By Rev. Doyeon Park – This article was originally appeared on Huffpost in 2016.
I do not consider myself a type of person who is always looking for more to do, more to possess, more to achieve and more to desire; not believing that’s how to bring “more” happiness into life. Instead, I try to be a person who is content and grateful for what’s here in the moment.
One day, in my teens, I tried listing all the things I wanted in my life. The list went on and on. I saw many people, including myself, wanting something more and different no matter what and how much we have. I realized that “wanting” is endless. It never knows enough. I was convinced that learning to be content could be a more practical and efficient way to live a happy life than trying to accomplish everything I want in life. In fact, “wanting more” often leads us to a constant feeling of discontent and struggle as we focus on what’s not here. I chose to train myself to be content with who I am in the moment. I have seen progress in the practice of contentment over the years, but there are still many moments where I need to remind myself of this lesson.
Once, as I was jogging on a hot, summer afternoon, I reached a point where I desperately wished for cool air. Much to my surprise, a fresh breeze began blowing out of nowhere. It felt delightful. There was nothing else I wanted, but the bliss didn’t last long. A few minutes later, noticing that the wind was coming from the front, I thought it would be much better if the wind were blowing from behind me so it could push me forward and make the jog easier. The gratefulness for the wind certainly faded away and was replaced with feelings of discontent and annoyance. I realized how ridiculous this was and giggled at myself. “Who do I think I am?” “Am I expecting the wind to change direction according to my wish?” That was a moment I needed to remind myself to appreciate the moment. Then I could finish jogging with a sense of gratitude and contentment.
In regards to contentment, there is one particular passage that resonates with me:
A person who wants all things in the world to be just as he wishes is as foolish as a person who builds a house in sand and believes he will live there for thousands of years. A wise person will be satisfied and grateful if six out of ten times things work out in life the way one wished. Moreover, even if all ten things turn out to one’s liking, one does not monopolize those satisfying things but enjoys sharing them with the world. For that reason, not only will one avoid misfortunes, but one’s blessings will always be infinite.The Scriptures of Won Buddhism
How often do we want things to be exactly the way we want them to be? How often do we get angry about the four unfavorable things while taking the six favorable things for granted in daily life? It seems that often we focus on complaining about and hating the unfavorable things, and as a result we lose time and energy to enjoy the blessings in life. Sotaesan made it clear that wanting all things in the world to be the way we want them to be is not wise because that’s not how things are. He is pointing out the inevitable and essential aspect of life, which the Buddha taught as ‘dukkha’, meaning suffering, dissatisfaction, or stress. The Buddhist practice starts with realizing this unavoidable aspect of human life, dukkha. Once we see it for what it is, we can continue the practice to understand it, learn from it, live with it and ultimately be free from it.
In the Won Buddhist tradition, contentment is not the fulfillment of what we want but the understanding of what and how things are. Practicing contentment means using our conscious choice to see what’s here and accept things as they are with gratitude. I heard a lot from Won Buddhist teachers in Korea that “six out of ten” is good enough as Sotaesan said. But I used to find discontent in this teaching, thinking, “why not seven or even eight out of ten?” Later I realized that it was more about seeing the essential nature of human life, dukkha.
As I’ve taught and practiced contentment, I see many people are against it because they think there will be no growth. In the spiritual practice, contentment is not about having a passive, laid-back attitude and doing nothing because everything is perfect or there’s no need for improvement. It means that we realize and accept what is here and now. When we are content with things and conditions around us, we are more likely to be calm and open. With calm and open mind, we create more inner space for clarity and understanding. That is what we need in our day-to-day life to make a real progress.
Just like happiness or gratitude, contentment is a mindset that we can develop. That’s why it matters in our spiritual practice. Although contentment can be influenced by external conditions, it is ultimately an internal attitude. We need to remind ourselves constantly that it’s not about what we have but about how we perceive what we have.