This month at the Patheos Book Club they are featuring Robert Wicks’ new book Streams of Contentment. I was invited to write a post in response to the theme of the book and participate in a conversation abotu contentment. Wicks' book offers us an array of stories to illuminate this journey toward living a life of deeper contentment, of more simplicity and clarity about what brings us satisfaction, of remembering gratitude as a foundational practice.
I have learned a lot about contentment from my yoga practice. In Sanskrit the word for contentment is santosha which asks us to accept the current state as it truly is, and to work with the resources we have available to us, rather than forcing or pushing to achieve the goals of our egos. Contentment calls for a release of our resistance to what life brings us.
I had practiced an open-hearted welcome to my own difficult feelings and experiences for years before I realized that there was still buried a desire to have this act of welcome move me past to a sense of joy, or something other than what I was feeling. It was really a line from a Jane Hirshfield poem that broke it open for me in a deeper way: “The still heart that refuses nothing.” The still heart, which is what we are trying to cultivate through contemplation, refuses nothing.
The Rule of Benedict also counsels contentment which essentially means being fully satisfied with whatever is being presented to me in a given moment. It is the satisfaction of desire. Being content often means shifting what it is we desire so that we grow more satisfied with what we already have. Benedict wanted us to remember that every gift and grace we have comes from God and to marvel that there is something rather than nothing. We don’t grow spiritually if we are always striving after something bigger and better, maturity comes from cultivating a sense of contentment with the situation of one’s life.
Contentment doesn’t mean we are always happy about life events or deny the reality of pain. We cultivate contentment by cultivating the inner witness who is able to respond to life from a place of calm, peace, and tranquility. It means we honor that what we have in a given moment is enough. So it is the “still heart” –the heart of equanimity—which can welcome everything in. Instead of always living with a sense of dissatisfaction about our lives or anticipation over what comes next, we live in the knowledge that this moment contains everything we need to be at peace, to experience freedom, to develop compassion for ourselves and others, to find God. Benedict’s Rule counsels contentment with what a person has, a sense that what is, is “enough.” We don’t need anything more and so we are content. When we experience contentment we have softened our bodies, minds, and hearts so that we are able to release the unconscious resistances we hold to our own experience.
Monasticism has always been connected to living simply, but this does not imply bitterness or resentment at a sense of scarcity. Instead, the call is to celebrate the sufficiency of what one already has. Contentment is closely connected to the practice of gratitude, of recognizing that having anything is gift. A deep and profound joy is rooted in being content, satisfied with this moment offers to me. In the riches of silence it is all there with us and we experience a sense of contentment and equanimity,
The moments when we want to refuse our experience, when we want reality to be other than it is, can be extremely subtle. We may not realize that our gnawing dissatisfaction, or inner resistance, is an act of refusal. Contemplative practice allows us to hear the call to rest into the truth of what is and out of our prayer experience respond in our daily lives. By breathing deeply, we can allow the energy of what we resist to have a place in our hearts, and somehow we are able to bear it.