What It Means To Simply Be Content: A Psychotherapist & Monk Explains

by Koshin Paley Ellison

We live in a culture largely based around the pursuit of things like “success,” “busy,” “recognition,” and “more.” In his new book Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up, psychotherapist and Zen teacher Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison explores the ways our current way of living cuts us off from not only a truly satisfying life but also from meaningful relationships and meaningful work. In this excerpt, he asks a powerful question: What would it look like if we were simply content with where we are?

In the book Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, which is an account of human history from the perspective of evolutionary biology, Yuval teases out the complexity of how, basically, the Homo sapiens who were in Africa felt like they wanted something else, so they kept meandering into new areas of the world. I bring it up because there’s something comforting about knowing that this very human desire for more—this feeling of not being satisfied with what we already have—has been around for at least 40,000 years.

Working with dying people, I see many houses. After people die, their houses are left behind, often filled to the brim with things that they clearly felt they needed to have, like dozens of statues of lions, thousands of books, many cans of creamed corn, and so on. I’m not talking about hoarders, either—just folks. Humans are like magpies in that way, collecting shiny objects and other things that attract them. Seeing, wanting, grabbing—it seems to be innate. Something we can work with.

I have a very dear friend who has acid reflux. Two of the biggest triggers for his acid reflux are chocolate and gluten, and he knows this. But you should see him in front of a cake counter! He practically licks the glass from so much wanting, because he loves sweets. I understand that. It might seem silly, but I get like that about new iPhones. Whenever a new one comes out, I’m overcome with impulsive thoughts to buy it immediately. I want it now. Luckily for me, it seems like Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone every other week, so I’ve had a lot of practice with riding the bucking bronco of desire. The cycle goes like this: I read that a new one is going to come out, and then I watch the little sneak preview video they do, and then I find myself going to the store…just to look at them. I might as well be salivating in front of a cake counter, too.

It’s been interesting to pause and see what’s driving all of this, which is usually a feeling of deficiency. Some kind of lack. And if I pause long enough, I realize that I’ve tricked myself into believing that somehow this new phone will fill in that lack. It’s not just a phone anymore; it represents so much more.

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