Do you ever feel trapped and stuck in a cycle of things that on the surface appear to be providing happiness and contentment, but that all the while, deep down, there is an unmet need that is just aching to be satisfied? I suspect everybody has something that they feel would make them happy and content.
Now before I go any further like to make the following claims. “I am happy.” I am happy with my family, I am happy with my life, I am happy with my place in the world. That is not to say however that I am 100% content with it all. Happiness for me is a descriptor, a word that describes a general overall emotional feeling. To be happy is to be joyous about certain elements or experiences of life. You can be happy about the most profound things in life, however you can also be happy about very superficial things e.g. your football team winning his latest match. Happiness is descriptive, but it is like stone skimming across the surface of the water, it doesn’t quite describe the depths of your being. Contentment however is a much more insightful concept and describes, in a deep way, what you are experiencing.
Contentment for me delves deeper under the skin, it gets right down to the core of who you are and what satisfies your inner hunger. Contentment implies that, on balance, you are on the positive side of what you are experiencing. It infers, due to there being a ‘better than’ aspect that there is a positive and the negative side to what you are feeling (there may be 1/3 element – neutrality but that is for a later discussion).
Personal stuff: there has always been a sense of discontent about a great many things in my life. The feeling that I can’t be satisfied with what is currently being presented to me. That feeling underpins my fleeting and ever changing behaviour pattern. There is a grasping, through experience side to me and an ever changing list of hobbies that never quite come to a final conclusion. I am the best knitting whittler that you will ever come across.
What I found however, in more recent times, is that I have been able to sit with my experience of contentment and more over discontent and work out what that unsettled hunger may point to.
I have realised that I have not been content as I thought I was for a Long, long time. Contentment, it would appear for me, has over time become a thought process rather than a gut feeling. It had ceased to be an emotional response to experience and had become a cognitive reaction to a certain set of stimuli. Contentment had flipped from the positive side of what I was experiencing to the negative and mainly because what I was ‘feeling’ was actually thoughts of feelings and not direct feelings them self. This which had taken some time to come about and what I have been left with was a misfiring emotional structure and framework that had ultimately left me emotionless. The thought structures of contentment had left me with very few physical and emotional tools to help me decipher what was a positive or negative experience. I was left only with the tool of ‘thought’ and the generic emotional category of ‘happiness’. Everything that I was questioned on ie “are you happy with that?” became a ‘yes’, irrespective of whether I truly was. Ultimately, because there was a detachment from contentment and a logical and somewhat cold view of happiness my responses became sterile and my perspective calculated. I had formed a rather automatic response to whether I was happy because a ‘positive’ response made other people happy. Happiness, and moreover contentment, became something that was in place making others happy and that trumped myself.
Now it’s important to point out at this stage that it is crucial to be there for other people and in doing to we often have to compromise our own happiness for the benefit of others. It serves very little purpose to be selfish and to be self-centred, and it is also important to note that for your own health and well-being it is imperative to be honest and emotionally intuitive to the needs of others. We live in a connected and interconnected world and we can’t live in isolation. However, I had realised that I was living very much out of fear and for the benefit of others well compromising my own integrity and contentment. Something had to change.
What I realised was that I had to connect back together was my thought processes (head) and my emotional intelligence (heart). What I had done for many years was paint my emotional landscape with only a few colours, a bit like painting a Rembrandt with hues of black and white. You could see what it was and I could portray an outward facing image, but the full beauty of the masterpiece of emotion response was not totally presented. It served a purpose but was not all it could be.
I realise that in order for myself to be whole and content I had to present the whole emotional gamut, warts and all. The fear, and indeed lack of willingness to do so, was down to the fact that I feared opening up and underneath that, if I did, I knew I lacked the relevant emotional skills to be able to do so without negative emotional reactions coming forth. E.g. Anger, sorrow etc. In other words, I was perhaps emotionally immature in my way of dealing with certain emotional situations. If over a long period of time my emotional responses had become narrowed, or indeed had been so badly constructed in the first place, then it was not unreasonable to expect that emotional labelling would be at best misattributed and at worst completely missing the intended target. Contentment, and indeed happiness, therefore most likely had been seen as ‘ideals’ and not the present emotional state that I was actually feeling. In that respect wishing something to be classed as contentment would be very easy to do as actually knowing was to be mistrusted.
It was through mindfulness, moreover meditation and insight reflection, that I started to become aware of the gap between my head response and my heart response. In seeing the distance between the two and the disconnect, I was able to start to recognise what I was feeling about the situation and what I was thinking about the same situation. The technique I used was the technique of labelling (Mental Noting) and this formed the backbone to my meditation practice.
In brief, labelling is the technique of placing upon an emotion or sensation a word that defines what it means to you in that moment. The idea is that you sit in quiet meditation and whatever emotion or feeling crops up you give it a descriptor. It is not a definition or a judgement, it is a brief, one word, description
of the feeling. There is no analysis involved you simply and quite quickly give it a name e.g. sadness, frustration, joy. After you have given it a name you let it go and repeat the process of sitting in the moment. What may happen is the feeling etc. may come up again, you simply repeat the process of labelling and let it go, coming back to your anchor (often the breath). The idea is to capture the moment of the experience, see it and then set it aside and move on. Behind the concept of labelling is the idea that there is forward motion of experience and that any experience is impermanent and indeed may change at any stage. It arises, enters awareness and then passes.
By labelling, in this case the experience of contentment, I was able to sit with the physical feeling that was being felt but I was also able to see how I was linked to it and what I thought I was experiencing. What I noticed was that there was often a divide between the head and the heart and in seeing this I was given the chance to change my perspective of both aspects of my experience. In doing this I was in a positon to try and draw them closer together. To wiggle the two opposing, and often stubborn elements nearer to the centre and a state of equilibrium.
Has the process of labelling completely eradicated any gap between thought and physical emotion? No. However, I have started to slowly resolve some underlying issues of discontentment, and as a result, I have started to find a balance within my emotional world. My view of what is real and what is “really” real has shifted and I have started to see the world, and my place within it, with open and honest eyes. I have started to reduce the heavy reliance upon what I “think” is the right response and I have started to trust what I feel. As a result, feelings like contentment and now more honest reflections of what is actually occurring and they are no longer simply layers of desire and want.
Contentment is no longer an illusory state, it is a factual, physical and real state of being and one I know can be honestly felt in my mind and body and in a unified way.
It is often said that “what you see is what you get “, and for a long time that was a misguided appraisal of reality. However, I can honestly say that I now know that I am content and that I can truly feel it deep in my heart and mind.