Choosing Contention or Contentment

Ajahn Amaro • December 2008

On the winter solstice I led a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock with the theme, “Maximum Darkness.” We investigated the experiences of death, loss, and sadness. It was a suitably dingy, gray, wet day, appropriate to that dolorous subject. For many years, one of the exercises I used in my meditation—and a theme I had others use on this daylong retreat—was to imagine the current sitting I was doing to be the last minutes of my life. When we did this together for the day, I didn’t let the others know how long the sitting was going to be—ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour—so that we could really focus on each breath, each moment, as if it were the last moment of our lives.

I encouraged the participants to reflect, If this truly were the last few minutes of my life, then what happens to my priority list? If we take seriously that the bell is the last moment, then consider what’s important and see what comes up in the mind with all of those things to do, the anxieties about going to the dentist, and so on. Just reflect on that, How do I relate to the things I’ve left half done, the things I’m so proud of, the things I regret?

I’ve found this theme very useful, and for years when I was at Chithurst Monastery I would make it a daily practice. Luang Por Sumedho would always be the one ringing the bell at the end of the sittings, and at the beginning I would imagine, Okay, this is the last forty-five minutes or last hour of my life. What will my mind be dwelling on when the bell is rung? Can I drop it and be ready to go by the time the sound of the ringing fades? It’s often quite shocking, the kind of things that the mind is obsessed about or focused on. So we can ask ourselves, Would I really want to be thinking of this or dwelling on that at the time of death? That reflection then allows us to develop the capacity to drop things, to let go.

One woman at the daylong retreat saw a dichotomy in her mind, she saw a certain choice. The choice was between contention and contentment. What took shape in her mind was a clear distinction between being “content with” the way things are, or “contending against” the way things are. I thought it was quite insightful and interesting how her mind had produced that way of formulating the dichotomy. She authentically summarized the choice we all have at any moment during the day. Working out in the cold with the rain dripping down our necks, carrying large uncomfortable objects across slippery mud and not wanting to drop them, finding places to store 300 apples and oranges in a confined space, whatever it might be, we have the capacity to contend against, and we have the capacity to be content with—to attune ourselves with the way things are as we go about our tasks. It’s a choice.

Often we relate to obstacles in our lives as being unavoidable. It’s as if they’ve been put in our way deliberately, and we feel burdened and frustrated by them. These are qualities of resentment and negativity, desires to avoid or to switch off. But it’s important to recognize that even if something is particularly obstructive—carrying a large clumsy object across slippery wet clay in the rain—it’s up to us whether we tense up about it and contend against it. It’s our choice to buy into our story and contend against the way things are, becoming anxious or irritated—or not. This is a theme I often use for my own practice, to recognize, It’s my choice whether I make a problem out of this, or not. It’s my choice to be content with this—or not.

Our application of mindfulness and clear comprehension, sati and sampajañña, has a lot to do with recognizing that we have choices in how we react to the world around us and to our internal states of mind. If we also apply the quality of wisdom or discernment, paññā, then we will choose the path of non-contention, of cultivating the capacity to attune. Even in the midst of the most difficult or challenging circumstances, we don’t have to dwell in aversion, we don’t have to contend against these circumstances. We can find a quality of peace and clarity in relationship to every situation, even those we would not choose. We begin to see that there’s nothing in life that is inherently obstructive or unsatisfactory. It all hinges on the way we choose to handle it.