In seeking satisfaction, it helps to explore a broad spectrum of human potential. To use Ken Wilber’s language, we can look at multiple “lines of development,” such as material security, emotional bonding, and spiritual realization.
Our relationship to each of these important currents in life grows through relatively definable stages. For instance, our attitude toward material acquisition might start with concern about our own sensual pleasure, then extend to wanting to provide for our family, and then mature to a calling to do our part to help a world in need. Similar stages can be mapped for emotional and spiritual growth.
In evaluating progress along these various lines, I often consider one of my favorite Daoist quotes: “He who knows he has enough is rich.” We can apply this simple aphorism in all three directions outlined above, and others as well.
In the material sphere, research has clearly established that once people possess the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, further acquisition no longer correlates much with levels of satisfaction. So although we often want more, those of us in the west usually really do have enough. Awakening to our material abundance can be hugely comforting. Furthermore, persisting in craving what we don’t have is a recipe for suffering, as the Buddha told us long ago.
With regard to bonding, we know interpersonal attachments are often as necessary to human happiness as food, clothing, and shelter. But how many relationships are enough? We see a wide range in society: from loners, to couples who rarely socialize with others, to sensitive souls with a few close friends, to bighearted people with many loved ones, to the highly gregarious who have huge numbers of acquaintances but few deep relationships. In each of these cases a person might or might not be satisfied, depending on their personality and their attitude.
As always, I can express this most clearly with a personal anecdote. In the past I criticized myself because of my very small social circle. I’d try to excuse myself by remembering how much abuse and neglect I suffered in childhood, but I still felt isolated. Innately shy and highly sensitive, I’d always been able to establish romantic attachments, but I rarely made friends. My wife and I have been together for twenty years, which I count as an accomplishment, but until recently I enjoyed few other friendships. When you consider that we both come from very small families, that our parents have died, and that we have no children, nieces, or nephews, you can begin to see why I felt like a social failure.
As I entered my fifties and contemplated old age, I began to fear ending up elderly and all alone. I envied my acquaintances who’d had children and now enjoy the satisfaction of watching their offspring blossom into adults. It was easy to imagine them in the future as happy grandparents, and myself as an isolated ancient.
A few things helped rescue me from this neurosis. A first step was a bit of reality testing: I began to see how having children in this society is no guarantee against loneliness and struggle in old age. It was even more helpful to recognize that my ability to endure (and even benefit from) hardship and loneliness is much greater than I once believed. Many times in recent years I’ve settled into deep sadness without panicking, whereas in the past I’d have run to a psychiatrist for an antidepressant. I’ve found a kind of melancholy serenity during those times. Even if my ‘golden years’ are spent in isolation, there’s a chance I’ll embrace the same soulful peace that helps me through the dark epochs now.
So I’ve changed my assessment of my social circle. It may be small, but it feels like enough, at least for now. I no longer feel desperate for more connections. As a result of my increased confidence, I’m finding that it’s now easier to make friends. Ironically, once I felt contented with my tiny social circle, it began to grow. If recognizing that I had enough social contact to survive made me rich, then I also learned that the rich get richer. We often encounter this lesson first in the romantic sphere: nothing is more unappealing than a desperate date, and nothing more alluring than a warm, serene, confident one. But the principle generalizes to all social interaction. If we approach others with a sense of contentment, we’re better liked than if we exude neurosis.
Finally, let’s consider the arena of spiritual development. Until I began my quest for metaphysical clarity twenty-four years ago, growth in this area meant nothing to me. But once I started to reap the benefits of a few awakened moments, I wanted more. As I further matured, so that even in ordinary life it became possible for me to connect with the calm, light center of my heart, I found myself wishing the connection were more robust and continuous. Growth was happening, but because the very process of opening highlighted how much of me remained closed, it was tempting to feel discouraged. Then, fortunately, I recognized that humans seldom complete the task of cosmic realization.
At every stage short of eternal transcendence, there is opportunity for further maturation. Once I understood the spiritual path to be endless, I felt satisfied with my current level of development. It’s important to emphasize that I still want to awaken further, but I don’t need more attainment to be comfortable. I’ve found enough peace to feel contented.
Which brings me to an important point: contentment is about appreciating where we are right now. It does not mean abandoning plans for further progress. Live brightly today, but build an even better tomorrow. And in order to lay the groundwork for a richly satisfying future, remember to pursue well-rounded growth.
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Last reviewed: 28 Apr 2011