Have you ever done your very best on a project or test and gotten results that were disappointing? Have you ever felt your mood fluctuate with the weather? Have you ever been extraordinarily happy one moment and then had an experience that left you absolutely miserable the next moment?
If so, your contentment is based on external contingencies – on other people, things and situations. Your fulfillment, happiness and mood depend on something outside of yourself – the weather, your income, your environment, your family, your neighbors, your job, your car, your pet, food, clothes – the list is inexhaustible.
In our capitalist society, based on competition and profit, there is nothing seemingly strange about this. Capitalism runs with the premise that a good or service has a price and a customer must pay that price to obtain the good or service. We focus on a need and set an expectation that it will be fulfilled.
We are trained into this society at a young age – we earn grades for our performance at school, we earn an allowance for chores at home, we earn accolades for sports, music and art. We are taught how to compete, how to perform, how we will be evaluated and how we will gain.
One of the by-products of the capitalist mentality is instant gratification. We expect things to be exactly as we want them when we want them. When our expectations do not meet our reality, disappointment sets in. People find solace in other people, religion, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food, television and other external sources for consolation.
Just as much as we have been trained to compete, we have been trained to look outside of ourselves for happiness. Religions and advertisements, among other industries, have taught us that we are not good enough as we are. We need something else or we need to depend on someone else, in order to be complete, to be whole, to be saved and to be “better.” This keeps us always striving, always seeking and always lacking. It leaves us unsettled, so that even when we gain what we sought, there is something else we must do or have. Our contentment remains fleeting based on one moment and the next.
What is one of the most well-known Eastern religious concepts among Westerners? It is the law of karma, the concept that our actions have consequences. Why is this concept so familiar in our society? Because it deals with outcomes. It parallels Christianity (and Capitalism). It is unfortunate that the Eastern practices of the breath (pranayama), stillness and silence don’t gain more attention and aren’t consistently applied in our daily lives. The depth that people would gain from them would make the law of karma a non-issue, because what is inherently “right” will be obvious. Our happiness would also not be contingent on external sources if we maintained consistent stillness, silence and focus on the breath.
The Zen poem, “Hsin Hsin Ming” by Seng Ts’an, describes the path of the way, or the Tao, by releasing our preferences, and ultimately, our contingencies:
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind…
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
If we hold an expectation that someone or something outside of ourselves will make us happy, that expectation will leave us with a chance of happiness and a chance of disappointment. When you cultivate happiness within yourself, you can be happy simply by being. You no longer need to be doing anything at all. And the preferences that we have been taught to make will disappear. The blue, sunny sky and the gray, gloomy sky will be equal and we will be content in either.
We will have certainty of what is the exact right path, because we will have clarity and certainty unaffected by our preferences and our never-ending desires. Ideally, we can live without emotional reaction to things. We can live with contentment as a constant state of being.