Friday, August 5, 2011

Discontent as Spiritual Practice

"Discover your own discontent, and be grateful, for without divine discontent there would be no creative force." Deepak Chopra

I am perpetually dissatisfied. I always have been. That doesn't necessarily mean I am unhappy, it just means that I usually can see a way for things to change.

Such dissatisfaction could be seen as a flaw—it might seem that I am always the critic, finding fault with everything: it can also be seen as a path towards change and even transformation.

I recognize that discontent in large doses is hard to be around—it can sound very much like complaining or even worse—like whining. But beneath this discontent is a drive towards change, a desire to make things better. It is a sense of the possibility of things, and when acted upon it can be the impetus for creativity and freedom.
Some have called this form of discontent divine. Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher and humanist (1883-1955), describes it in romantic terms. “The essence of man is discontent, divine discontent; a sort of love without a beloved, the ache we feel in a member we no longer have.” A sense of longing for something that we have lost, whether actual or imagined. A sense of something we ought to have but don't right now.

Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind in the
 Willows, describes it as inherent in the changing seasons. As Mole cleans his house, Grahame writes that, "Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing."

Referring to this discontent as divine might seem to imply a connection to religion, but only one writer I came across, an Irish actor (Cyril Cusack) in fact, used it this literally—"Religion promotes the divine discontent within oneself, so that one tries to make oneself a better person and draw oneself closer to God."

While in his book, Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois, Jonathon S Kahn discusses whether Du Bois' statement "I cannot promise you happiness always, but I can promise you divine discontent with the imperfect," is an indictment of religion.

Leaving religion aside—what does make such discontent divine rather than just complaining about things? Is it the source or the goal? Is there some connection to spirit that drives us towards change, or are we driven by a seeking to connect with the divine in whatever form the divine is expressed for each of us. Does that goal, that longing for connection, have to be internal or external, thought or action?

Or are we, as Ortega y Gasset implies, merely driven because we are driven. Simone Weil, seems to subscribe to this notion. “We have only to imagine all our desires satisfied; after a time we should become discontented…We should want something else and we should be miserable through not knowing what to want.” *

For some this discontent is the source, not of growth, but of struggle. Alcoholics and addicts wrestle with this sense of discontent by trying to deny it or make it disappear. They use drink or drugs or shopping or too much TV as a way hide the pain caused by facing what is in front of them.

Interestingly, Buddhism sees this discontent as one of the problems, if not the major problem, of life. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism begin with positing that life is Dukkha—suffering, as it is often translated. This suffering is caused by attachment and stops when attachment is relinquished.
I wrestled with this view. While I acknowledge that there are struggles in life, I am oddly a bit more optimistic—life does have struggles, but, I believe, things can be done, even without immediate results. When I grew to understand Dukkha as the gap between what one has and what one wants, I saw it as another way of describing divine discontent.

Only Buddhists don't seem to see it as divine. For Buddhism this gap is a problem to be overcome by following the Eightfold Path and living in the 'right' way: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. For me this gap as the start of transformation, of wanting things to be other than they are and acting to make them so.

I looked into my own religion, Judaism, to find what it had to say about this sense of discontent. What stood out for me was the Kabbalistic view of healing a flawed world. Because the world was shattered as it was created, there are bits and pieces of wonderful all over, and it is our job to find them and put them back together. Judaism does not spend a lot of time bemoaning the shattering of the vessels, instead the daily prayers are about giving thanks for the gifts we have and acting with a consciousness of the world. So, although the flaws of the world are accepted, there does not seem to be a sense of discontent about it.

But I don't think religion is where I can find answers to my questions. Religion is basically antithetical to divine discontent. If we are constantly dissatisfied, then we become dissatisfied with religion as well, and therefore religion is promoting its own undoing.

What then to do with this discontent that shakes my world, drives me to want something that I don't have? I have come to understand that I must embrace it. I must sit with it and let it grow until I see clearly what I must do. This may mean changing external circumstances, it may mean writing a story or a poem or painting a picture. It may mean changing my wardrobe or taking a tango lesson. It may mean moving or it may mean sitting still.

Jungian analyst Marian Woodman, writes about holding the tension of the opposites, sitting with both sides of an issue without running away from discomfort. This includes dealing with the integration of spirit and body, but also being able to hold the tension between any two seemingly opposite feelings that arise within us.

This is a daily challenge. If I am discontent with what is, then I must decide if I am called to take an action, to shift something within myself, or merely let go. So as I wrestle with the choices that discontent imposes, I am learning and growing into the person I want to be acting to help create the world I want to live in.

* Simone Weil, On Science, Necessity and the Love of God, trans. and ed.
Richard Rees (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 148.

1 comment:

  1. A very wise manager once explained to me that finding fault is the easiest thing in the world. He told me never to tell him about a problem unless I had figured out a solution as well.

    If you have discovered things that need to be changed and you have the solutions, then write a book, post them on your blog, or go on a lecture circuit.

    The reason that I enjoy talks is that almost every talk presents a solution to a big problem.