4 min read
by Lama Marut
Beneath it all, it is only true contentment—the glorious sensation of being utterly free, unencumbered, and relaxed—that we all desire. The goals depicted in many religions reflect this understanding of what we are shooting for: moksha or mukti (both meaning “liberation”) in Hinduism; nirvana (the great “extinguishing” or “sigh of relief” as one becomes free of all troubling thoughts and feelings) in Buddhism; the dropping of the old self and being “born again” into Christ; the release that comes from following God’s will and law in Judaism and Islam.
We all want to be free. So what, exactly, are the chains that bind us? What is the nature of the prison that we feel encloses us?
Being free isn’t just a matter of doing, saying, or thinking anything that comes into your head. That much should be obvious to anyone who has lived more than a few years in the company of other humans. We’ve tried that version of “freedom” over and over and over again, to no avail. Whenever some strong impulse arises, unless thwarted by fear of reprisal (or jail!), we usually just give in to it, consequences be damned! We yell back at those who yell at us, try to hurt those who hurt us, plot our revenge when we feel betrayed . . . just because we “feel like it.”
Until we have thoroughly trained ourselves, we are enslaved by our negative emotions, our mental afflictions. When anger, jealousy, pride, or lust raise their nasty little heads, we are usually rendered helpless in their thrall. Worse yet, we stick our head into the carnival cutouts of these irrational feelings and say, “I am angry! I am depressed! I am jealous!”
Among the large array of mental afflictions that plague and tyrannize us (the Buddha said we have 84,000 of them!), two lie at the root of our unhappiness and imprisonment.
They are desire and ignorance.
“Desire” here really means perpetual dissatisfaction—with what we have, with the life we are leading, and with who we are. It’s like when we have an itchy mosquito bite. We scratch the itch, hoping that by doing so it won’t itch anymore.
We’re slaves to our itches, and that’s one very important way in which we are not free. We get a hankering for a new iPhone and the itch begins: If only I had the new iPhone! You know, the one with that little computer voice named Siri that talks to you? Then I’d be happy. Or one or another of the myriad versions of the itch: If only that girl would pay attention to me. If only I had a better job. If only I were rich, famous, popular.
I, I, I and if only, if only—the repetitive call of incessant yearning and discontent, the “somebody self ” always wanting more.
And so we try scratching. We save our money for the iPhone, or try to get the phone number from the beautiful babe or stud-muffin dude, or apply for a different job, or try to be more (more wealthy, more famous, more popular, more attractive) of a somebody.
And every time we scratch, it’s in the hope that there won’t be any more itches.
We all know what happens next. It’s just like those pesky mosquito bites—the more you scratch them, the more irresistibly the itch returns. The relief is at best temporary, and then after a brief respite the desire comes roaring back, more demanding than ever.
And so freedom, we could say, is nothing more than the exalted state of itchlessness—being satisfied with everything we have, with “nothing left to lose,” as Janis Joplin says in her famous song, and
nothing more to gain.
The liberation we seek with all our scratching consists of simply not being beset with new and improved itches all the time. This is called by another name: “contentment,” and it is what we hope to attain with every attempt to satisfy our desires. We hope that, by fulfilling this particular craving, we won’t want anything more. We hope that each scratch will be the last one; that finally, with this one last scrape, we’ll be satisfied.
Maybe there’s more than just contentment at the end of our spiritual journey. Maybe there’s heaven or a Pure Land with all kinds of rainbows in the sky and unicorns bounding about. And maybe we’ll all be angels, blissfully flapping around with supernatural abilities and X-Men superpowers. I can’t, in all honesty, say with any certainty that there won’t be.
But I do know this: If we shoot for contentment—the Great Itchlessness—it won’t matter one way or the other. Once we become content, it will be impossible to be discontented with our lives and ourselves—with or without streets paved with gold and divine bodies made of beautiful light. It’s win-win when it comes to contentment! If there’s more in addition to that, great; and if there’s not, well, that will be OK too, because we’ll be content!
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