Contentment VS All You Can Eat

Three separate but synchronous conversations led me to recently explore the topic of contentment.

The first was with childhood friend and fellow musician, Christopher Guest. Chris is an avid environmentalist and is socially and politically astute — we often talk about the state of the world, culture, our lives, etc.

In this particular conversation, the idea of the American vision of “All You Can Eat” being presented as the basis for bringing people into a restaurant struck us both as funny and telling. It seemed to sum up our American obsession with “more, better, faster!” as the pathway to true happiness.

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As counterpoint, I mentioned that Kripalu Institute (a holistic learning center in New England where I’ll be teaching this coming week) has a sign in it’s dining room that shows the size of a person’s stomach as being about the size of a human fist. The sign goes on to suggest that eating more than that volume of food at a particular meal actually bloats the stomach and creates poor digestion and ill health!

The second conversation was with my son Ethan. He pointed out in passing that if everybody on planet Earth consumed at the level of the average American, we would need three to five planets to provide the necessary resources.

And finally, I was chatting over lunch with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and a wonderful friend and dharma brother. Daniel is very active in the ongoing exploration linking Buddhist practice with modern science. He was explaining how repetition of particular patterns actually burns in new neural pathways to reinforce that behavior i.e. if you want to establish a particular behavior, just repeat it over and over and it will become the new norm.

So coming back to “All You Can Eat” — is it possible that we have, by constant repetition in our culture, created a social norm in which gluttony and craving have replaced contentment and satisfaction?

In the Shambhala Buddhist tradition within which I study and teach, practicing contentment is considered the ground of the spiritual path. Contentment is symbolized by a tiger — the tiger represents the dignified quality called Meek. In this case Meek doesn’t refer to being a pushover or a doormat but embodies a humbleness and gentleness that comes from being content with the way things are in the present moment. The tiger walks with steadiness, confidence and mindfulness.

“Moving through our life with the steady vigilance of (the) tiger, we no longer feel the need to prove ourselves, because we are anchored in the truth of our own peace. Beautiful new clothes, a promotion at work, or climbing Mount Everest might bring pleasure, but they are not going to make that peace any bigger…

…If we don’t know how to be content in our mind, we can’t even be content with our food. Eating at the best restaurant in the world wont make a difference. There is someone in a village in India eating curry out of a clay bowl, more content than we are.”

– Sakyong Mipham (Ruling Your World)

I think it is safe to say that the notion of contentment, of being satisfied with what we have, of reducing craving and lusting after more, bigger, better, would be a powerful and revolutionary development in our American culture. We just need to explore and repeat this new behavior to burn it into our neural pathways! Maybe we can create a new norm in which enough can be enough.