Until recently, I never used the word contentment; it seemed like asking too much. Also, the word itself seemed to imply smugness and being so satisfied with the way things were that there was no room for reaching or growing. Instead of contentment, I used the word happiness. But there was also a problem with that word as well. In fact, there were three problems with “happiness:” The first was that it seemed to depend on conditions and circumstances: A crystal-clear day, feeling well, a meaningful exchange with a friend. Also, and this is the number two problem, happiness was always fleeting because those situations ended quickly, even the ones that lasted hours or weeks. And the third problem with happiness was that I had an underlying belief that it was not for me. Not really. That other people could be happy, but that somehow, I was damaged at the core and doomed to muck around in some sort of secret, low-level melancholy for the rest of my life that, because of my fortunate life, I also felt deep shame about.
When we lost all our money — which was, looking back on it, one of the biggest blessings of my life — it was terrifying for the first few days. Then, as I wrote in my book, Lost and Found, I realized I had a choice: as long as I allowed my mind to go wandering off in fear and blame and guilt and hysteria, I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t tolerate living in my body. For survival’s sake, I became vigilant about bringing myself back to this very moment. To the smell of air, to noticing the solidity and presence of trees, to the pink flower on my cobalt blue teacup. To the sensation of the tea entering my mouth, sliding down my throat. I became fierce about seeing what I had, not what I didn’t have. Within four or five days from hearing that we were broke, I felt as I’d woken from a trance I’d been living in for as long as I could remember. My mind was quiet and clear. Every thing was just as it was. Air was air. Tea was tea. The fact that I had what was called a hand, and the fact that it moved, could type and reach and touch, was miraculous. As if I was seeing everything for the first time. It felt as if my whole life until that moment had been experienced through a muted druggy haze, and the effects were finally wearing off. I couldn’t believe I had been missing this. That this — life itself — was here all along. And as I rushed from here to there, doing what I considered to be important tasks, I missed the astonishingly simple beauty of what had been staring me in the face. If I had died right then, holding my newly discovered blue teacup in my newly discovered hand, I would have felt complete. As if I was doing what I was born to do — which was only and absolutely to show up — and my life on earth had not been wasted.
Contentment, I realized, was not about adding more but about taking away what was standing between me and the wide expanse of what had been here all along. The fact that I had a choice, that it was actually within my power (just as Glinda always said) to wrest my attention from the familiar, ongoing sense of lack (that had been there with or without money), to the simplicity of what I could see, hear, touch, taste was shocking, life-changing. I’d thought my melancholy was pre-ordained, like the color of my eyes — and that I had to do grand things in the world — effectively be someone else — to earn joy. By losing our money, I realized that contentment was free.
Fifteen years later, my life situation is no longer dire — which means that the pressing need to stop dwelling in the loops of lack is also no longer dire. Last night, as I was pouring salt into the soup I was making, I found myself wandering off into what I was going to do when I got done, and all the things I needed to do after that. And after that. I started feeling grumpy and exhausted and put-upon by the world. Then, I caught myself and realized I was making the whole thing up and that’s how the mind works: it makes things up, it tries to scare me. Us. And I realized I had a choice. Continue being exhausted and cranky and miss the sight of the salt crystals dissolving like snow in the broth — or stop. I felt like the patient in Bob Newhart’s skit. The one who goes to the psychiatrist and complains about his problems. Each time the patient tells the psychiatrist what is wrong, the doctor says, Stop it. Standing in the kitchen, I realized I could stop it (and transport myself back) or continue it (and keep sledding in the sludge of my mind).
I know “stopping it” sounds like a no-brainer, but it doesn’t feel like it in the moment; it feels like a monumental effort. It feels like an intentional and fierce turn of attention towards the moment. And the part of me that is used to complaining and has gotten comfortable with defining myself as the one who doesn’t have what she wants and never will doesn’t want to be content.
The unceasing whorl of mind activity about what’s-wrong and who’s-to-blame, the drumbeat of thought itself (even when those thoughts aren’t specifically about blame, wanting or not enough) makes me feel as if there is someone home, someone who is actually thinking those thoughts. Together, they form my identity. The ME necklace, as when one pearl is strung together with another individual pearl and another and another, until they make what you think of, and actually wear, as one whole piece.
When the momentum of thoughts are taken together, they form the idea, the feeling of a self. They give me substance, solidity, a unique — if only uniquely unhappy — flavor. But it seems that something is better than nothing because when I don’t identify with my thoughts, when I don’t take them to be what makes me me, I feel like nothing at all. Like the space in which anything, everything — a tea cup — can reveal itself as itself, instead of being the means to the end of getting hot liquid down my throat (that I miss the taste of because I am watching Youtube videos of Comedians in the Car with Coffee while I am drinking it).
My friend Kate (I wrote about her in my book, This Messy Magnificent Life), who has spent five years undergoing one grueling chemotherapy treatment after another, as well as their attendant exhaustion, hope, disappointment, discomfort and is now dying said, “It’s taken me so long to come back to the beginning, to realize that being able to walk around TJ Maxx and buy a black tote with pockets makes me indescribably content. Why,” Kate said, “has it taken me so long to understand this?” And the answer is: Because we think it’s about grander things than being able to walk around TJ Maxx. Because we are convinced we have to earn joy instead of notice the ten thousand places in which it is already waiting for our attention.
As I was watching the salt dissolve in broth, I realized once again how tempting it is to check Instagram while I am drinking broth and how compelling and habitual it is to plan what I am going to say on my conference call the next day while I am washing the dishes. Then, with effort, I brought my attention back to the song of the wind chimes, the sound of the salt disappearing in the broth. Which is when I realized that contentment is a wide expanse of nothing-missing. The fact that it was a choice and that I didn’t have to do anything more than bring my attention back to what I could see, hear, touch, taste, was like being handed a ticket to the joy I believed I needed to earn.
As you read this, notice if you too believe that you need to earn joy. If it takes working hard, suffering, paying for your life with discontent. And notice the places, the ten thousand places, where contentment is here, waiting for you. Look up. Look around. Don’t miss it.
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