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.

Parkinson’s Law.

Tuesday mornings I have a late start at work, and when the alarm goes off at the usual time, and when E. isn’t here with his own obligations, I find myself negotiating with myself. My morning routine takes 2 and a half hours, and I start counting backwards to see if I can lie in bed another half hour.

The thing is, all this math wakes me up anyway but now I am in the wrong groove. It takes me a half hour to tie the bows on my running shoes. And because E. is offshore, I start my run from home and head to the lake: the first kilometer on the sidewalk, dogging sulky teenager, and mothers with their six-year-olds walking to school three-abreast, forcing me into the street.

It isn’t until I hit the trail that my breathing eases. It takes me even longer before I hear the birds. Even longer before I fall into a gentleness of spirit.

This morning I’ve been meditation on being less judgmental. “Haaaa”, I chant. And I imagine a storm in a teacup settling into a clear reflection of the real problem: my own thoughts in a teacup.


Everyone is talking about the documentary about the man and the octopus. But I spent the first hour focusing on how he managed to do all the filming himself, on the miracle of his having found this one octopus who lived an entire, heroically dramatic life cycle under his gaze. I started to wonder if anyone would know better had he pieced together footage of twenty octopuses to make a story. I wondered why the credits included two writers when the narrative film clips seem confessional.

I wondered why I am such a jerk.

Where is the middle way when it comes to questioning what we are told? Between unhelpful skepticism and unhelpful naivetè?

I suppose it is about the source from which the questions arise. Even knowing that I can sometimes be arbitrary for the sake of being arbitrary – looking for an opportunity to be oppositional – but that is still not the source of the impulse.

At this point in my life – self-analysis does little more than foster self-pity, self-loathing and shame… which sends me looking for a way to bolster my ego. Looking for the source of the need at this point seems like little more than justification and permissiveness. Fake spiritual work.

Maybe I need to come at it all from the other end. What – in the present tense – do I need to let go of?

Maybe all that matters is stopping to ask the question,
Is this helpful?

Or am I just throwing chum in the water to avoid my own discontent?


The blackbirds are singing in the driveway.
That should be enough for the next few minutes.
The sun is rising.