I Can't Get No . . .
Today I learned something that I hope will go a long way towards relieving my remaining problems with boredom (see Unlearning Helplessness and Changing Habits). And I hope, perhaps, to share some thoughts on this new information that may be of assistance to others.
As I was sitting in the cafe downstairs having my mid-morning coffee, I began to think about how I was going to fill my afternoon. I'd already decided on the rest of the morning, but had four hours in the afternoon without any specific activity that had to be accomplished.
At first, I thought about what would help me get through the time until the day was over and I could see my boyfriend and get into the weekend. I contemplated this for a moment and for some reason decided that this was not the best use of my time. I don't recall the exact thought that triggered the chain reaction in my head, but I quickly realized an element of my treatment of time that has contributed to my problems of filling it up. I was focused on getting through it, trying to fill the time up with distraction enough to get through the day and to the time when I wasn't at work. I was trying to make time go quickly, forcing my way through the waters of the day like some mammoth beast flailing and spouting and desperate to get through the stream. I was focused on what I could do to finish my required time.
But what if I looked at it a different way?
Last week I wrote about contentment (see Being Content) and discussed the idea of concentrating on being satisfied with what one has rather than striving, often futilely, to be happy. One element of that caught my attention as I sipped my iced Americano. Satisfaction. What if, instead of trying to get through the day as quickly as possible I focused instead on filling my time to the greatest level of satisfaction possible? What would happen?
I began to type some thoughts on my phone in my glacial two thumbs (very large ones) approach to data input on my telecommunications device. Here's what I wrote:
Got a long afternoon to go, still. Will hopefully get a slight bit more motivation as the day goes along. Not much else to say at the moment. Get through the week and to another weekend. Try to enjoy today as much as possible. That's what I need to do, focus on enjoying today, not on just getting through today so I can get to the weekend. If I'm focused on today, on making the most of today instead of pushing through just to get through, then I will be more productive and enjoy myself much more. Focus on making today the best I can so I can look at the day and know I used it wisely, not just passed through it on the way to the weekend. Which attitude requires a constant checking, a constant sense of doing the most out of the time I have available. Not necessarily to be the most productive, but to do the things that will be the most satisfying and help me feel that I did not waste the time I had. That may mean doing certain things versus others, doing something rather than just waiting for time to pass. Hmm.
I apologize for the roughness of it, I don't focus on proper grammar when I'm writing in my Evernote journal on my phone. But I hope the point is clear. I decided that rather than simply trying to get through the afternoon to the evening when I would no longer be required to be at work, I would focus on filling my time in the most satisfying way possible.
But what is satisfying?
According to dictionary.com to satisfy is "to fulfill the desires, expectations, needs, or demands of (a person, the mind, etc.); give full contentment to." I won't define contentment as that is, apparently, the act of being satisfied. Fulfilling the desires, expectations, needs, or demands of a person, or of the mind, however, may be more instructive.
Looking at these words I again turn to the Buddha. When we desire something we find ourselves in a problem. According to PBS.com 's Basics of Buddhism, "By desire, Buddhists refer to craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be satisfied. As a result, desiring them can only bring suffering."
But that may not be entirely true. According to the Insight Meditation Center,
A starting point for understanding desire is to differentiate between unhealthy and healthy desire. Unhealthy desire undermines psychological health, producing what Buddhism often calls “suffering” for short. Healthy desire can contribute to psychological well-being, happiness, and peace. If we place healthy and unhealthy desire on a spectrum, at one end we have the motivations that lead to some of the worst and most horrific things people do. But at the other end, desire expresses some of the most beautiful and noble aspects of human life. . . Buddhism recognizes many beautiful aspirations, including wishes of goodwill and kindness for others, and the desire for happiness and other wholesome qualities of mind for ourselves. Central to Buddhist practice are the aspirations for liberation and for the alleviation of the sufferings of others. However, Buddhism does not require us to desire either of these; when the heart is open and relaxed, these wishes often bubble up.
There are two types of desires, then, the unhealthy cravings for sensual pleasure and things that are unattainable, and the healthy aspirations the lead to fulfillment and contentment, the desire to help others, to be better, to find the things that have meaning.
The Existential Buddhist website further explains the distinction.
In understanding the Buddhist path, it may be useful to distinguish intention and aspiration from attachment and desire. Our aspirations to better our circumstances are inseparable from being alive. They never cease. We will always want air, water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and companionship. Above and beyond our basic wants, we may also aspire to certain so-called “higher” goods such as wisdom, compassion, and courage. While pursuing these higher goods, we will still simultaneously find ourselves experiencing a desire for “lower” goods as well, such as social status or material wellbeing. It’s one thing to recognize an aspiration to some good—be it “higher” or “lower”—and thoughtfully work to increase the likelihood of attaining it. It’s another thing to be seized by it, to be held in its grip, to be helpless against it, to pursue it recklessly, against one’s better judgement, even when it’s antithetical to one’s long-term wellbeing. If Buddhism were asking us to cease all intention and aspiration, it would be asking the impossible. What it’s actually asking is for us to become discerning about our intentions and aspirations. Are they worth aspiring for? Will they really makes us happier? Can we pursue them intelligently, weighing their direct and indirect costs, or are we being dragged thoughtlessly along by them to the detriment of ourselves and others? If a desire is in charge of us—if it’s leading us to ruin and misfortune—can we detach from it and let it go? If the desire is unattainable or only attainable at too great a cost, can we also let it go?
What this suggests, then, is that satisfaction, or contentment, can be sought through the fulfillment of attainable, useful, and improving aspirations. By finding the things that will practically improve yourself or your life rather than obsessing about the things that might do so, or pursuing actions that themselves become obsessive you can reach towards the ideal of contentment and satisfaction.
Which all leaves me with the question, how do I use my time to practically improve myself or the world around me? How do I practically accomplish the positive aspirations which I might identify and which act as means to contentment?
Once I figure it out I'll let you know.