A friend seeks contentment the heavenly way

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Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

She was an oddly attractive young woman, gregarious and vivacious, amusingly unpredictable in her scatter-brained thought processes. Yet to chat with her could feel like being spun in a cement mixer, never certain which way was up or ever knowing when you might be disgorged to go off in a nonplussed silence – like her, mixed up, but not unpleasantly so.

At other times it was like trying to read Ulysses in a hurricane, or after a few too many gin and tonics, her monologue a flight of consciousness borne on a slipstream of vacuity. She’d rarely be able to end sentences; there was always something vital to add; and whilst meaning seemed promised, her turbulent fervour meant it was always lost along the way.

And getting lost was very much her thing. When she wasn’t adrift churning your brain with her vapid and vacuous inanities, she’d seek to lose herself in other ways. It was as if she was running away from the possibility of simplicity, instead losing herself in rabid mindlessness and scared she may be forced to face directly her own simple, alive presence.

Sex was another of her favoured routes to losing herself. Here, once again, she clambered into the cement mixer – churning, enfolding, collapsing, resurfacing, over and over. And once again she would find herself at last setting in silence – the emptiness of alienation and self-loathing. Powerless to dispel these feelings, she settled for God’s Plan B:

Get to heaven; not now of course, but when God chose. Only there might she finally rest content as the soul she was sure she possessed. There’d be no need to get lost any more; in heaven she’d finally dispel her fears, safely in God’s presence. All else had failed; that was her proof that this world was just a staging post, a stop-over to a final destination.

It’s was a great plan for her, because she could carry on pretty much as before, knowing that eventually all would be well. All it took was belief and a few minor behavioural adjustments. She got into a circle of believers whose groupthink was policed and bonded by a prayer leader cum show master. And there she relaxed in God’s merciful hands.

I could guess at my friend’s thinking, though it wouldn’t have been consciously known to her. She was fearful of the world, so she tried to lose herself in it. The mind is a great place to get lost – lost in thought. It needn’t be prayerful thinking – just words, imagery, sounds; anything will do. Keep churning it out and you’ll lose all sense of your own being.

And then you simply wait; lost to your own reality, yet in God’s waiting room. It doesn’t have to be Eastbourne or Palm Beach. You just do it in your own mind and body. Contentment must wait too as you’ve found you couldn’t will it into being. All you need is the belief that one day the waiting room vacates as your soul steps through the doors of heaven.

At some level, we all do this. We all have our own version of God’s Plan B. If we’re rational and not given to such flights of fancy, we invent our own little piece of heaven that’s somewhere along our chosen path. Like my friend, we too seek contentment. We may conceive of it differently – happiness, wealth, status, relationships – but it’s the same final objective.

And if like my friend, we find our plan isn’t working, we either come up with another one or seek to lose ourselves in the world. There’s a million ways to get lost, most of which come down to an incessant distraction. Industries exist to feed this need to get lost in distractedness: drugs, drink, sex, entertainment and a whole host of anodyne consumerist fads.

Whether we choose to get lost in distractedness, or plan a route to contentment, we’re always putting things off. We’re always saying that the immediacy of being present in life is not sufficient; it’s not going to bring contentment. Yet contentment is accepting what is, as what is. It’s accepting our own presence in any and all circumstances. That is all it is.

Do you see how simple that is? Nothing has to change, to ‘get better’, to ‘be more than’, or to ‘become other than’. It’s incredibly simple and immediate. It’s nothing to do with plans or Gods, with projections or heavens. It isn’t about seeking or believing. It isn’t ‘about’ anything other than the vital immediacy of your own undeniable presence as you.

A friend seeks contentment the hard way

Photo: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was born into an assured middle class comfort, a guarantee of a private education and career to follow. His future classmates would go on to become cabinet ministers in government, bankers and CEO’s. A few became artists with no real need even to sell their work. Like him, their future would be cushioned with inheritances, trust funds, contacts.

By his mid-teens, these privileges had begun to jar with his sense of individuality. He felt he was being led along a path of someone else’s choosing – his father, his teachers, what used to be called ‘the establishment’. There was a feeling of an enforced cronyism which he felt deeply reluctant to conform to. So he decided he had to rebel.

And what does a privately educated, rebellious British schoolboy do in the 1960’s? – he becomes a communist. Attaching to an ideology which fed his youthful contrarianism made him feel he was charting his own course in life. He was wrong-footed by the Czech invasion, but his thinking was by then set. He would be a grafting wage-earner.

Being both an idealist and a romantic, he set sail for Ireland where he would sell his labour working on a travelling fair. Never quite feeling accepted and a little hurt for all that, he returned to England, toiling shifts in factories. His political ideology became more sophisticated. He cultivated the speech of his co-workers. But he was still a posh boy.

And he couldn’t shake it off. There was an irrepressible haughtiness to him, still that exaggerated springing gait that his kind affected during their elite schooling. Still he fought it; still he believed that only by conforming to his absurdly fake self-image would he find contentment and feel comfortable in himself. He sought authenticity in play-acting.

‘Why do I always seem to provoke people? No matter how hard I try to befriend them, they always end up wanting to attack me in some way’. I had to be honest; it was a sincere question from a very dear old friend. I told him it was his fake image that was being attacked. Hard as he tried, people saw right through the pretence; they were offended by it.

Of course, we all have a self-image that we nurture and project. In that sense, my friend was only doing what we all do. We inhabit a narrative of our personal identity, an epic tale of what and who we are. We cling to this so dearly such that it becomes embedded as belief – we believe the story correlates to reality. And if we believe it, why shouldn’t others?

This on-going narration is largely responsible for sustaining our sense of selfhood. We keep the thing knitted together with the flow of our thoughts and perceptions, and all that those mental phenomena give rise to in action. Along with our bodily feelings, our running analysis of our situation and our undeniable sense of being, this narration feeds the self.

But this sense of self is not identical to our authentic being; it doesn’t correlate to the actuality of our being. It is, for the most part, merely this mental creation of the narrative. We can manipulate the narrative as much as we like, we can be as extreme as my friend and fabricate a new story; but it’ll never authentically disclose our being to itself or to others.

There was nothing wrong with being born into privilege. My friend had no need to disown all that entailed. It’s incredibly hard work fictionalising a life. It took my friend most of his adulthood to realise the futility of attempting this. All the while, he believed his authentic self truly was a fairground worker, a night-shift operator, a revolutionary.

He exhausted himself in attempting to inhabit these fake identities. He offended and disturbed so many people in his clumsy, transparent masquerading. And when people were provoked into attacking him in some way because of it, he tried even harder to deceive by manipulating the attackers’ own feelings. This cleverness only made matters worse.

Our authentic identity isn’t a narrative creation. It doesn’t need working at with story-telling and charades. We don’t need to create an acceptable self to project to the world, let alone an unacceptable one. Such manipulations are only ever mutations of inauthentic selfhood in any case. In seeing through this great deception, our authenticity is realised.

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?