I have been pondering on what to write about for some time – keep changing my mind in response to what I read on the site – and to what is happening in my life. For me Buddhist ideas are useful/interesting in so far as I can apply them in my often erratic quest to become more content, to be able to see things in perspective, to be calmer, kinder, wiser, less self-preoccupied.
I have been reflecting on the value of contentment, about contentment as a virtue, about the ‘usefulness’ of soothing the restless mind. The mind that is never satisfied, always demanding that things be different; that my body stop aging, that others agree with me, that I hadn’t said xyz…, that my work be better paid and more engaging, that my big black shaggy dog stop his ear-splitting head-exploding barking every time someone comes to the door (which is happening a lot given the local election next week).
Buddhist thought has many helpful things to say about this, for instance linking contentment with our capacity to see things ‘as they are’ with some equanimity i.e. largely beyond our control, uncertain, unreliable and with the potential to cause pain This recognition can help; I often find it liberating as long as I’m not in the midst of an immediate crisis – or feeling truly harried, although even then, pausing to acknowledge that what is happening, is just an aspect of the whole range of painful things that happen to human beings, can help. Mostly what seems to help is cultivating some kindness towards my experience; honouring my distress rather than judging myself, as I am prone to do, for not being able to manage my emotional life any better (especially after years of practice!)
I like the connection made in Buddhist thought between contentment and virtuous action; if we can ease our instinctive reactions, our demands, fears and aversions, our perceptions are less likely to be so biased and we are more likely to be able to greet our inner – and outer – experience with generosity and equanimity. In ‘The Compassionate Mind’, Professor Paul Gilbert suggests that although humans have evolved a powerful potential for love, altruism and compassion (based on the need to protect offspring) and that our brains are consequently attuned to the needs of others, threats to ourselves or those we love can easily trigger fear, sadness, despair frustration, rage and violence, making a compassionate response less accessible. His research interests lie in seeing how Buddhist practices can help to soothe our ‘threat/self-protection’ and ‘incentive/resource seeking’ systems and to ‘develop contentment and well-being’ by ‘fostering compassion and kindness in ourselves and for others’.
In the (slightly amended) words of the Sedaka Sutta (The Bamboo Acrobat)
Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself
And how does one look after others by looking after oneself?
Through pursuing the practice of mindfulness, through devoting oneself to it
And how does one look after oneself by looking after others?
Through patience, through harmlessness, through a mind of kindness and sympathy
Thus looking after oneself, one looks after others;
and looking after others, one looks after oneself