Contentment in no sense means self-satisfaction, but rather inner tranquillity, peace of mind. Does Theosophy throw any light on the secret of its attainment?
The opposite of contentment is the lack of inner calm, the lack of inner peace, inner strife or discomfort. In spite of the fact that a great many people, without realizing it, seem to thrive on the excitement of this condition — because excitement and agitation, the play of the lower emotions seem to be the very nature of the personal man — in spite of this, I believe we are safe in saying that this inner strife is in reality the most fertile cause of unhappiness, pain or sorrow.
It was Gautama, the Lord Buddha, who after witnessing at an early age the three awakening sights of old age, disease and death, could not rest in peace until he had eventually learned the truth about this world's pain and its sorrow; and having learned, he in turn could not rest until he had taught it to his disciples and the people of his own country. What he taught is imbodied in his doctrine of "The Four Noble Truths," which in condensed form may be summarized as follows:
1. That pain and sorrow exist;
2. That there is a cause for the suffering and sorrow that exist;
3. That there is a way to get rid of this sorrow and pain;
4. That there is a path, which if followed, leads to the extinction of this pain and sorrow.
That path itself was called by the Buddha the Noble Eightfold Path:
1. Right Conviction 5. Right livelihood 2. Right resolution 6. Right endeavor 3. Right speech 7. Right alertness of mind 4. Right conduct 8. Right absorption or right meditation
Right conviction — conviction based on a recognition of The Four Noble Truths.
Right resolution — having the courage of one's convictions and resolving to follow them, is right resolution. Each time we resolve anew it is like a wise sailor periodically charting his position from the heavens in order to keep on his true course.
Right speech — speech that is thoughtful, kindly, truthful and controlled.
Right conduct — conduct that is based on moral worth, integrity and sincerity.
Right livelihood — that way of making a living that gives full value for payment received and which at the same time causes no loss or hurt to another.
Right endeavor — the fixing of the mind's eye on the true goal in life and making every thought, word and deed conform to that end.
Right alertness of mind — that mental attentiveness to life which aids us in performing every duty well, and which helps us to grasp every opportunity for right action.
Right absorption or right meditation — if we practice successfully the first seven there will follow a gradual awakening of our spiritual perceptions so that we shall come to know what right meditation is.
In his Esoteric Tradition, Dr. de Purucker says that following this path consists in a continuous changing to betterment of the factors or samskaras of our consciousness. These samskaras are those attributes of character, whether mental, emotional or otherwise, which are the seeds or tendencies of past actions. A little reflection shows that these eight points have been so chosen and so devised that if we follow them and practice them, they will help men to raise or improve the entire range of those wrong tendencies which we have built into our natures in our many past lives. In other words, all those energies and forces which play through our natures will be brought into balance, into a harmonious relationship, which is inner unity, giving birth to an inner calm, or, in a word, contentment.
So this path with its eight points of instruction shows us the road we must travel. It is an inner road and a difficult one, perhaps; but anything that is worth while is difficult to attain, and just because it is a difficult road, let us light a beacon, and let that beacon be trust in our ability ultimately to succeed.
When learning some new skill or when undertaking some new accomplishment, how very hard it seems at first. In fact sometimes the initial effort seems so difficult that we become discouraged and feel inclined to give up before we have hardly begun; but if in spite of discouragement and momentary despondency we carry on, persistence and real effort bring success and proficiency. Isn't it likely that the same sequence holds true for inner growth? Isn't this also why we are taught that despondency is the greatest foe to progress? Applied to outward things, this is easy to see, for in looking back on past accomplishments, we can note that slips and failures were part of the process of learning, and that in the light of final success, to have allowed failure to deter us, in the sense of freezing our will to go on, would not only have been ridiculous, but would have negatived all the effort thus far made.
Again the same thing holds good for inner growth, for, in trying to give expression to our ideals we can readily see that little failures along the way are part and parcel of our travel through life. The trick is in learning to ignore them; that is, in the sense of not dwelling on them other than to extract the lesson they teach. All our past successes, inward or outward, give promise of future accomplishment and teach us that despondency need never be indulged in. We have only to remember that exertion and continuity of effort are needed. Even the Masters tell us that there is no failure except the refusal to try again, or as a Zen teacher might say, the one and only great commandment of Zen is: "Thou shalt walk on."
We must trust in our ability to succeed, which is the same as saying that we must never admit the possibility of failure. And why? For two good theosophical reasons. The first, because man is essentially a spiritual being and therefore has a constant source of spiritual power within himself to call upon. And second, because man is inwardly a deathless being and therefore has an eternity in which to progress. The doctrine of reimbodiment teaches us that man lives many lives here on earth so that whatever is unfinished or lacks complete accomplishment in this life will be picked up and carried on to a successful conclusion in the next or succeeding lives. The idea that the self in man imbodies or reincarnates repeatedly on earth, coupled with the idea that there is a law operative in the very scheme of things that moves toward readjustment, forms two of the most important and hope-filling of our theosophical teachings.
The question may well be asked: "If man is essentially a spiritual being, why then does he have so much difficulty manifesting that spirituality here in his earthly life?" A whole philosophy could be written around the answer to such a question, but putting it simply and without too much detail here is one answer and it lies in the word essentially. Man is essentially a spiritual being. In order for the essential self of man to manifest at all in this gross physical world, this self had to "step" itself down, and clothe itself with substances and forces, matters and energies of varying degrees of density and ethereality, finally appearing here on earth in these fleshly bodies, which so many of us so mistakenly think of as ourselves. Man is a spiritual being, living in an animal body, but before the spiritual self can manifest its own nature through this animal body, it not only has to learn to control the physical forces of that body, but it has also to learn to control and to bring into harmonious and synchronous relationship the forces and energies of his inner vehicles as well. Is it any wonder then that man is sometimes bewildered and does such strange things! He is a very highly complex being, a fact our physicians and psychiatrists are rapidly discovering.
The reaction of this complexity of human nature on our health has been engaging the attention of the medical and scientific world for some time now. So much so that the more enlightened doctors are realizing that there is an intimate association between mind and body. The psychiatrist too has evolved a long list of technical terms descriptive of psychologic and mental ailments, such as the many types of phobias, manias, psychoses, neuroses, and what not. The chances are that the human entity has been heir to these various disorders for a long long time, and while they may be new to our Western thinkers, dealing as they do with the great mysteries of consciousness, these variations, both mental and physical, have been known and understood for ages by the great Eastern occultists. The better psychiatrists are also discovering that the quickest and most permanent cures of insanity or near insanity occur when they are able to give their patients a firm philosophic or religious basis for life. In other words, if the ill — mentally, emotionally, or even physically — can come to feel that life has both meaning and purpose, this alone will help to restore sanity and balance.
Man is a composite being, having actually six other principles besides the physical body and is therefore quite complex. The simple knowledge of his dual aspect, however, is a tremendous help in understanding himself. Man has a higher mind and a lower mind, or a higher and lower ego. The lower mind is more or less closely associated with the four lower principles — the desires, the vital forces, the astral body and the physical body. The higher mind lives in the light of the three higher principles — the divine, the spiritual and the spiritual-intellectual. The lower mind or ego, when functioning as such, is pure selfishness, concerned only with itself and its own wants; while the higher mind or ego is spiritual and therefore universal in its scope, expressing the qualities of love and unselfishness. There is the duality — the personality on the one hand, and the higher individuality on the other.
The question is now, how do we, who live mainly in our lower personality, reach up to our higher spiritual self, which is the real self, and bridge the gap between the two? It is done with will and aspiration and the creative imagination, by trying to live up to the best and noblest that we can visualize, but while this is patently simple to say, everyone knows that it requires all the strength of our manhood and womanhood to put it into practice. We shall know we are succeeding when we find ourselves learning to think more of others and less of ourselves, when it becomes natural to feel welling up in our hearts a warm and sincere love for our fellows. — And let us not be frightened by this word love.
Recently I came across an old number of the Magazine Digest and found an article by Harry Emerson Fosdick entitled: "Are We Fit to Live With?" There is here a definition of love that is well worth sharing:
Mark this! Love in the New Testament is not a sentimental and affectionate emotion as we so commonly interpret it. The great Christian word for love is agape. Over 250 times the New Testament uses it, and agape means nothing sentimental or primarily emotional at all; it means understanding and creative goodwill. "Love your neighbors as yourself" — that is agape. "Love your enemies" — it is nonsense to command that if it means feeling affection for our foes but if it means, as it does, extending even to them an understanding and creative good-will so that, by God's grace, enemies may at last be turned into friends, that makes sense.
In view of our present critical world situation, Mr. Fosdick's article, written three years ago, is even more applicable today than when written. He continues:
. . . . this is the world's cry, with catastrophe awaiting failure: Wanted! Those qualities of life and character that make men and nations fit to live with.
We have always talked about world brotherhood. It was a beautiful ideal. But now it is the absolute condition of civilization's survival It is world brotherhood now, or else!
The dramatic conquest of the air, the shrinking of the planet in travel tune and the release of atomic power, have as it were suddenly confronted us with history's most momentous crises, long building up but unmistakably here at last — races and nations forced to live together before we are fit to live with.
And the most serious aspect of this situation is that being fit to live with is a spiritual matter. It can be politically expressed but it cannot be politically manufactured it must start in the intelligence and conscience and good-will of people.
Theosophy and all true religions make a constant appeal to the best in man, but theosophy, because it makes understandable the underlying reasons for ethics, probably more so than any other system of thought, exerts a continual pressure on the conscience of man, awakening in him a knowledge of his full responsibility in life. There is ample evidence all about us that a world conscience is emerging out of the urgency and stress of our times and there are movements in the outward as well as the inward affairs of human life which give promise of the dawn of a new day for humanity.
Theosophists feel that the great universal ideas that have poured through the theosophical society into the thought life of the world, have been no mean factor in bringing about this awakening world conscience, and we feel definitely that now is no time to relax our efforts, but rather it is this urgent need of the times that prompts the increased efforts now being made to spread this enlightening philosophy among men. It is quite possible that the influence exerted in the next five years by the theosophical society and all other religious and philosophical organizations to keep the conscience of the world alive and sensitive to the great issues of right and wrong, may mark the difference between seeing that new day dawn with all its spiritual promise, or of seeing the heavy clouds of human folly and ignorance obscure the light for a thousand years to come.
World brotherhood has indeed become a "must." The one and only prerequisite to membership in the Theosophical Society has been the acceptance of the belief that universal brotherhood is a fact in nature. Of course this applies to more than just human brotherhood. It points to that fundamental doctrine of the underlying unity of all life. Nevertheless, it also proclaims the fact that the Theosophical Society is working for world brotherhood, although it is working primarily to disclose those great fundamental truths which, if universally known, would make a true and lasting spiritual brotherhood a possibility. In fact to form a working nucleus for such a brotherhood is the society's avowed purpose.
Isn't it a strange thing how humanity, having traveled the long weary road upward in evolution, has finally, through human intelligence and ingenuity, almost gained complete control of all the kingdoms of nature below his own — in other words, has gained virtual control over his external environment, and has now only himself left to fear? Only man threatens and is the enemy of man, and he has now but to learn to conquer himself. As nations and as individuals we must learn how to make ourselves "fit to live with." But this business of making ourselves fit to live with resolves itself first of all into an individual matter, because a nation reflects the spiritual advancement of its people. Each individual must say to himself: "What am I doing to make myself fit to live with." A man's inner growth is something he alone can undertake. No one, not even a Christ or a Buddha, can do our growing for us. We can of course be helped, we can be taught and encouraged; but upon each one alone falls the labor of evolving forth and expanding his own inner consciousness, and the key to it we are taught is discipline.
Cord Meyer, Jr., has well expressed this thought in the closing chapter of his book, Peace or Anarchy:
Measured against the infinite age of the earth and stars, the span of human existence is brief indeed. Yet in the comparatively few years that man has inhabited the planet, he has achieved great and wonderful things. From the caves where he once lived in savage ignorance, he has won his way to a nearly complete control over his natural environment Now he has only himself to fear He can use his new-found power to destroy himself and all that has been built and thought through the laborious centuries, or he can find a more generous existence on this earth than ever before was possible This is the decision which we, as the living representatives of the race, must make m our time.
To come back to our subject of contentment — the secret of contentment. We have already defined contentment as meaning inner peace, peace of mind, and we have also indicated that the secret of its achievement is the reaching out in thought and in action unselfishly towards others. It is really no secret at all.
The greatest of all gifts is the giving of the self. But this movement outward, away from ourselves, in service to others, is not an automatic thing for our lower personal selves. It follows, therefore, that we must, through discipline, which means by training and practice, learn to control the lower will by the will of the higher self. This is done naturally and without strain, but it has to be done, and not just thought about. Even though it may appear to be a relatively slow process, it is a safe one and leads eventually to the true path in life, a path which once entered upon brings a rapid acceleration of spiritual growth.
Perhaps it is also the last step and every step in between, for only by living for others can we impersonalize ourselves sufficiently for the Great Peace to be ours. May we not truly say, then, that contentment or inner peace is but the fruit which develops when the aspirant travels successfully the path which leads to illumination and union with the God within?