We rarely seem to be totally satisfied with life, do we? Let’s put it this way: things could always be a little better, right? If you occasionally feel slightly dissatisfied with life, you’re not alone. It’s human nature to have this creeping, persistent feeling that somehow, life isn’t as good as it’s supposed to be. Either there is something that we are lacking, or we have some problem that we just know we shouldn’t. It’s why we are always working hard to either improve our situation, or get ourselves out of some kind of mess. We are always waiting for a break – for some future point when our problems are gone – and then we can finally be happy.
I call this the world of “if only.”
If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I had a nicer house/apartment, then I would be happy. If only my children would listen to me all the time, if only my boss wasn’t such a jerk, if only I had a better job, if only I had a nicer cell phone/computer/car/TV/ipad… then I would be happy.
Sounds pretty selfish, doesn’t it? As if the meaning of life and happiness was putting ourselves and our desires first. Of course, sometimes the “if-onlies” are more serious and difficult. If only I didn’t have cancer, if only my spouse hadn’t died, if only I wasn’t unemployed… But even in these dire cases, the dissatisfaction comes from the belief that the world should be the way we want, and we should always get what we want. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that life will always (or ever) be easy, problem-free, or even fair. This results in a reality in which we can never find true satisfaction in life. Real, lasting happiness will always exist in some imagined future when the world will finally be the way we want.
But it’s never coming.
Even when we get what we hoped for, we still aren’t satisfied. We simply move on to the next “if-only.” Even when the problem resolves, new ones arise. We live in a state of constant dissatisfaction waiting for a future fix that will never come.
So what do we do?
Jesus’ solution is to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him (Matt 10:38). Stop putting ourselves and what we want first, and start putting others and their needs first. This is where we find true happiness and satisfaction. Ironically, the only way we find life is by giving it away. Or put another way, “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). Jesus insists that the only way to find life, to find satisfaction, is to die to ourselves. Every single day.
In meditation, we see the “if-onlies” for what they are – illusions, ideals, thoughts, fantasies – not rooted in reality, but causing us suffering nonetheless. And as we watch them, as we distance ourselves from them, we begin to let them go. As we observe our thoughts arising:
“this meditation is so boring, there are so many more important things I should be doing…”
“what am I going to do about the pile of bills on the table that I can’t pay…?”
“I am dreading going to work today, because I have that awful meeting…”
We realize how much of a hold on us they have – our level of dissatisfaction – and we begin to see through them. As our mind kicks and screams as we force ourselves to simply sit still on the cushion and breathe every single day, over time that part of ourselves that refuses to accept life the way it is and be satisfied slowly dies. Its hold on us weakens. And eventually we realize that it was never really living at all.
Then we take our cross back up and go back out into the world. Life will never be perfect. But it sure is satisfying.