This past weekend I was visiting with my sister and her family, and not only did I have the opportunity to spend time with beloved family members, but then I was given another—unexpected—gift…
My sister teaches a Sunday School class for young people, and as she was preparing for her next day’s lesson, she came to me with a question: “I want to speak to them about contentment, but I don’t know exactly how to explain what that means. How do you tell them about something that is probably only a vague notion for them?”
I was intrigued by this question, and I went off on my own to consider it for a while. I thought, “Well, “contentment” is quite a profound concept, and maybe a lot of adults don’t fully understand what it means. How does one put it into plain language so that even a child could comprehend it?”
I could see the possible context for dealing with this issue: these young people live in a materialistic culture with pressure from all sides to acquire more and more stuff, and reminders of contentment are few and far between. I also knew that deep discussions about contentment would probably not be going on in most households, and that it is the tendency of people—of all ages—to be more focused on what they don’t have as opposed to what they innately possess.
Normally when we hear the word “contentment,” we turn our attention to the things that are meant to bring contentment. These things are different for different people, but the list might start with an attractive and loving romantic partner, a beautiful home, satisfaction of desires, abundance, safety, security, material comfort, respect and acclaim. But the more I pondered my sister’s question, the more it became clear to me that there was evidence of contentment all around, but that it often went unrecognized because it did not necessarily have to do with any of those things.
I happen to know many people who have hardly any of the things that I have listed, who nevertheless have the obvious presence of contentment in their lives. What is it these people “have” that contents them, even if their contentment wasn’t in the having of anything?
What I see in these wonderful people is a vast openness to all experience, an enormous capacity for letting things be as they are. They are active, engaged, energetic, intelligent, skilled, joyous and serviceful, but at the same time they reside in a place of complete rest. The constant barrage of thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences seems to be going on the same for them as for anyone else, but they are not carried away by the flow. Their attention is not on themselves and all of their personal concerns; rather, they maintain a profound interest in a place of great depth and peace that includes everyone and everything.
The key ingredient to this contentment seems to be the recognition of a place in themselves that has no place—an unchanging essence, a natural state, awareness, clarity, open intelligence, a place of peace—call it by whatever name. There is in them a moment by moment choice to return to that place of peace over and over, for short moments, again and again.
When distractions occur—and even if the distractions continue for a while—the choice is eventually made to return to that place of peace. They sustain themselves with reminders so that the choice is not obscured: they seek out community with this as the basis, they commit themselves to reaching out for support when needed and they refresh the commitment by reading, listening to and investigating unerring teachings that speak unwaveringly about what is true.
So, in the end, what would I want to tell those young people in the Sunday School class? I would want to stand before them and be able to say with the utmost confidence, “Dear ones, you have nothing to fear. Everything you need, you have. Naturally occurring wisdom and well-being that will never leave you come from acknowledging the truth within yourselves, for short moments, many times, until the acknowledgement becomes spontaneous and continuous.”
So, this was the gift I received: knowing that this is so for myself, knowing that it is true for others, and knowing that this simple truth can be communicated clearly and easily. This gift, this contentment, is our greatest possession.