A friend seeks contentment the stupid way

Photo: Tibor Vegh

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

She’d had a privileged education, had become versed in European literature, could read Latin and speak three modern languages fluently. She was healthy, solvent and now free to do as she wished. By any standard, this was an advantageous start to her adult life. Qualified and confident in herself, she set out to travel and explore the world.

Her experiences were interesting and varied, though not as rewarding as she first had imagined. So after a year she came back to England and got a job in publishing – a plan which suited her well so she thought. She’d landed the perfect means of earning a living and so could settle into her life back in England with an assured future ahead of her.

After a while she began to dimly sense that her career may never prove quite as fulfilling as she’d anticipated. It had begun to feel one-dimensional, as if going nowhere in an undisturbed and rather bland serenity. Was this to be the sum total of her reward in life? How could this ever prove satisfying to her at any fundamental level?

She gradually realised with an increasing certainty that she wasn’t really contented in her stable and untroubled life. So she decided the best thing to do was to ordain as a nun, to live her life in an ascetic and highly controlled monastic order. Here, she would find the answer to her discontentment. Here, the fulfilment she sought would be found.

For 12 years she lived shaven-headed, wearing the unwomanly, rough cotton robes of her order. She spent her days in prayer and meditation, and in performing duties around the monastery. She was convinced that she’d eventually come to some understanding, to see what it was that prevented her from feeling content with life, and within herself.

Finally, she decided she’d had enough, so disrobed and quit the order to re-enter Civvy Street. A few months later, we were having dinner together at her place, discussing the whole experience. She didn’t seem too enthusiastic; so I asked her why she’d spent all those years locked away from the world. ‘Because I was stupid’, she said.

What my friend learned was that we don’t ‘find’ contentment; we don’t discover it in different places or situations. What she learned was that the fulfilment and contentedness she’d sought both by going outwards in travel, and inwards in meditation, were the wrong approaches. What she learned was that contentment couldn’t be reached by her ‘self’.

Very few individuals show the radical determination that my friend did in her search for contentedness. Most of us incline to the more obvious and conservative routes to well-being. We choose acquisitiveness through careers, or reputation, through our families or in our relationships. Most of us don’t stake everything on the search.

This, as my friend eventually discovered, is a good thing. For her, it wasn’t the travel that was misguided, or the career, or the interminable hours of prayer and meditation. It was the seeking itself. It was the idea she had that she could ‘find’ contentment, and that once found, this sense of well-being would attach to her – she’d possess it for her ‘self’.

When she’d responded to my question as to why she’d taken such an extreme approach to finding contentment, she spoke a profound truth. In saying ‘because I was stupid’, she was telling me a lot about myself, and about most of us in fact. What I learned from that stark comment was that I’d be stupid too if I let my ‘self’ go in search of contentment.

And this is the great difficulty, the paradox, the conundrum. Behind all our ideas about becoming happier, more fulfilled, about garnering prestige or increasing our pleasures, there’s a fundamental flaw. There’s the notion that all these things can be attached to and experienced by my ‘self’. But this ‘self’ is just an idea, a narrative process acting itself out.

Once we begin to realise what my friend did, that the unfolding narrative of her ‘self’ was what obstructed contentedness, the paradox begins to dissolve. And being willing to see through that mostly deeply held belief, that story of ‘me’ and my ‘self’, is what’s truly radical. This is an old message, a timeless one. Am I stupid to ignore it?


8 thoughts on “A friend seeks contentment the stupid way

  1. Dear Hariod,

    I’m reminded of the streamed-consciousness thoughts of the cook in the novel The Book Of Salt. When asked by the lady friends of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas how he creates such delicious omelettes, he tells them it’s from a pinch of nutmeg and they leave him alone. Meanwhile, his thoughts reveal this as a red herring, and he has a sense of feeling belittled and diminished by the question itself. Since he has prepared tens of thousands of omelettes, there is no ‘secret’ to share. The artistry has come from his full presence and awareness gained through deep experience. Doesn’t it seem so that many simple questions don’t have simple answers? Is there truly a ‘secret’ to contentedness or happiness?


    Vincent Paz.

    • Dear Vincent,

      Many thanks for reading this article and for leaving such an apposite comment. The analogy you take from the novel is certainly a good one, as whilst it may seem logical to assume that there is some ‘secret recipe’ for our emotional well-being, the situation is not so straightforward of course. The fundamental problem is that the cook is always getting in the way so to speak, not realising that they themselves are the very source of the bad dish.

      Unable to conceive of how delicious and perfectly nutritious food can be without their involvement, the cook goes about the process of peeling and slicing, boiling and roasting, and then proceeding to make pretty arrangements on plates for all to admire. I wouldn’t normally respond in metaphor Vincent, but as you know the truths behind these words then I know you will forgive me for doing so.

      With all best wishes.


  2. ‘Self’, like all words, is a metaphor for what is bounded by skin; illusory yes, but real enough to experience touch, taste, sound, thought. For many centuries, we westerners went along with Plato, who claimed that body is inhabited by a self-spark, and Pythagoras, who needed a self to justify his belief in reincarnation, and Descartes, the devout Catholic, who needed a ghost in the machine – but we’re coming around to Aristotle’s belief that body and mind are one, nature and human are one. The brain, many now believe, is the orchestrator of motion, receiver of signal-stories, messages about how to move, creating a glorious, complex explosion of interactions, as mysterious as the galaxies. This might not be true for true gurus, but for the rest of us, contentedness comes and goes, along with all the joys, sorrows, pleasures, angers, etc that accompany a human life.

    • Thank you for this most interesting and informed response. The word ‘self’ has a variety of meanings attributed to it of course: the self as social construct, the self as a generic term for an aggregation of phenomena, the self as a chronological narrative, the self as an internalised agent or autonomous homunculus-like issuer of volition and will.

      You appear, quite reasonably, to apply the term in relation to the second of these definitions, a construct that has no instantiation of its own but which stands in stead of sensory aggregations, or a Humean bundle of perceptions. I think most would accept that as one valid conception, along with the social construct and its personal historical narrative.

      What seldom gets questioned is the very deeply ingrained presumption of the self-entity as an internalised agent, the experiencer of experience, the object-perceiving subject, the thinker of thoughts, and so on. This is the erroneously accepted self, the one with no instantiation, no constancy, no accessibility granted to consciousness, and no reality.

      If it is of any interest, I have put some thoughts on this together here: http://wp.me/P4wkZJ-1X

    • Clarissa is a friend of old and a wonderful painter to boot. Yes, the yellows are so pleasingly inviting and vitally joyous to behold. Thankyou for allowing your wisely acute eye to speak its mind here, Hedy. 🙂

      • I wish my camera was my pencil . . . Often I read the threads on your posts, and your words are thoughtful, smart and informative – I appreciate that Hariod.

        Her yellows are beautiful and feel right to my eye . . . there are no greenish brown tones; they feel fresh and bright.

        Have a wonderful day! Smiles, Hedy.

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