Desires wear us out. We are perpetually on the hunt for something new we want; or something better than what we already have- an upgrade if you will. These desires are often accompanied by a narrative that goes something like this: If I had this person; object; vehicle; holiday, I would be happy. Strange thing is, we never are, and one desire fulfilled leads to a new desire unfulfilled, and so on and so on. Desire is like drinking salty water to quench our thirst.
At the moment, I want a pair of trousers with a high waist, called ‘paper bags.’ I think about these trousers often. Honestly! But they’re pricey and I can’t buy them just yet. I worry about whether they will still have them in my size when I have the cash, or in navy blue. What if they only have them in beige? Or black? Or not at all? Sometimes, and I feel uneasy admitting this, I visit them in Fenwicks. This, however, is the easiest kind of desire to deal with- it’s clear and concrete, although persistent and irritating. But desire can be sneaky. The desired object is not always trousers. It can also be a time- past or future- a place the restless mind wishes to escape to that is not here and now.
There is a simple Buddhist equation that cuts through all the waffle: Desire = restlessness; contentment = rest.
Sherab has offered me this antidote to desire, to a restless mind that cannot help but move from thing to thing. This, he claims, is an exercise that builds contentment, and I offer it to you:
- Set an alarm for a limited amount of time, not more than ten minutes.
- Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable position.
- Cease moving- that’s right, sit as motionless as possible.
- Wait and observe.
- Keep waiting and observing.
- At the end of the exercise, note down all your thoughts and observations.
Sit? Still? All my life I’ve been a fidget. Sitting still and contentment are not concepts that go together easily in my mind. Probably, I thought, the measure of how much I need this exercise is the degree to which it seems impossible; unpleasant; difficult. I don’t do sitting. Or still. Then, wait a minute, I thought, this exercise is a kind of meditation. And I sit still all the time in meditation. The instruction to observe is an important one. As in meditation, the idea to remain alert- detached enough from your thoughts to observe them- is key.
In How to Understand the MindGeshla defines “alertness” as ‘a mental factor, which is a type of wisdom that examines our activities of body speech and mind and knows whether or not faults are developing.’
And develop they did! Those pesky faults!
My mind flitted from object to object like a mayfly. But watching my mind with alertness gave me a sense of control over it; observing its very restlessness, it changeability, re-enforced the idea that it was not a solid fixed thing, that I could alter it if I wished.
Geshla defines “contentment” as ‘being satisfied with one’s outer and inner conditions, motivated by virtuous intention.’
Realising that our restlessness, our lack of contentment, arises from inner conditions, as well as outer conditions, is a lightbulb moment. Realising that we can observe, then alter those inner conditions with virtuous intention, is a game changer.
(As an afterthought, I’d urge you to look up any words you encounter in Geshla’s books in the glossary at the back of the book, or in the index to get the real Buddhist meaning of the word.)
For all my life restlessness has meant a physical motion, an irregular, nervous wish to change position, move about. Sit down. Stand up. Tap your feet. Stop tapping. Suddenly I see it differently. Restlessness begins in the mind. As does contentment.
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