All life is suffering.
This is the first and truest of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, an essential belief for Buddhists—that sorrow, loss, and death await all of us and the ones we love.
Sounds depressing, maybe, but it is true.
And you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe it.
Everyone “suffers” at some point.
We feel sad because of the evil or injustice in the world.
Someone close to us dies.
Others have something to eat one day and nothing at all the next.
Some have no home and are not safe.
So what kind of lunatic is this Paul of Tarsus who apparently wrote a letter to the Philippian church?
Have no anxiety about anything.
Be content no matter what.
What would you know about suffering anyway?
Oh, right. You were arrested and put in prison.
Oh, yeah. Apparently they wanted to execute you.
Okay, maybe I’m listening…..
Yes, let’s talk about this thing called contentment.
It’s directly related to anxiety, I might add.
First off: contentment is not accepting abusive or violent circumstances and considering this to be your lot in life. Contentment is not accepting great suffering at the hands of others or things because well, that’s the way it is.
Instead, contentment is finding within yourself a hidden flower.
Allow me to explain.
All of us [and I mean all of us] at one point or another have looked at another person and thought:
“Gee, I wish I had what she has.”
“If only I had his job, or his life—things would be so much better.”
It starts at an early age and it doesn’t stop. We look at other people’s lives and we think that they are so much better than ours. And we live in discontent.
It happens with things, too. We can convince ourselves quite easily that if we just obtain that certain item we will feel better. So we buy, buy, and buy some more. Sometimes it’s small things, but other times it can be big-ticket items like cars, houses, expensive jewelry, electronics, etc. The more we obtain that which we thought would make us happier, the more our insatiable appetite grows to obtain more. And the emptier we feel; not content.
Not being content with ourselves can lead to even deeper suffering.
Some of us face addictions. They are real and they are terrible. They trick us into believing that we need whatever it is we are addicted to in order to survive in this world. In the day to day struggle of addiction, people can start to feel deep depression. This feeling is not some passing thought that someone should just “get over.” There are chemicals at work in our minds and in our bodies. Some of us have more physical tendencies to feel depressed. Regardless, addictions and depression do not enable us to be content at all.
We can start to wither away. Not being content internally with ourselves, who we are—leads to us think that we are incapable of doing anything good. Discontent leads us to try to copy other people; to chase after material things; to fill the void in us.
Paul of Tarsus saw this discontent in himself before his spiritual awakening; he saw it in the early church. People were jealous, they horded power, gossiped, and caused suffering.
But he, on his journey, had discovered another, blessed path:
The path of Contentment.
Now you may not agree with all that Paul wrote about the church [I don’t either], but consider his story—his journey from discontent and violence to awakening and transformation. Paul was a persecutor before. He pushed others down and away. After his awakening, he became a bridge-builder. He joined both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, in a common community.
And most importantly, he found contentment within himself. He focused less on the external which he could not control. He was at peace. His mind was freed by contentment, and the external circumstances of life [even prison and death] could not change that.
I said earlier that contentment is like finding within yourself a hidden flower.
There is one particular flower that holds great meaning in spiritual traditions.
The lotus flower is often a symbol of contentment and also is the flower associated with Buddhism. The lotus’ symbolism relates to its actual behavior in nature. Consider that the lotus’ roots are buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Then, the lotus rises above the water towards the sky, opening its petals of white and pastel colors. The symbolism is simple—movement from mud and darkness to freedom and light.
Flowers/plants in general, are under the ground; their roots stay as they are.
The external world can bring cold, rain, snow, heat. But the roots are in the ground, waiting for a moment to bloom, to emerge from the earth and to rise above it. Regardless of what happens outside, the plant’s roots do not change. They absorb whatever moisture and good soil and sunlight that they can get.
They are always expecting to eventually bloom.
I think this is why plants and flowers are often symbols in many faith traditions—including Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth mentioned flowers and plants in many of his sayings. Most likely, as humans, we need to be reminded time and time again that we are not much different than the plants and flowers. We forget this, because we are so caught up in everything material. We rarely take even a moment to consider that even in our most difficult and low times that we are just a flower waiting to bloom. We often forget that in moments of despair and uncertainty—when we are buried in the mud—that we are meant to eventually rise up above the water towards the sky. To find light.
It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment.
That is why focusing on that which is noble, right, lovely, admirable—positive stuff—this is where our minds ought to wander.
Because here’s the thing about contentment—it’s something you have to practice.
If you spend most of your hours and days worrying, fearing, stressing, coveting, or regretting—well, you’ll become an expert at it. That’s why it is important to be mindful of our thoughts.
Nobody is perfect, but certainly we can make a commitment to more grateful, peaceful, balanced, and loving thoughts. If we practice this daily, we will combat the other thoughts that can pull us down or keep us from walking forward.
It won’t be easy, but any real and positive change in life is never easy.
Hopefully, you won’t have to go to prison to realize this; or hit rock bottom; or find yourself in a desperate situation.
But maybe that’s what will happen; perhaps that’s how contentment will come to you.
I don’t know that, because it’s different for everyone.
Regardless, accept that the circumstances around you are often out of your control.
And that’s okay.
Ask yourself: what would it mean for you to be content whatever the circumstances?
Whether hungry, or fed, or living with plenty, or living with nothing—what would it mean for you to be content in every situation?
No need to deny or minimize the things you go through in life.
No need to try to explain them away by saying that your suffering is God’s will or something like that.
Recognize any pain or anxiety or fear that you feel.
But then realize that you can be persistent in your prayer and meditation, in your silence, in your finding of contentment.
The peace that passes all understanding is available to you.
Whoever or wherever you are today, know this:
You are a flower waiting to bloom, waiting to be reborn.
You may be in the mud today, but the skies call you.
You may have all your petals closed right now, but eventually they need to open.
May you find contentment.