I’m sure we’ve all heard - and many of us may have gotten total sick of - the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Well, I want to change that slightly and say “Don’t worry, be content”.
Recently there’s been a meme going around Facebook about worry that shows a flowchart starting with A Problem. From there it asks “Can you do anything about it?”. If you answer yes it takes you to the result of “then don’t worry”. If you answer no it also takes to the result of “don’t worry”. You might look at it and think, “wow, that’s a pretty simplistic view”, but it’s not! It is reality. It’s also a great summary of Buddhist thought; but that’s not to say we should be going through life with an idiotic grin on our face ignoring the suffering of the world.
Buddhism is about facing up squarely to suffering - our own and others’; but it’s also about recognizing what we can do and what we can’t. Worrying about things that we can’t affect is only increasing our own suffering; but failing to act when we can is going to do the same thing. Being truly free from worry can only be accomplished by being mindful of the world around us and taking appropriate action WHEN WE CAN to relieve the suffering of others and ourselves. This also implies that we need to be honest with ourselves about what we both can/cannot and should/should not do.
The goal of Ch’an and Zen practice is to be so present in the moment that you are able to act in every situation in exactly the way that is needed. Most of us are not at that stage yet - and may never be - so we need to at least be present enough to reflect on the situation and on our possible actions and choose the appropriate one - even if it is no action. Taking action from a selfish desire to act is not going to relieve suffering but increase it. Taking action or refraining from acting based on mindful reflection of the moment is never going to increase suffering and may indeed relieve it.
Looking at the meme it never advises us to ignore the problem, but to face it head on and reflect on whether we can do anything about it or not. If we can we MUST act before we can let go of worry. If we can’t we MUST refrain from acting to let go of worry. Simple. Powerful. Zen. Yet this still doesn’t imply happiness.
No, the converse of worry and suffering isn’t happiness, it’s contentment. Happiness is a sense pleasure that we need to be careful of. It’s not that happiness is bad in itself, but it can lead us to a craving to stay in that state - and when we can’t we suffer even more. It is not happiness we need to avoid, but the craving for it; and this is where contentment comes in. When you are content you are at balance through both suffering and happiness knowing that both are impermanent states. When you are content you are being present in the moment like a martial artist totally balances so that she can respond to an attack from any direction. Contentment is the state of centrality.
In Pragmatic Buddhism when we present the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) we say of the Buddha, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the consummating personal element, our inborn contentment.” So when I wish you contentment I am wishing that you abide in your natural “Buddha Nature”, and there is not greater bliss than this.