The latest celebrity Buddhist, Mick Jagger, can't get it. Neither, it appears, can I. It seems that to be satisfied, I'd have to arrange my life and the world to conform totally to my liking—and then have them stay that way:
- I will cease being chronically ill and immediately travel to the ocean to body surf;
- My two grown children and their families will move in next door—one family on each side will do;
- The daytime temperature outside will range from 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit—always;
- Politicians on both side of the aisle will come to share my views;
- I will never be cranky again.
You Can't Always Get What You Want
Notice that my satisfaction (which can also be thought of as my peace and contentment) appears to be contingent on life conforming to my liking and my desires all the time. But it's not going to happen. I knew it before Mick Jagger sang it in another song: "You can't always get what you want." As the Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm, said: "You'd be asking the world for something it can never give you."
There is only one way to find personal satisfaction and contentment: we have to give up our desire for life to always be how we want it to be.
The Buddha said, "I teach the presence of dukkha
in our lives and the path to the end of dukkha
refers to the dissatisfaction we experience with the circumstances of our lives. In teaching "the presence of dukkha
," the Buddha was instructing us to look deeply at this "can't get no satisfaction" that is so much a part of our daily experience. In teaching "the path to the end of dukkha
," he was instructing us to investigate its cause so we can learn how to put an end to it.
To look deeply at this dissatisfaction, we have to turn our attention inward and watch what goes on in our minds. When I do this, I often find a low-grade unease, anxiety, and even dread. When I look for the cause of this low-grade dissatisfaction, I find that it stems from the world and my life not conforming to how I think they should be.
The Transience of Pleasant Experiences and the Inevitability of Unpleasant Experiences
If we try to control all of life's circumstances, we will be rife with dissatisfaction. This is because we can't make pleasant experiences last, and we can't prevent experiences that are unpleasant to us from arising. So, the cause of our dissatisfaction is this tendency to live in a constant state of painful desire, a state I like to call "want/don't want." We want pleasant experiences to last and we don't want unpleasant ones to arise.
As for pleasant experiences, that unease I referred to in my own mind is often present during a pleasant experience because I want it to last forever even though I know, deep down, that it can't (whether it be a good time with my granddaughter, a beautiful sunset, or an ice cream cone). As for unpleasant experiences, I can no more control the temperature outside than I can a politician's position on taxes—I can't even control the thoughts and emotions that arise in my mind (thus that crankiness I referred to!).
Life simply refuses to always be the way we want it to be or the way we think it should be. We can refuse to accept this, but it will only increase our dissatisfaction.
The good news is that we can ease this dissatisfaction by changing how we respond to pleasant and unpleasant experiences. When we open our hearts and minds to life as it is as opposed to how we want it to be, we can "get that satisfaction" we're seeking. It's a lifelong practice, but it's never too late to start.
Opening to life as it is doesn't mean we shouldn't take action to change things personally and globally. It simply means that our starting point is life as it is. We greet it without clinging to pleasant experiences since we know they won't last; and we greet it without exploding in anger in the face of unpleasant experiences since we know they are an inevitable part of being alive. I'm quite certain that you won't get through this day without encountering some unpleasant experience, whether it be stubbing your toe, or your computer crashing, or having to deal with a person you don't like being around.
The Buddha said we should "keep our cool" in the face of unpleasant experiences (he called it "cooling the fire of desire"). Then we can respond skillfully instead of angrily. Anger just adds more stress to an already tough situation. Personal satisfaction and contentment are not dependent on what experiences we have but on how we respond to them.
Nietzsche's Amor Fati
It takes courage to accept life as it is. Frederick Nietzsche called this amor fati
or "loving our fate." When I'm able to truly see my dissatisfaction and the self-focused desires that drive it, sometimes I'm able to give up those desires and open to my life as it is, including the transience of pleasant experiences and the inevitability of unpleasant ones. And, on a good day, this openness gives rise to amor fati—
loving my fate—which is nothing more than loving this very life.
The Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, called this state of openness to life, "the happiness of the Buddha." I think of it as a contentment and peace of mind that are within reach of all of us. In other words, we all have the ability to reverse the theme of that Stones song and "get satisfaction."
Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 3 ("Can't Get No Satisfaction") and in Chapter 18 ("Equanimity: Fully Engaging This Life as It Is") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.
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