Thursday, December 06, 2007

Life Lessons: Pathways to Contentment

The older I get, the less concerned I am about "being happy." Now in my mid-60's, being content with my daily life is more important.

What does contentment feel like? What produces contentment in one's life?

Certainly being satisfied with the life I have is a place to start. To just be. To honor "what is" in my life. Not to be thinking I will be content "just as soon as" something (anything?) I desire is achieved, earned, or received.

In their book, "Contentment: A Way to True Happiness", Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl write:

"As modern people, we like to believe that contentment comes from getting what we want. It does not. Contentment grows out of our capacity to mediate our desires with "what is". A basic spiritual principle is learning to accept "what is" instead of insisting that life be a certain way. Life is rarely the way we want it to be, it's just the way it is. This doesn't mean that you should give up or become passive. The art of realizing contentment is an active and dynamic process. You might imagine it as a dance between your wishes and reality, what you want and what you get."

In my experience, contentment never results from my doing or having. Simplifying my life has helped. But there's more to contentment than just simplicity.

Johnson, a world-renowned Jungian analyst, and Ruhl, a psychotherapist, say that "contentment grows out of the circumstances of life as you find it, in the very place where you currently exist." Furthermore, "the more present and aware you are to what is, the greater the possibilities for contentment."

When I feel content, I have a sense of deep satisfaction, an inner calm, a timelessness. My mind is at peace. My ego is silenced. I feel an inner integrity with my life.

Johnson and Ruhl contend that we must first learn to differentiate between our inner and outer lives to realize contentment. That requires us to understand projection.

The co-author's define projection as "the error of attaching an aspect of your inner life onto someone or something on the outside. This way, you do not have to take responsibility for it. In projecting a disowned part of yourself, you endow other people and things with the power to make you blissful or miserable. Then you turn around and praise or blame the person or situation, while all the while you are reacting to an unconscious, inner part of yourself."

I know I'm projecting when my response to a person or situation is out of proportion to reality, highly energized with emotion (my voice changes), or compulsive in nature. People who know me best usually sense my projections of my inner world before I do (because I'm busy projecting my blame or praise onto them!).

But I've gotten better "with age" at recognizing my projections since Gay Hendricks, co-author of "Conscious Loving" and other books, suggested to me in a training to just "assume your life is all projections!" A radical approach? Maybe. I know it has helped me "reel in" my projections sooner and take responsibility for my actions as well as to notice more quickly when others are projecting their life "stuff" onto me.

So it takes a shift in one's level of consciousness to experience contentment at its fullest. Can I say "yes" to all of the content of my life -- the painful, the ordinary, the joyous? What about when discontent arrives (unannounced!) on the doorstep of my day or my bedstead at night? Yes, I need to honor discontent as well. Attempts to control "what is" in my life simply don't work. In Johnson and Ruhl's words: "When you start trying to repair or manipulate 'what is', then you only upset the natural order of the universe."

The co-authors of "Contentment" go on to say that "you cannot acquire contentment like some consumer item but you can awaken to its gifts. It is closer to the truth to say that contentment comes to us by divine grace."

Most often, that's how it feels as contentment comes to me in the form of divinely inspired gifts. All I have to do is be present and aware -- to notice, to accept, and honor the gifts that "what is" brings me each day of my life.
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