Often I find myself sitting across the table from a friend. When we have ordered our lattes and prepared ourselves for an intimate chat about the state of our lives, the question rears it unavoidable head:
“How are you?”
So there we are, our favorite café, coffees are settled before us and that question sits there like the coffee cup, awaiting our attention.
How am I? My friend truly wants to know. I begin to feel enormous pressure to feel happy. My immediate response is to turn inward, scan my mind for images that would allow me to gauge – be sure – determine – figure out – if I am truly happy or not.
I think of my relationships, work, child, family, friends, hobbies and from this momentary glance at my life I quickly calculate my response. Do I say how I really feel or not? I guess not because I say:
“I am fine. How are you?”
The moment of silence that follows can often feel like eternity. I look away still trying to decide if that was the right calculation. My friend will either allow the moment to pass or press harder to see if I am truly “fine”.
How do you know if you are happy? Well, by modern definition, it would probably have a lot to do with the state of our affairs. Do I have a home, a family, and a job that affords me vacations and other luxuries? If so, I must be happy.
So, why is it that most everyone I know who has checked off all those boxes is not happy?
Happiness, sadness, anger, loneliness, laughter and the like are not places that you live in, but simply places that you visit.
One lives in a state of contentment.
“From Contentment One Gains Supreme Happiness” Sutra II 42
What is contentment? It is neither happy nor sad. It is somewhere in the middle; a state that we all live in when we are between emotions.
Happiness is an emotion. The expression of an experience or thought that makes you feel good, just as sadness is the expression of an experience or thought that makes you feel sad.
We do not walk around feeling constantly happy or sad, we feel content. We feel fine, but fine does not seem good enough.
Unfortunately, we are taught that to be content with contentment is not to be content at all.
We believe we should be happy so we chase happiness and run from sadness which the sutras tell us will only result in suffering. The irony is that letting go of chasing happiness and accepting contentment as the state of being brings more joy, brings happiness.
So where does that leave us? Do we sit at the coffee house and, when our friend asks how we are, we simply smile and say, “content”? Does our friend smile and say, “great news”?
Do we then realize that the coffee, friend, and really everything are OK and from this place of acceptance find real joy; joy in needing nothing; joy in not chasing happiness and running from pain.
Next time I have that cup of coffee I will tell my friend that I am content and see what happens.