Contentedness and the working life – Part 1

Photography: Oregon State University, U.S.A.

Photography: Oregon State University, U.S.A.

“Can I say with any certainty that I feel contented in my work?”

Let’s begin by asking ourselves about our personal reality: As I go about the routines of my working life, how contented do I feel with my lot? Do my daily commitments bring the satisfaction and fulfilment I feel my efforts justly deserve? And does my workaday world lend itself to any real sense of contentment, to a positive psychological and emotionally felt reality within? Take a minute or two to respond; and consider what you truly feel before answering. Be as frank with yourself as you dare.

Now, how readily were you able to make a truly accurate response? Did you hesitate, or perhaps first feel compelled to reassure yourself that your work was satisfying? Did you struggle to find that frank response, one that you’d admit to yourself, though perhaps not to others? Whether we’re raising a family, toiling on the land, shuffling data around on screens, or presenting the nightly news on national television, many of us feel unsure as to how to answer these questions. Why is this so?

“Something still feels missing even when work’s quite pleasurable . . .”

We tend to assess our sense of contentment using ‘happiness’ as a metric. Yet whilst we aspire to the pleasurableness of happiness, it’s contentment that’s the fundamental driver. Society and the media feed us with aspirational imagery, compelling us to evaluate life in metrics of ‘pleasurableness’ and ‘happiness’. We’re sold the idea of attaining these states, and once we buy into this, we’re sold the ‘necessary’ products. Yet happiness has only a limited impact upon our sense of contentment.

Marketeers peddle myths that feed into The Happiness Business. That’s the means by which modern society tenuously glues itself together, inclines us to conformity, playing our particular part in the mythology. But that’s another story, a political one, and this isn’t a political blog. Yet it’s a story that feeds off our own fictional creation, an internal narrative we have that sustains and perpetuates our self-conception. Embedding deeply in our psyche, this story is a compelling one of seduction.

“Why do I sometimes feel that my work’s a little in vain?”

And it’s this fictionally created self-entity that is both the seducer and the seduced. We create within ourselves a narrative that sustains the notion of selfhood, then setting it to work in the world. This fictional character is the one that hesitated in answering the questions at the start of this article. And it did so because it suddenly became unsure of itself; it became confused about its own motivations, its own way of working. For a moment or two, it wondered whether its work might all be in vain.

We carry around with us this fictional account of ourselves during our workaday existence. It effectively becomes our identity, yet is never who we truly are. What we are can still smile for the cameras, plant the fields, feed the kids, and pretend to be working whilst we check our Twitter account. What we are beyond the fictional narration is perfectly capable of meeting its commitments in full, of working successfully, ambitiously, purposefully. What we are doesn’t need to feel pleasure to be contented.

“I get rewarded for my work, yet it seldom feels rewarding . . .”

In working life, we may at times feel that buoyancy, that optimistic cheerfulness that comes with happiness. The payload of modern life is work-heavy, yet needn’t be devoid of such pleasures. The contention here is not at all that happiness per se is a hindrance at work. We might say these brief spells of good cheer sustain us in our toils. A pay cheque helps too of course, as does the prospect of a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc when the kids go to bed, or maybe hearing that the boss is retiring . . .

So these things help us along, they’re necessary rewards and gratifications; but they’re not what give us any enduring sense of contentment. Remember, our authentic identity doesn’t need to be happy to be contented; it doesn’t need gratifying, or bribing with pleasures. In being content in our work, the desire for rewards and gratifications ceases. Beyond narratives of selfhood, contentedness brings undemanding acquiescence; and we work with the flow of life.

“I fuss about possible outcomes, but does it help me work better?”

How then, does our self-conception hinder the way we work in the world? Perhaps the clearest demonstration is witnessed in our attachment to outcomes. This means the obsessive and often neurotic self-referencing that occurs as we constantly fret in pursuit of our objectives. We expend so much of our mental energy in an utterly futile willing and judging, an incessant application of unhelpful concerns over outcomes. None of this aids our efficiency; it merely hinders matters.

Our fictional conception of selfhood is no more than the mind making judgements about experience and building those judgements into a narrative account of selfhood. So the self-entity is a bundle of mental fabrications tied into a story of ‘me in my life’. It’s neither our life itself, nor is it an accurate correlation of our being prior to the overlay of selfhood. And yet we take this fabrication as our guiding principle. We embed it in belief and take it to be the actuality of our life and being.

“I sometimes feel disengaged when working, as if acting out a role”

This means we’re always one stage removed from our own reality – what I’m calling our authentic identity. We may occasionally get indications that this is so, sensing that our awareness is somehow mediated or veiled. Or perhaps we feel a certain inauthenticity, a connection with the world that somehow isn’t genuine or in truthful accord with reality. These instincts are good; they’re little prompts, little shafts of light that peep through the rather dim charade of selfhood.

So the clues are there, and our working life provides a wonderful opportunity to see through this illusion of selfhood. This is because we tend to inhabit the self-entity more fully as we play out the roles that our working life demands of us. It’s a tiring business always conforming to the self narrative; this too is work, because we’re going against nature and reality in an effortful imposition of wrong beliefs. In contemplative observation, we have a simple strategy for seeing through this charade.

“I wonder about wasting energy, working overly ambitiously . . .”

Observe yourself as you undertake specific tasks. Be aware of muscle tension in your face in particular, and ask how the energy that creates this tension is assisting you in your work. Observe your thoughts as you apply yourself; see how much energy pours into a self-concerned ambition. Ask of yourself if these energies are constructively helping, or whether they’re redundant. Will they, of themselves, assist in producing the necessary outcome? You’ll likely find that most of them don’t at all.

All of this wasted energy is a product of our self-interested identification with outcomes. This means our self-construct, which exists only in narrative form, is presuming to be the owner of those outcomes. They are ‘my’ outcomes, produced by efforts initiated by ‘me’. This of course is true up to a point, but only in so far as the selfhood identified as ‘me’ is a valid social construct. Yet that construct is of an entirely different category to the authentic identity of our being, the non-fictional ‘me’.

“Perhaps working contemplatively may help in many ways . . .”

If we want to work more efficiently in the world, we must disentangle our minds from erroneous notions of selfhood. We use contemplative enquiry to establish our authentic identity, which subsists beyond narration, belief and fictional projections. This isn’t a wild or utopian idea; it’s a pragmatic and realistic one. It’s not an original idea either, I just write about it in ways that are particular to me, and which conform to my own character. Countless people know of it; and now you do too.

Continue reading in Part 2

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