Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Trouble With Nirvana

The road to contentment, to nirvana is a perilous road, fraught with dangers in the ditch on either side. Contentment lies between the white lines, for in the ditch on one side lies addictions, gluttony, and the hollow life of one who floats from one compelling experience to the next in search of a better thing. The other side of the road is not so much a ditch as it is a rut, the place you get stuck when you play it safe and settle for less.

How to keep it between the white lines is the trick. And I’m not talking about happiness. Happiness is way too easy to find. But contentment? Now that’s the hard thing.

Going through old computer files last week I found a letter I wrote in July of 1999 to my sister, Cindy. It was written at Duck Lake in Michigan. I described for Cindy what everyone was doing on that hot summer day and said a thing or two about each person’s personality

Describing my then, 8 year old son, Jack, I wrote to my Cindy:
“Jack works about earnestly to keep up with his big brother. He wants to succeed, to do as well as older kids. But because he’s younger and smaller, of course he can’t, and nobody could ever be as hard on him as he is on himself. Like so many other middle children he’s forever convinced that he’s cheated in things, that others get more of everything. No amount of love or success could ever convince him otherwise. I remember once when you and I were younger, you confided in me with dismay that there is never enough love and kisses to convince you that you are truly loved. I fear Jack will feel that way about the world.”

Finding and rereading that letter was such a pleasant surprise, I shared a copy with each of my children.

Jack, now 6’ tall, 20 years old, and away at college, sent a touching, emotional reply, part of which read:
“I love that description you wrote of me. I still am almost that exact same way. No amount of success or love will ever be good enough. That quality may be my greatest downfall.”

I responded to Jack with one sentence: “People chase gold, money, love, and sex, but contentment is the most rare, precious, and fleeting thing known to man.”

The experts think of Nirvana in varied ways. Some as freedom from suffering, some as transcendence above earthly needs. The word literally means, “blowing out,” as in blowing out the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.” I think of it as contentment, the accepting of what is rather than constantly clamoring for what might be.

It’s amazing how illusive contentment can be and how much of it is guided by our expectations.

It’s a delicate balance. And having everything you want isn’t the answer. Most people dream of fame and fortune, but a study of Hollywood actors and professional athletes reveals a group of people with staggering rates of divorce, substance abuse, and a shorter life span than the average American. Clearly, having everything you want won’t buy contentment, in fact probably makes it harder to see, harder to achieve.

Many philosophers have said it before, but I suspect that contentment, like so many other important qualities in life is not a destination, but a journey – not a place you arrive at, but a thing you juggle.

Recently, an old friend with a lovely home, happy children, and a successful career, but no spouse, shared her deep sadness with me. With her youngest off at college, she confided, “I’m tired of doing this alone.” Yet, I’m sure many in her little town think she’s got it all figured out.

Another friend I truly admire has shared tales of the lost years he spent looking for contentment at the bottom of the bottle. He did drugs with rock stars in San Francisco in the 1960s, owned successful restaurants at a mountain resort, and was married, but eventually destroyed everything he’d built thanks to alcoholism. Today, he runs a small business and makes a modest income, attends church, works out daily, travels as often as he can, and lives a carefully managed, alcohol-free life.

Contentment looks different when you have the extreme opposite to compare it to.

I have known a few people who projected contentment – even claimed to have achieved it, but most really had just perfected the ascetic – that ability to deny themselves pleasure for long stretches, so to enjoy it at precise moments of opportunity. Most of these had not found contentment, but simply had learned to wrestle their desires to a truce. These are the most frozen people I’ve ever known, though they look on the outside anything but frozen. They fear the commitment of choosing and being trapped by the choice and so enjoy pleasures as little vacations. Which is fine with a real vacation. But when deep friendships and intimate relationships are treated like vacations – things isolated from your daily life, enjoyed briefly before returning to your ascetic routine, you end up making a very disciplined, but very lonely, hollow person, because the contentment that comes from the permanence of commitment cannot be substituted by a mountain of temporary experiences. And for these sorts of folk, I fear their ascetic discipline hardwires their fault. Might be easier to change an alcoholic or drug addict.

Oh what a slippery thing contentment . . . nirvana can be.

And of course I’m left thinking of the rock band, Nirvana. Their song "Lithium" is 4 minutes and 17 seconds of churning, surging, screaming, musical nirvana. It’s a song for which there is no volume high enough to satisfy me. With a chugging base line behind him, Kurt Cobain sings the opening lines, “I’m so happy, ‘cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head.”

Perhaps that’s where contentment is for everyone; it’s in our heads.

Cobain was tortured by mental illness, so the reference to Lithium, a drug used to prevent frenzied excitement in manic-depressives is no surprise. Nirvana (the state of mind, not his band) was so out of reach for him that a shotgun in the mouth seemed like a reasonable option. And at least it finally settled once and for all his search for peace and contentment.

So as the years pass, I am more convinced than ever that contentment doesn’t come from having everything you want or from having complete control, but from a mixture of deprivation and comfort, and freedom and commitment, all in their proper measure.

But I haven’t a clue what the proper measure is.


  1. This is something I think about a ton lately, especially concerning my kids.

    I joke that someday I may write one of those crazy self-help books, if I can better figure contentment out. I would call it “Ambition is Overrated, and Contentment is Underrated.” Of course I doubt the book will be a reality. My job puts me in position to interact with a lot of really driven people. I have decided that crazy ambitious people are hardly ever happy/content and always looking for a sort of high.

    I also believe there is Biblical foundation in that we are called to be content. I pray each night with kids that they will be content, happy and nice to all people.

    Anyway, maybe I will achieve contentment someday – but for now I am thankful that I just figured out how important it is, so I can be cognizant of it during my day and try to steer myself a little to be more thankful and content.

  2. I have worked for years for some semblance of being content. I finally have blamed my mom for pushing me so hard and turning me into a person who must have goals and deadlines and success. But right now, sitting in my kitchen while everyone's asleep and a fresh pot of coffee, the puppy sleeping in my lap, maybe it's just enough to have moments of contentment.