The Practice of Contentment

Among the many benefits of going on a solitary retreat is the opportunity to practice contentment.  We do, of course, have the option to work on our endemic dissatisfaction at any time.  But in retreat we put ourselves in a situation that forcefully demands it.

Retreat, one might say, is an exercise in compulsory contentment and obligatory tranquility.  If we don’t make peace with our lives and ourselves in a long-term, solitary retreat, we will drive ourselves crazy in no time at all.

And we know this.  We sense the madness that lurks right around the corner when we put ourselves in such a situation – alone, silent, with minimal outside stimuli to distract us from the inner workings of our own mind.  In a context like this, some form or another of contentment is no longer optional but rather is mandated as a psychological survival skill.

The Buddha defined suffering as not getting what we do want and getting what we don’t want (as well as losing what we wanted to keep).  Discontentment thus comes in two forms: desiring what we don’t have – kama (“desire”), raga (“greed”), tanha (“thirst”) or tirshna (“craving”); and not wanting what we do have – dvesha (“hatred”) or  krodha (“anger”).

Both desire and aversion spring from ignorance (avidya, a.k.a. moha or “confusion”). Out of ignorance we see other people and things wrongly. Because we are confused about what’s what, we attribute essences (atmans, “selves,” or asmita, literally meaning “I-am-ness”) to beings and things that are empty of having them. We think that an irritating person is essentially or objectively irritating. And we believe that money, a new iPad, or an attractive potential partner are all intrinsically or inherently desirable.

Out of ignorance, in other words, we assume there is some kind of innate desirability and undesirability in the external targets of our desire and aversion.  Discontentment arises either because we think we don’t have (or don’t have enough of) something or someone that we believe to be objectively desirable; or that we do have (and need to get rid of) something or someone that we think is objectively undesirable.

This economy of discontentment is severely disrupted in a solitary retreat.  It’s not that the old, familiar habits of wanting what we don’t have and not wanting what we do have don’t arise.  They do – and sometimes stronger than ever.

But, first of all, it’s not so easy to just drop everything and run after the external objects of one’s desire – one doesn’t, usually, break retreat to drive to the shopping mall or check an online dating service in order to try to satisfy the latest yearning.   And it’s also not usually possible in retreat to avoid what one has and doesn’t want – e.g., flies, ants or mice in one’s retreat space, or the unexpected sounds of airplanes or dog’s barking that threaten to disrupt meditative concentration.

In retreat, we have to make peace with what is.  Unless we are going to drive ourselves (not to mention the person who is serving our retreat) crazy with endless demands, we learn to live with what we have.  And when it comes to the unwanted things and events that arise in retreat, almost always the only effective strategy is acceptance.

If we aren’t going to be driven to utter distraction by desire and aversion in retreat, we have to just “chillax” and be happy with what is – at least for the time being.

At a deeper level, as we sit alone in retreat struggling with the dissatisfaction that plagues us all nearly all the time, it might dawn on us that the phenomenon of discontent isn’t working the way we have always thought it was.

Because we are more aware of our own minds in the quiet of a retreat setting, we might begin to realize that the sense of perpetual dissatisfaction is not really due to the external things or beings that are or are not available to us.  It’s not what’s happening outside that’s bringing us the suffering. It’s all going on in our own heads; the drama of discontent is internal.

The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough of what we want or that we do have what we don’t want.  It’s not really because of the presence or absence of what is external to us. The happiness we’re looking for isn’t in the outer objects, and the unhappiness we experience also isn’t because of something outside of ourselves.

The problem is the ignorance that lies behind the wanting and not wanting, as well as the passive indulgence of the mental afflictions that are inseparable from our constant dissatisfaction. We might get some insight that it is with the development of wisdom, and a change in our relationship to the objects of our desire and aversion that discontentment can be put to rest once and for all.

In retreat, we are forced to struggle with our own minds. The gnawing discontentment we ordinarily live with can no longer just be allowed free rein. We are forced into acceptance with what we have; we are compelled to be content.

And, if we’re lucky, another result of that inner battle is insight into the real methods for attaining the peace and happiness we have been striving for our whole lives.