A friend of mine recently posted to Facebook what I interpreted as a slightly new-agey version of the serenity prayer: “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change.” As I wrote in that post, I’m not a big fan of that kind of sentiment, because it could be construed as a way of avoiding responsibility. Of course I don’t have to worry about the botched execution in Oklahoma, because there’s nothing I can do about it. What does it matter that two girls were raped and hung from a tree in India? What was I supposed to do about it? I’m a yogi; I sit in my meditation posture practicing contentment every day.
Those are extreme examples of course; you can insert more reasonable ones for yourself. “I don’t need to help my brother; he’s always getting in trouble. I’ve tried to help him before; it doesn’t work. I’m content to watch him suffer.” So I posited this as an addendum to our new-agey slogan to make it more palatable; if we add a time element it becomes, “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change in the present moment.” This I’m okay with, because making substantive change takes time. We can’t end poverty today; racism and persecution are unlikely to end tomorrow. But we can end them. The Buddha said there is an end to old age, sickness, and death. The logic of it is simple: if you accept cause and effect, then there are causes for suffering. Remove the cause, you must remove the result. What can we change? Everything, given time.
It can end,
Because it has causes.
True or false? Run the tests. Does suffering have a cause? If suffering has a cause, can it end? If something cannot end, must it not have a cause (is it unchanging)?
And this is not an exclusively Buddhist concept. If you’re Christian, or Muslim, or of any belief system that accepts the existence of heaven, then in principle you accept the possibility of living in a world without suffering. So the question then is, how do we create such a world?
My dictionary defines contentment as “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.” I want lots of things; I want suffering to end, for example. This is a common debate, “Does a Buddha want anything?” Yes, they want an end to suffering. But how they “want” things is different from how we want things. If I want something, I would fight you for it. If a Buddha wants something, they figure out how to give it to others.
Of course, contentment (santosha) as an aspect of the eight limbs of yoga, has a part to play in this discussion. What’s important is to understand where and how it fits in. To start with, not as a way of avoiding responsibility. The brief Wikipedia article on santosha gives two definitions from different sources of discussions on the Yoga Sutra: “not requiring more than you have” and “renunciation of the need to acquire, and thereby [the] elimination of want as an obstacle to moksha [liberation].” So let’s take a look at these.
It is an obstacle to enlightenment,
Because enlightenment is something I don’t have.
True or false? Run the tests. Is there a relationship between contentment and things I don’t have? Yes, that’s part of the definition Wikipedia gave me. If enlightenment is something I don’t have, must not wanting it be an obstacle? Maybe it’s some kind of Zen koan, but I would argue overcoming the lack of desire to get enlightened or to get to heaven is the goal of any spiritual practice. Otherwise it’s what you see everyone around you doing; go to work, get old, get sick, die. This is exactly what the Buddha was trying to discover the way out of.
So how do we fix it? Contentment is not “not requiring more than you have” or the “elimination of want.” As we discussed above, Buddhas want things (for you to also get enlightened). Instead, we could define contentment as “not wanting more than what I have created the causes for.” Do I want to get enlightened? Yes, but I haven’t created the causes yet, so I don’t get upset that I’m not there yet. Does that mean I’m not working towards it? No, of course I am. Am I happy that this world is full of poverty and violence? No. But have I created the causes for it to end? No, so I am content. Does that mean I’m not working towards creating those causes? No, I better be doing that, or nothing will change. But I am also content, that creating those causes, I will see that result.
Consider a perfect world,
I will eventually see such a place,
Because I have created the causes for it.
True or false. Run the tests. Then I am content.