and infirmity are inevitable. To be upset by this would be irrational and out of harmony with nature, so we should accept it calmly and clearly. This calm, clear accordance with reality is considered to be contentment.
The difficulty with this view is that to practise it requires much inner strength, but this teaching offers little help in finding the means to develop that strength. Such contentment is the absence of sufferings such as sorrow, fear and anger, but it does not have a positive aspect. Those who try to follow this path are in fact exercising courage, and find some satisfaction in the awareness of being courageous. For most of us, this is not a practical or adequate solution to the human need for contentment.
There is another approach which says that contentment is best sought by being realistic in a slightly different way. This view recognises that contentment must have a positive element, what we call pleasure of some kind. And it advises that overall the least suffering and most pleasure is to be found by avoiding extremes, simple living, and moderate, sustainable enjoyments, such as friendship and the beauty of nature.
There is wisdom in this view. But it is incomplete as a response to the human condition. Pain and loss will inevitably come to us sometimes, and when they do, this teaching is merely telling us that to get upset only compounds our discomfort.
Neither of these approaches adds to our inner resources by showing us how to find a positive contentment that is independent of externals. So, is there a foundation of lasting contentment that is not tied to the changing world and is yet positive, not merely the absence of suffering?
There is. The views we have just considered are not so completely realistic as they might present themselves. They are incomplete because they consider only the capacities of the individual human mind and personality, and overlook the vital truth that the limits of our mind do not apply to the transcendent. Our being is grounded in universal being, and we have the potential to draw on that source.
We said before that true contentment comes with knowledge of our true nature. Let us consider further what this means.
Until we begin our inner investigations, we generally make no distinction between the mind and our conscious awareness. Mind and consciousness are commonly used as interchangeable words. But on closer reflection, we notice that mind and consciousness, carefully considered, are distinct in essential ways. The mind is constantly changing and takes on the forms of our thoughts and moods. In contrast, consciousness itself remains unaffected and unbound, like the one sun shining equally on all beings.
The next step to a deeper self-knowledge and greater inner freedom, is to heighten the awareness that our true nature, what is most rightly called our self, is not in the experiences and objects passing through the mind, but is the light of conscious awareness revealing them all.
Now the question arises, what is the relation between the consciousness illuminating our individual mind, and the consciousness in all minds? Is it plausible that the many minds are lit by many different consciousnesses, or is consciousness more rightly seen as one and the same universally?
Reason suggests that the same consciousness underlies and reveals all manifestations of intelligence, as the same space pervades myriad forms and containers. And the non-dual teaching affirms this: when fully revealed, the light of our awareness and the ground of our being is not different from the absolute reality and universal intelligence which transcends limitations and change, that is free of all suffering. The separations we experience are set up by our mind, they do not arise from the standpoint of higher truth.
The practical aspects of the non-dual teachings indicate how each of us can progress on this journey of Self-discovery and confirm the truth of non-separation in direct realisation.
Does awareness of what is unchanging and universal reveal the source of a contentment that is not merely the absence of pain?
Human life in this turning, changing world, brings us the experiences that promote our inner growth. Yet all the joys that visit us in this world spring from the satisfaction of a need or desire. Our true Self is never lacking or in need of anything, and so its nature is universal being and consciousness, and is also absolute bliss.
The supreme knowledge-contentment comes with the final realisation, called enlightenment, which reveals that the darkness and bondage we experience have always been due to imperfections of the mind; they have no basis in reality. And on the way, a subtle but significant new depth of contentment becomes accessible to us, as soon as we open our mind to the teachings and begin to make the adjustments they suggest.
We have the ability to think rationally when we choose to do so. We have the capacity to love what is closest to our heart. Therefore we have the power to recognise and take our stand on the truth that behind diversity is wholeness, that beyond appearances there is Reality.
We sometimes hope that on the path, a mighty power outside us will intervene on our behalf and do what needs to be done. But this is to deny the real power that is already our own. We can replace unwanted thoughts with ideas that are helpful and progressive. We can turn our attention from forms and limitations, to the unbounded light of awareness. We can place our trust in the wisdom teachings that we have heard and reflected on, and not submit to the spell of random moods.
By appreciating the true significance of this power over our mental world and exercising our inner independence, we discover new reserves of contentment in the here and now, and let in more of the light that leads to liberation.
This contentment is not restricted to times of quiet reflection and may be drawn on in the midst of vigorous activity.
We saw that at the foundation of wisdom is the distinction between mind and consciousness, and choosing to identify with consciousness. We affirm this by treating the mind as an instrument and keeping it focused on the task at hand.
Inevitably, the feeling that the mind is what we are, tends to reassert itself. When this happens, we can sustain our inner freedom by thinking of our actions as offerings to our higher Self, the all-sustaining Reality. In this way, our actions lose their binding effects. Offering up our actions and their results, we keep the mind engaged in what is essential, with a background awareness of the greater whole.
Among the obstacles to inner well-being are unguided thoughts on the theme of ‘Should I have done differently?’ or ‘Could I have done that better?’ Some self-appraisal is constructive, but in life we can never know what another course of action would have led to, and there is always room for improvement in retrospect, so when such self-reproach is unchecked, it serves no useful purpose and produces only a vague anxiety that denies us contentment.
All this changes when our way of action is to do our best and offer the action and the outcome to God, Brahman, whatever name we choose for the Supreme. When something has been given, it cannot be taken back. What is done is done, and there is no room for pointless ‘ifs’ and ‘shoulds’ because we are focused on what is present now. A great obstacle to contentment is overcome in this way.
At every stage of our journey, these teachings help us to meet the needs of life.
At this point we might object that action as offering creates a gap between ourselves and the higher truth. Does this not contradict the principle of non-duality and reaffirm an unbridgeable divide between the individual and the universal? Let us understand correctly. It is the mind that is being guided, and we are affirming our real status as one with the power behind our mind and all minds, the source and sustainer of every being.
Nothing can happen to harm you at that level where there are no separate appearances, only your real eternal infinite Self. This is the true perspective, and this is the source of true contentment.