Practicing contentment is a radical act in a consumption-driven society.
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER

It’s interesting that after years of charting my moods on the advice of therapists with various degrees, the Buddhist teacher I listen to now talks about “feelings”. In this system of categorizing, there are only three feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Moods on the other hand are conceptual interpretations, applied meaning based on an understanding of context. Understanding in this context being an understanding, not knowledge in any objective sense.

This works for me.

I have no idea if this is “right” but I think about all the studies of the reptilian brain – the idea that organisms of all kinds exhibit either attraction, aversion, or disregard to phenomenon. How scientists continue to argue whether an aversion response is an indication of “pain” – or of what we call “suffering”.

This has changed my yoga (asana) practice entirely. It has also ushered in a brutally honest confrontation with my own psychological pain. There is a pleasantness in the familiar. That is a truth. Though not particularly noble.

It’s pleasantness in a dark groove of melancholy; pleasantness in naming a scapegoat for what is uncomfortable.

I find this kind of sorting of language and concepts pleasant, too. It somehow makes familiar ideas shiny and new. I think this pleasantness conceptualizes as pride: “I’m so smart.”

At dinner tonight E. and I were talking about the difference between delusion, hallucination and illusion. His curiosity about the language. Mine about my own ignorance of specifics.

Every year I have a few students in movement who complain that the exercises hurt. I ask, “Does it hurt, or is it just uncomfortable? Because each of those states requires a very different response: stop, or breathe.”

Only now, with my own children grown and my mistakes made – only now as my body is edging closer to limits and requires more attention – do I surrender to the truth of subjectivity.

Does it hurt? I hold the world

crying
as if it were my own newborn.


I’m still thinking about contentment: a mood. And how maybe contentment isn’t pleasant at all – but neutral. It’s a place to rest after the highs of gains, and achievements, and moments of wonder – but free of any fear of loss, and of any desire to accumulate more.

It requires an odd kind of faith, I think, to be content: faith that the continually changing world will bring both horrors and wonders into our present.

And we can learn to rest between them.

Breathe in.
Rest. (Wait – don’t hold – don’t clench with a glottal stop – ssh – just wait.)
Breathe out.
Again.

I tell my students if you’re never uncomfortable
you’re never learning, but

nothing in the world must try
to grow.

I have been wanting a sea change. Craving one, actually.

Watching for signs from my body: what causes stress, what releases it. I’m trying to carve pockets into the days to focus on intentional redirection.

But this time there can be no packing up and moving house. There’s no new job, no new relationship, no new discovery of a foreign country. This time things are different. It will take more effort. It will mean more deliberate choices.

I read an article yesterday that related the findings of Norwegian scientists who claim that people lose their drive (which they defined as the combination of grit and passion) at the age of 54. Decline, they call it. And have several suggestions to prevent it from happening. God forbid we lose our competitive edge.

I am 54.

I have long thought that the idea that people “slow down” in terms of curiosity or ambition is absurd. I think this because I have been teaching teenagers for over 20 years and know that there is a huge part of my modest sampling of the human population who are pushed through life: life happens to them. You are pushed to graduate from school, find a career, start a family, etc. Then there comes a time when nothing comes on its own. There’s no next predetermined rung on the ladder that society is pushing you up.

Believe me: society stops pushing you up. Your family no longer has set milestones for you. No expectations. Neither do employers, communities, researchers.

I believe the men and women running marathons and swimming the English Channel at the age of 70 are the same people who were pulling themselves up all along. The minority perhaps. And who knows, I may discover that I’m not even among them. Maybe this is when all is revealed: what in me is intrinsic, and what is contextual.

There are so many factors not taken into consideration when people draw conclusions about “grit and passion” and aging. There is a wisdom that comes at mid-life that can alter the appearance of grit – and temper passion, knowing the price it can demand.

Sometimes there’s a realization that your bluster and arguments – no matter how clever – will not change anyone’s mind at the dinner table. You are a storm in your own teacup.

Sometimes we realize that neither our victories nor our failures rearing our children really made any difference with regard to their victories or failures.

Sometimes we realize that all that applause we thought would fill us, doesn’t. All the spinning of the wheels isn’t getting us anywhere.

Just as countries measure their production and profit – not their sustenance – we as individuals measure our “wins”, not our contentment. So much so that contentment is not only undervalued, it is disdained. Maybe ambition changes into something we refuse to recognize. Something that looks less like profit.

Maybe we observe history being forgotten and realize that there is value in every present moment and that betting the now against a legacy is a strange act of an even stranger faith.

I’ve been craving a sea change and am trying to find a spell.
A narrow creek. An eye of newt.
A single branch of knotted pine.
Five silent terns, and a hooded gull’s cry.

It is a private act. This conjuring.
This particular ambition.