Knowing How to Be Satisfied

Alive Until You’re Dead

What is given to us is the chance to become human beings together. Even the challenges and the difficulties are given to us. We didn’t ask for these challenges, but they are given, and what is given is a gift.
The Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn encouraged his students to have what he called “enough mind.” To have the attitude I already have everything I need . He said that when you want something you don’t have, there are two possible outcomes, and both result in suffering. If you don’t get what you want, you suffer from disappointment. If you do get what you want, you can experience temporary happiness, but pretty soon the happiness fades when it turns out that what you got isn’t quite as wonderful as you expected it to be. You begin to crave all over again, and you are right back in the cycle of craving and suffering.
I want to whisper something in your ear, though, that Seung Sahn didn’t mention. Once in a while, you get something you want and it turns out to be as wonderful as you expected, or even better, and it makes you happy for a long time, maybe all the way until you die. Don’t worry too much if that happens to you; it won’t stop you from having “enough mind.”


 

Old age is also a time for downsizing ambitions and dreams along with material things. Not only do I accept the idea that I will not travel to the amazing ruins of Machu Picchu before I die—something I actually used to want to do—but I’m now quite satisfied that I will not be spending vast sums of money on being cold and uncomfortable and suffering from altitude sickness. 

 


Buddha and his followers were great list-makers. I suppose it’s one of the things that attracts me, an enthusiastic list-maker myself, to Buddhist teachings. One of Buddha’s lists is “the Eight Awarenesses of the Enlightened Person,” and one of the items on this list is “knowing how to be satisfied.” I assume it’s on the list because Buddha or one of his friends noticed the human tendency to remain stuck in a sense of insufficiency.
I used to feel lonely, and I suffered because I felt lonely. In between relationships that turned out to be temporary, I was pained by my lack of a life partner, and I blamed myself. I couldn’t keep myself from envying the imagined happiness of friends with partners and then, adding insult to injury, I would give myself a hard time for doing so. But I began to understand that measuring my happiness against the happiness of others is senseless. They might be envying me for something, too. I can’t tell by looking at someone what they have and what they lack. They might have demons inside or a history of loss that I can’t imagine.
Now, happily, thanks to aging, to dharma, to my Zen sangha and my community of friends and family, and to a change in living arrangements, I don’t bother myself about being single anymore, not hardly ever. I gradually caught on that underneath the loneliness was a deeper problem. That problem, as I have been reminded by a Zen elder or two, was my belief that I should feel some other way, in this moment, than the way I feel. It’s a given that I will feel some other way, maybe quite soon, but in the meantime, it’s like this now. Whatever unhappiness comes, can I say to myself, with this inhalation, I have what I need in this particular second? Can I say it again as I exhale? And then, by all means, I’ll do my best to remedy the situation, if remedy there be.
Many people really don’t have everything they need. They lack food, shelter, warm clothes, health care, education, and a safe environment in which to raise their children. It would be extreme arrogance to suggest that a refugee mother interned in a camp with her cold and hungry children should tell herself that she has everything she needs. How we work against the institutions that put her in that situation, how we build social structures that bring everyone the essentials they need to sustain life, these questions are “beyond the scope of this essay,” to use a phrase that sounds uncomfortably like an excuse. But what I am talking about here—a bottomless feeling of lack—is connected. And I’m talking about greed, also connected. We live in a society that encourages us to want stuff we don’t really need. The advertising industry colludes with our sense of insufficiency to turn us into unintentional thieves.
In Buddha’s time, it was easier to know if you were stealing. You knew where the thatch of your roof came from. You knew who made your clothing. Your food was mostly locally grown, and you took your water from the stream or the village well. Now the sources of our food and drink and the necessary materials of our lives are from invisible sources. We might be stealing without knowing it. The teak trees that were cut down to make the furniture on my back porch—were they truly offered, or were they taken from protected forests? The labor of the women who made the jeans I’m wearing—was that labor truly offered, or was it from sweatshops where women worked in exploitive conditions close to slavery? At this point in human history, we can’t always avoid taking what is not given, but we can try to live as simply as possible.


 

The precepts are not commandments handed down to us from the outside but affirmations that come from within. They are the intentions of our hearts.

 


Voluntary poverty is an aspect of various kinds of religious practice. It’s so much easier to focus on what’s important when you aren’t worrying all the time about maximizing your choices. I know from people more advanced than I am that there’s freedom in simple living. Besides, the more of us who use less, the better for all life on planet Earth.
I can’t pretend I’m practicing voluntary poverty, but I do find that the older I get, the simpler my needs are and the more easily I feel satisfied. This is particularly clear in the material realm. I don’t want more stuff; I want less. Old age is also a time for downsizing ambitions and dreams along with material things. Not only do I accept the idea that I will not travel to the amazing ruins of Machu Picchu before I die—something I actually used to want to do—but I’m now quite satisfied that I will not be spending vast sums of money on being cold and uncomfortable and suffering from altitude sickness. I don’t look for ecstasy anymore; a walk by the bay with a friend is wonderful enough. Yesterday we watched a great blue heron promenade with long-legged dignity along the water’s edge. It was quite exciting.
I-have-everything-I-need is a restful feeling. I’m not acting out of a sense of lack.
I still have to watch myself. I have to watch out for garden-variety stealing, for taking what’s not given in small ways. A case in point: I was traveling with a dharma sister a few years ago, leading some Zen retreats in Europe, and we were staying in a hotel in Prague that offered a huge complimentary buffet breakfast. Our last day there, we had breakfast in the hotel before a long day on the train to Berlin. I finished my eggs and croissants, and I said to Cynthia, “I think I’ll wrap up some croissants and cheese in a napkin for lunch on the train.” She looked at me with surprise, noticeably taken aback. She challenged me, gently, saying, “Do you think that’s being offered?”
“It would hardly make a difference,” I said. “It would be as if I had had a really big breakfast.” But she said, “What if everybody said that to themselves? What if everybody in the hotel used this buffet as the breakfast and lunch buffet?”
I imagined myself watching another hotel guest—a gray-haired, pleasant, well-behaved woman like me, for example—going back to the buffet table, wrapping up some croissants in a napkin, and tucking them into her purse. I wouldn’t report her to hotel security, but watching her do what I was about to do, I would be able to see that she was taking what was not given. It would be like seeing myself in a mirror. Cynthia had held up that mirror.
“You’re right,” I said to Cynthia. “You’re absolutely right. Thanks for helping me with the precepts.” It was a small thing, but it made an impression on me. The point was not the couple of croissants I didn’t take but rather that with Cynthia’s help I cracked a habit—the habit of thinking that I’m a good citizen, so it must be okay. I was reminded that I’m not different from other people. There are no separate rules for me.
This is like the classic minor theft of taking home some pens and paper from the office supply closet at work, with the justification that what people don’t know won’t hurt them. If nobody experiences being hurt by it, if nobody even notices it, why not? As with the croissants, the problem here is the attitude more than the pens—the idea that it doesn’t count if no one sees you do it. But it counts if you see yourself do it. This sounds sanctimonious, but it really does count. The precepts are not commandments handed down to us from the outside but affirmations that come from within. They are the intentions of our hearts.

 

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Susan MoonSUSAN MOON is a writer, editor, and Buddhist teacher in the Soto Zen tradition. For many years she has taught and led Zen retreats nationally and internationally. Her books include This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity; the groundbreaking collection, The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, with Florence Caplow; and What Is Zen? with Norman Fischer. Her most recent book, Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch, is a collection of essays about the surprising perks of mortality. Susan is a contributor to Lion’s RoarTricycle, and other publications. She lives in Berkeley, California, and practices at the Berkeley Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Sangha. She adores her grandchildren.