Contentedness embodied (Part One)

Old Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

Contented Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

As human animals we spend the greater part of our lives apprehending the world reflectively, as if peering through to it by means of psychical mirrors. Our minds evolved to affect this process unwittingly via constantly flowing streams of updating composite imagery, all unquestioningly taken as the world in itself – Naïve Realism made real. Such mirroring is presumed synonymous with our life itself too – all the sights, sounds, feelings, scents, tastes and thoughts that reflect to us, outside of which no phenomena may appear. These mirrored images are, for the most part, accurate reflections of what happens around and within us, and had our species not evolved to apperceive with this level of precision, then we humans may not be here on earth today. To that extent it is a success story, yet could our mirror-gazing existence be enhanced in the evolution of some quality we lack, yet innately intuit? And may we at times glimpse that which we are yet fully to embody?

A digression: a young woman feels she should take up meditation and so arranges to meet the abbess of a Buddhist monastery. The abbess, having ascertained the woman’s suitability for meditative training, asks why she has requested instruction. In response, the woman explains that whilst her life is comfortable, secure, and untroubled, still she senses the absence of an unquantifiable contentedness of sorts. She appreciates that happiness is ephemeral, coming and going in accord with events, though a disquieting lack of a deep satisfaction persists, and she is left pondering if that felt void, and the contentedness yearned for, has parallels in Buddhistic conceptions of human existence. She senses a subtle distancing, as if life were obscured by a gossamer filter, or remained slightly out of focus, enquiring of the abbess if such thoughts were valid. If so, she asks, might evolution fix this ubiquitous glitch? Smiling, the abbess asks ‘how long do you want to wait?’

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Street Seller in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

Beyond the essentials of life, we human animals devote much of our time to realising this same contentedness. Rarely do we conceive of such efforts in those precise terms, thinking instead that we desire happiness rather than to dwell in contentedness. This is because happiness is an overt feeling, and the human is a feeling-driven animal by and large. Behind this striving for a felt happiness, however, in fact lies a knowledge that inheres within the body and which understands that contentedness is the supreme goal. To be content is to be utterly beyond all desire, and such a state is not dependent upon feeling in the least; rather is it more akin to a psychological freedom, one which is not subject to the dictates of desire and aversion, nor wrought by virtue of any conditions. The human body knows this; it is far from being any philosophical abstraction. That is why the young woman was accurate in her appraisal before the abbess, and also why in turn the abbess smiled.

Our fallacy is to mistake a mere mirroring of pleasant sensations for true contentedness; it is the inclination of the mind to seek out a vaporous flux of sensory gratifications and think they will satisfy the body’s quest for that which it knows to be within and realisable now – almost as if that same knowledge were a cellular memory. It is a different mode of memory though, one which cannot ever be laid down for later recall as if an object stored in the mind. Rather, it is the body’s knowledge of itself, as itself, not as an image of itself in a certain state, such as a mood or felt disposition, but as itself alone. Contentedness is not any visualised echoing within the mind, something reflected in the mirror of the psyche, and so cannot ever be manipulated into existence by recall, intellect or volition. It is neither a spiritual attainment, nor result of any endeavour, nor may it be invoked by behaviour or genetic birthright, other than that common to all humans.

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Beauty Salon in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

After many years of earnest meditative application, the young woman, now in her forties, went for her afternoon stroll in a local park. She felt calmly observant, yet made no attempt at mindfulness and thought of nothing in particular. Suddenly, in an uncaused instant, a radical perspectival shift occurred, as if life had come into focus. The contentedness she had alluded to with the abbess arose, though not in any mirroring. Her mind leapt in so as to make sense of it all, though quickly she came to laugh at the futility of its blunted effort, as what presented needed no qualification, being starkly obvious in its perfected ordinariness. She knew now that the contentedness she had sought in life could never have attached to any subject, nor absorb into any seeker, as that same seeking subject was merely her own mind-creation. It was as if awareness were now unobstructed by past distinctions imposed by the mind, and the waiting the abbess spoke of had now ended.

Contentedness was now embodied, and she knew that whilst her body had realised itself, and with it her mind too, neither were in truth discrete entities standing in contradistinction to one another; they were both existent yet as perspectives of each the other. She saw that subject and object, as apprehended, were only ever psychical creations, so too that the point of centrality which localised her body and self-image was not so for awareness itself. She gazed over at the distant Chestnut trees, her mind enquiring as to what was so different, yet somehow the same, and ordinary. What was it that was imbuing her with this total desirelessness and ease at a perfect ordinariness? The park, the trees and she of course existed as spatially referenced in awareness, yet awareness also saw itself as itself, as non-local. Her self-centricity had dissolved, yet she remained, embodied as pure awareness and the contentedness she always intuited she had been.

The unattainability of spiritual freedom

Old Woman Smiling. As yet unattributed.

Some have referred to it as The Master Game, that grandest of all pursuits which rests upon winning or losing, that is to say, attaining or failing to attain, a mysterious state conceived of as spiritual freedom, and which goes by many names. Whilst the spiritual fainéant plays the game less intensely, casually group-thinking or timidly timing yoga minutes early each morning, others of a thirstier nature may make of it a lifelong contest of quite epic proportions. The gambits and stratagems of the spiritual aspirant are variously natured, being adopted as befits the character, with artifice and sophistry deployed pragmatically in subconsciousness so as to procure or sustain advantage over the player’s occasionally contrarian or doubt-inducing reflections. Stakes are high, and with each earnest investment of personal identity, emotional capital, and inner resolve, can only escalate. It is a contest without frontiers; a test of self-contra-self: The Master Game.

In a bid to escape their emotional and existential lacuna, the participant may devour the pabulum of self-help writings, or strain at obscurantist commentaries upon the alleged utterances of long-dead sages. They may cultivate a sapient and sciolistic presence which infrequently matches its promise in action, humility or compassion. Each of these, though the worst of the matter, are game strategies thought eventually to deliver a certain freedom of the psyche, something beyond the ordinariness of the world-perceiving mind, and which hence is often characterised as being spiritual in nature, whatever that means. The prize is imagined as an object acquired by a subject, or as the subject absorbing into an object. The game player may speak of enlightenment, self-realization, perhaps even God-realization, as if these were objects that could somehow be absorbed by the self, or vice versa, and The Master Game concludes only once such fallacies are realised.

Given these seemingly intractable and specious predispositions, then it’s understandable that some should conclude this can only be a losing game, which it is. That which is lost will not be mourned though, no more than one would grieve over the ending of a perpetually deceitful relationship.  Although finally revealed as ill-conceived, one’s approach to playing the game, if earnestly pursued, will yield many boons, and may yet result in victory, even though paradoxically, it will be known that there is no victor. That is why this is The Master Game; it can never itself be mastered by any, and instead will vanquish all contestants. The aspirant accepts this intellectually, freely entertaining ideas of non-duality, or the dissolution of enduring identity, intensively ploughing their phenomenological reductions as if beneath lay proof that the self was only ever a mythogenic cauldron. Yet the intellect has no capacity beyond thought, no real freedom.

The problem here is not so much that this spiritual freedom, however vaguely conceived, is being sought, rather that we presuppose the found freedom will attach to us, will be acquired and thus become ‘mine’. In other words, we imagine this freedom to in effect become enslaved to the self, which is no kind of freedom at all. Intellectually, we can accept the loss of the self, whilst emotionally, we still yearn for possession. Saying that we do not wish to acquire such liberty solves nothing, because the root of the problem remains, and the self has simply morphed desire into aversion. Besides, a psychological and emotional freedom – abandoning the adjunctive ‘spiritual’ – is far preferable to its opposite. We need to remain earnestly in play, whilst abandoning hope of gaining freedom. This is not to reject the liberation of the psyche, but to accept that by definition freedom cannot be possessed, acquired, forged, or accumulated, by any self-entity.

The Master Game finds its end in the realisation that it was played by the wrong set of rules all along. Issuing its stratagems from inside the self, the imagined subject-entity could not conceive it was no more than a mind-creation. Further, and due to its own presence, the subject-entity knew only of an isolative consciousness which enduringly apprehended awareness as if appearing here not there, as knowing all phenomena as internally possessed or as objectivised and thus forever apart. Then one day, the subject-entity forgot all about The Master Game; in a flash what was an impossible outcome was made possible; awareness realised and released itself; the world realised and released itself, and the futile contest was over. This came as a laughable surprise to the ghost-player left behind, who tried and failed to make sense of it all. Now and again, the phantasm may wander into the deserted arena, scratch its head, and wonder why it ever existed.

Gang culture

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

I am sipping tea in the library, gazing with a mild, disengaged curiosity through a large timber framed window which is set into a limestone Gothic arch. The manicured monastery gardens exhibit a balance of the feminine sense of profusion with masculine order and precision. A path formed of naturally riven and misshapen local stone winds through the middle and leads down to the water gardens below. Two blackbirds dance erratically across it, as if pretending not to follow each the other.

My attention turns to the collective chatter that permeates the room with a respectfully suppressed energy, and a thought arises that I really ought to engage with someone. Such is the done thing here; the accepted etiquette that one signs up for when electing to participate in communities such as this. A moment of resistance comes as I anticipate a contrivance of dull intercourse with my chosen victim. A groupthink mentality persists, healthily so perhaps; it’s just Buddhist gang culture.

None of this sat well with me; I’m not a sequacious sort; I incline not to follow, being something of an autocrat for the most part. Forcing myself to exchange verbal notes of agreement with other gang members felt, to me, a painfully deadening trial. Ensconced in meditation cells as a habituated retreatant, I mercifully escaped the worst. Still, this lengthy period of my life, now long since having passed, was invaluable and taught me a great deal about myself, not all of which overly flattered.

So, being a gang member can have its uses, even to loners of my ilk who may once have inclined to trust guidance by their own dim lights alone. What an arrogant notion! Though how to break free of it? Rarely does escape come through an initial seeing of one’s own misguided assumptions of correctness. Quite often the approach is more tangential; connections mysteriously attract us; we may sense a bruising battle, yet intuit an awaiting victory. As gloved pugilists, we warily enter the ring.

Now we are gang members, in earnest pursuit of knowledge, or inner tranquillity, or perhaps a little saintliness to nourish our delicate ego. We’ve joined a yoga gang, a Jesus gang, a Flying Spaghetti Monster gang – all offer a supportive sense of communal endeavour. Buddhists regard such gangs as one of three vital refuges, along with the doctrine and its apotheosis. And yet whichever spiritual gang we join, variants of these three refuges manifest as necessary aids for the spiritual aspirant.

If we’re fortunate, then the gang we first choose may have the potential to facilitate fulfilment of our innermost callings; they may ultimately help deliver the knowledge or tranquillity we sought. For most though, a self-imposed probationary spell ends as new allegiances are forged with some more suitable gang. It may be that our bodies finally rebel at more torturous Ashtanga postures, or we sense that dead teachers can’t truly speak to us, or that Pastafarianism was our spiritual hors d’oeuvre.

Our gangs may offer up a mirror to our psyche; certainly, an authentic teacher will do so. In the immediate presence of a truly clear mind, our shadow nature is reflected back at us with unerring accuracy and, if necessary, with an excoriating compassion. The authentic teacher will only ever do this if the student is capable of absorbing such a blow; and until this point of maturation is reached, the gang member will be left choreographing their egoic dance to the strains of Leonard Bernstein.

It’s time to find a partner who will dance with me in mimicking the coyly playful birds outside on the lawns. Turning, my eyes, seemingly of their own accord, fix upon the piercing gaze of a figure on the far side of the library, one seemingly intent on a visual embrace. Now facing each other, our words sound eccentrically melodious, like those of blackbirds. Smiles form upon two ownerless faces in an unbounded awareness; the books are talking; the room is seeing me; the Gothic arch listens intently.

Such are spiritual experiences – transient, paradoxical, mystical yet mundane, holding a perfect ordinariness as demanded by unrelenting sentience. They occur in the intimate embrace of the unknown, in solitude as well as in company. For some, gang membership may conduce, if not to such experiences, then at least to a stripping away of the monoculture of egoical becoming. The collective endeavour, with gentle guidance from noble friends, may share in the birth of great gifts.

A friend seeks contentment the creative way

Photography by Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was very clear, very driven, and very talented. He knew exactly what he needed to do in life to find fulfilment. That clarity and sense of purpose, together with his precocious artistic talent, would see him home. There was no doubt about it. He could see the route to finding the contentment he instinctively sought. The plan was quite simple.

How lucky he was, at this tender age of fourteen, to know his purpose in life. How many of us have the remotest idea of what lies ahead beyond the dreams, the vague and perhaps utterly unrealistic visions, the naïvely faithful notions of our own abilities? But this young man had substance to it all. He had talent and artistic sensibility in abundance.

None of this would be easy though – and he knew it. It didn’t matter. It was Plan A, and it was the only plan. He didn’t need alternatives, reserve positions, a fall back. This was going to work; there was no question about it. All he had to do was hone his craft further. All he had to do was to give his natural ability time to mature and develop.

Five years he gave it; ten at the outside. It didn’t matter – it would happen. He’d devote himself wholeheartedly, sacrifice everything. Forget the girls, the blokey camaraderie, the non-essential studies and the qualifications. Forget the inevitable loneliness and isolation that this devotion would bring. This was art; you suffer for it – you have to.

He became a master of his instrument. It took less than four years. By the time he was eighteen he was hailed as the very finest in a field of other prodigiously talented young musicians. He could play any venue and the past masters would turn out to listen. He was in demand as a session player with recording artists too. He’d made it ahead of time.

Now in his mid-twenties, certain things were becoming apparent to him. He’d attuned to the success, but it gave him no real sense of fulfilment. I asked him why he seemed unhappy, why he wasn’t as responsive as he used to be. He replied: ‘Cos I’m depressed Hariod. Sometimes I feel like killing myself. The music’s never given me what I thought it would’.

Fortunately, my friend survived the crisis. The affection of a dog helped, as it always does. So did the wonderful countryside he found solace within. It was a long process though, several years in fact. Eventually, the adjustment was made, and the realisation set in that the creative impulse, as potent as it was, could never create contentment itself.

When we invest in our dreams we take a huge gamble. We love the content of those dreams, and we become wedded to the embedded illusory projections. Yet divorce is always painful. To invest our entire emotional and physical energy into what amounts to no more than desire, is dangerous. It feeds blind belief, and it abandons reason.

We create in our dreams a fairy tale in which we live contentedly, fulfilled, free of striving, free of internal strife. This narrative projection in effect becomes our personal identity. We inhabit this narrative thinking that it’s what our life will become. We project our personal self-entity so as that ‘self’ becomes both narrator and narrative alike.

It’s all incredibly creative. You might say it’s one of humankind’s most sophisticated attributes – the projection of the ‘self’ into a complex narrative. Very few other animals can do this; and even then, it barely warrants comparison. Our capacity to delude ourselves with these narrative creations and projections is enticing too. It feeds desire.

We can make intelligent plans; we can and must project into the future – of course. These plans can be as creative and ambitious as we like; there’s no harm in any of that. But when we project our ‘self’ into future scenarios, such that the projection becomes belief, then the creative force turns into an adversary. We think it’s our friend, but in truth it’s not.

We can’t create contentment. It can’t be willed or manipulated into being through self-interest and acquisitive desire. It’s in fact this self-interest that blocks any contentment. If we’re able to remove the ‘self’ from our plans and projections, then we’re immediately shielded from the intense negativity my friend suffered. So we need to uncreate this self-entity.

A friend seeks contentment the escapists way

Photo: Sukanto debnath, Flickr

Photography: Sukanto Debnath, Hyderabad

He’d moved to London from another country, knowing that this would be the place he’d find fulfilment. Here, in the capital, he’d access the vibrant core of the British music scene and escape the parochial, small-minded outlook of his friends and family. There’d be no looking back to the old country. The millennium was advancing, and so was he.

He vowed forever to release himself from the strictures of his Catholic upbringing, from what he saw as the provincialism of his parents and all they stood for. He’d be contented and free, endlessly creating new music to accompany him in his endlessly renewing life. There’d be obstacles; but with his talent, wit and charm, he’d find contentment and freedom.

The connections were built soon enough. Despite his tender years, he was savvy; he knew how to look the part, and how to play the part. He knew the music scene was largely theatre. Talent was partly optional, but in any case he had it in spades. Within two years he was playing sessions, and within four he was on a world tour with a huge star.

Yet still he felt trapped, still part of a controlling network of managers and agents, the hordes of goffers and of course, the stars of the shows. So he tried to escape through sex. He was a pretty boy, on show nightly to many willing and available girls. Maybe with them, each in turn, he would feel less trapped, find the contentment and freedom he sought.

But soon the girls became more of a burden than a pleasure, just more obligations and more small-mindedness. It felt a bit like the old country. So he tried to escape with cocaine, yet that proved even more of a trap, and his mind became smaller and more caged-in still. No matter how he tried to escape his sense of emptiness, he could never escape himself.

As the years passed, he turned back to the Catholic church of his homeland. He stopped rejecting his past and what felt most like home. He gave up on finding fulfilment in himself, and age dulled awareness of his discontent. Besides, now he had a son he could project all his own failed ideas into, and the circular predictability of it all came to pass.

I’m still in touch with my friend, but we don’t talk about much of this; it’s too difficult for him to swallow. And who am I to be telling others why their lives didn’t produce what they thought it would? My friend found credibility and prestige, has a wonderful family, health and wealth. What he didn’t find was how to escape the aching void within.

For 35 years he’d tried to escape that void, that inner sense of discontent and the absence of fulfilment. He tried escaping by leaving his country, by attaching to fame and glamour, by getting lost in music, lost in sex, lost in cocaine. He tried to escape vicariously through his son, who through his father’s connections now himself has fame and glamour.

But it’s futile to seek contentment by escaping, because in any seeking we always bring our self along. And it’s this idea we have of our self which is the problem; it’s this entity which thinks contentment can be found and attached to. The self-entity misguidedly attempts to manipulate the world in order to satiate its desires and avoid all else.

We can’t escape the self or its misguided manipulations. What we can do is deconstruct it, and see it for what it is. It isn’t what I am; it isn’t what you are. It’s an on-going narrative construct that embeds within our being as belief. This means we come to believe that this narrative that comprises the self-entity correlates to the actuality of our being.

That actuality – what I am and what you are beyond selfhood – has a default state of perfect contentedness in being. That actuality doesn’t need to escape anything, or discover anything, in order to dwell fulfilled and in an emotional and psychological well-being. This isn’t some fanciful idea; it’s fully provable through a cultivated presence in being.

In developing presence in being, and through living contemplatively aware, we see that escapism is redundant. In fact it’s utterly useless. We may escape into pleasure, into forgetfulness, into distraction and indulgence. But we can never escape our sense of self once there. In our informed presence we see this truth, seeing what we are beyond self.

 

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?