I don't know exactly when I made a decision, but some time ago I decided that instead of trying to aspire to greatness, to make millions of dollars or own a beautiful house or have an amazing job title, I would focus on being content with what I have.
Perhaps it's come from several years of living off of less than a thousand dollars a month, of learning to get buy with less than I once had, of understanding that I can survive and be relatively happy without having to travel all over the world or have lots of things. Possessions are not what makes a person happy.
Happiness, or at least the pursuit of it--despite what Thomas Jefferson may have thought--does not make a person happy. Happiness is something fleeting and elusive. To focus on trying to be happy all the time is simply to prepare oneself for disappointment. It is impossible to be happy all the time and therefore, if you expect to be happy all the time then when you're not, you are doubly saddened because not only are you not happy, but you've failed to achieve your goal of being happy and therefore suffer additional disappointment.
I don't mean to sound like the Buddha, but by focusing on the desire for something we don't have--like happiness--we only make the situation worse. Instead, I've found, it is better to focus on satisfaction. Not the Cheshire cat smiling kind of satisfaction that comes from proving you're better than someone else, but the satisfaction of contentment. The satisfaction that comes from having accomplished a task proficiently, or even expertly, and looking back on what you've done and knowing that you did it.
It is the latter satisfaction that can be developed, that we can expand upon as we learn how to understand that the very act of walking--as Thich Nhat Hanh so poignantly explains--is something in which we can find satisfaction. For walking requires effort. Not only is each step a process of a fall interrupted, but we must then pick up our feet and lift our legs and move the muscles in our legs to begin the next fall which we subsequently interrupt and repeat over and over. And all of this requires energy which our bodies convert from the food we consume. That food was grown or produced through the efforts of a farmer who birthed and cared for and husbanded the plants or the animals that are eventually harvested or slaughtered and then prepared and shipped and stored and cooked and set before you on a plate.
Each step, then, requires an amazing amount of effort to be accomplished. When we realize everything that goes into something so simple as walking down the street we can understand that satisfaction or--as I prefer to know it--contentment becomes manifest in our lives with everything we do.
If we realize how easy it is to be content with what we have and who we are--as reaching the current point of our lives in which we reside has taken years and years of growth and development, learning and improvement, trials and tribulations, experiences and pain--we don't need to aspire to great heights or even chase the elusive happiness fairy. Instead, we can be satisfied with what we have and live each day with the knowledge that great things had to happen to do the things we normally do.
This week I started a practice that contributes to developing contentment. I have previously written about gratitude (see Gratitude, an Attitude and the tail end of A Potpourri) but this week I instituted a daily gratitude check. After I finish my morning writing--which is the most important thing I do ever y day--and before I check my emails I take five minutes and write down half a dozen things I'm grateful for.
I'm not doing this out of any desire to get closer to god or to recognize how small I am in the context of universal development, but I do it to help me focus on the things that I have, and the things I've accomplished, rather than the things I want or the things I don't have. By noticing that I, in fact, have quite a lot despite my small apartment and my small salary and all the other things that could take away from my happiness I am able to forget all of the negatives and remember the positives. And once I'm reminded of the positives, of all the things I have and have done and have been given, it becomes much easier to get through each day with satisfaction, or contentment.
Gratitude, then, is much more than a religious concept, it is a recognition of receipt, an acknowledgment that there are many elements that constitute everything we have and do and an understanding that our very existence is a great thing and should not be brushed lightly aside in favor of the things we want to have or do or be. Gratitude is an attitude, a part of the path, a step towards achieving the contentment that has and is helping me to be--not to worry about what the future holds, but to live in the present and to consider all the things I have now that contribute to a stable and consistent life--just to be, and to be satisfied with that.
I would encourage anyone who reads this, then, to consider their own lives. Look at all the things you have, all the things you have done and experienced, the lessons you've learned and the places you've been and the people you've met. Examine the greatness of your life and realize that you can be content with what you have because you have so much already.
Now, this does not preclude the possibility of further growth and improvement. I have goals and intentions and things I'd like to do. But instead of swimming madly across the pond of life in an effort to achieve, I am instead using a relaxed stroke, a leisurely pace that allows me to enjoy the water, the scenery of the shore, the singing of the birds. I know that with each stroke I can be content while moving me closer to larger goals. I don't have to be there now, because by going there I am enjoying myself, and so long as I'm enjoying myself, what does it matter if I make millions of dollars and have a mansion?
At least, that's what I'm trying to do, and this week I've found the practice of a daily gratitude check very helpful in obtaining contentment now. Think about it, please, it just might help you to relax and smell a few more roses.