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Series III - Chapter 16 - 'The Flame Of Discontent'

IN THE EARLY morning sunlight, the leaves of the tree just outside the window were making dancing shadows on the white wall of the room. There was a gentle breeze, and these shadows were never still; they were as alive as the leaves themselves. One or two moved gently, with grace and ease, but the motion of the others was violent, jerky and restless. The sun had just come up from behind a deep-wooded hill. The day was not going to be hot, for the breeze was blowing from the snowy mountains to the north. At that early hour, there was a strange quietness - the quietness of the slumbering earth before man begins his toil. Within this quietness were the screeches of the parrots flying crazily to the fields and woods; within it were the raucous calls of the crows and the chatter of many birds; within it were the distant hoots of a train, and the blast of a factory whistle announcing the hour. It was the hour when the mind is as open as the heavens and as vulnerable as love.

The road was very crowded, and the people walking on it were paying scant attention to the vehicular traffic; they would smilingly step aside, but first they had to look around to see who was making so much noise behind them. There were cycles, buses and bullock carts, and men drawing lighter carts loaded with sacks of grain. The shops, selling everything that man could want from needles to motorcars, were spilling over with people.

This same road led through the wealthy part of the city, with its usual aloofness and tidiness, into the open country; and not far out was the famous tomb. You left the car at the outer entrance, and went up a few steps, through an open archway, into a well-kept and watered garden. Walking along a sandy path and up more steps, you passed through another archway, blue with tiles, and entered an inner garden with a wall completely around it. It was enormous; there were acres of luscious, green lawns, lovely trees and fountains. It was cool in the shade, and the sound of falling water was pleasant. The circular path that went along the wall on the edge of the lawn had a border of brilliant flowers, and it would have taken quite a while to walk around it. Following the path that cut across the lawn, you wondered how so much space and beauty and work could be given to a tomb. presently you climbed a long flight of steps, which opened on a vast platform covered with slabs of reddish-brown sandstone. On this platform rose the stately tomb. It was built of smooth, polished marble, and the single marble coffin within it shone with the soft light of the sun that filtered through the intricately latticed marble window. It seemed lonely in its peace, though surrounded with grandeur and beauty.

From the platform you could see where the ancient town, with its domes and gateways, met the new, with its steel pylons for the radio broadcasting station. It was strange to see the coming together of the old and the new, and the impact of it stirred your whole being. It was as though the past and the present of all life lay before you as a simple fact, without the interference of the censor and his choice. The blue horizon stretched far away beyond the city and the woods; it would always remain, while the new became the old.

There were three of them, all quite young, a brother, a sister and a friend. Well dressed and very well educated they spoke several languages easily, and could talk of the latest books. It was strange to see them in that bare room; there were only two chairs, and one of the young men had to sit uncomfortably on the floor, spoiling the crease in his well pressed trousers. A sparrow that had its nest just outside suddenly appeared on the sill of the open window but seeing the new faces, it fluttered and flew away again.

"We have come to talk over a rather personal problem," explained the brother, "and we hope you don't mind. May I plunge into it? You see, my sister is going through a beastly time. She feels shy about explaining it, so I am doing the talking for the moment. We like each other very much, and have been almost inseparable ever since we were youngsters. There is nothing unhealthy about our being together, but she has been twice married and twice divorced. We have been through it all together. The husbands were all right in their way, but I am concerned about my sister. We consulted a well known psychiatrist, but somehow it didn't work out. We needn't go into all that now. Though I had never met you personally, I had known about you for several years, and had read some of your published talks; so I persuaded my sister and our mutual friend to come along with me, and here we are. "He hesitated for a few moments, and then went on. "Our difficulty is that my sister doesn't seem to be satisfied with anything. Literally nothing gives her any sort of satisfaction or contentment.

Discontent has become almost a mania with her, and if something isn't done, she's going to crack up completely."

Isn't it a good thing to be discontented? "To some extent, yes," he replied; "but there are limits to everything, and this is going too far."

What's wrong with being totally discontented? What we generally call discontent is the dissatisfaction which arises when a particular desire is not fulfilled. Isn't that so? "Perhaps; but my sister has tried so many things, including these two marriages, and she hasn't been happy in either of them. Fortunately, there have been no children, which would have further complicated matters. But I think she can speak for herself now; I only wanted to set the ball rolling."

What is contentment, and what is discontent? Will discontent lead to contentment? Being discontented, can you ever find the other? "Nothing really satisfies me," said the sister. "We are well off, but the things that money can buy have lost their meaning. I have read a great deal but as I'm sure you know it doesn't lead anywhere. I have dabbled in various religious doctrines, but they all seem so utterly phoney; and what have you left after that? I have thought about it a great deal, and I know it isn't for want of children that I am like this. If I had children, I would give them my love, and all that kind of thing, but this torment of discontent would certainly go on. I can't find a way of directing or channelizing it, as most people seem to do, into some absorbing activity or interest. Then it would be easy sailing; there would be an occasional squall, which is inevitable in life, but one would always be within reach of calm waters. I feel as though I were in a perpetual storm, without any safe port. I want to find some comfort, somewhere; but, as I said what the religions have to offer seems to me so utterly stupid, nothing but a lot of superstitions. Everything else, including worship of the State, is only a rational substitute for the real thing - and I don't know what the real thing is. I have tried various entertaining side issues, including the current philosophy of hopelessness in France, but I am left empty handed. I have even experimented with taking one or two of the latest drugs; but that, of course, is the ultimate act of despair. One might just as well commit suicide. Now you know all about it."

"If I may put in a word," said the friend, "it seems to me that the whole thing would be resolved if she could only find something that really interested her. If she had a vital interest that occupied her mind and her life, then this discontent that is eating her up would disappear. I have known this lady and her brother for many years, and I keep telling her that her misery arises from not having something that will take her mind off herself. But nobody pays much attention to what is said by an old friend."

May I ask, why shouldn't you be discontented? Why shouldn't you be consumed by discontent? And what do you mean by that word? "It is a pain, an agonizing anxiety, and naturally one wants to get out of it. It would be a form of sadism to want to remain in it. After all, one should be able to live happily, and not be ceaselessly driven by the pain of dissatisfaction."

I am not saying that you should enjoy the pain of it, or merely put up with it; but why should you try to escape from it through an interesting occupation, or through some other form of abiding satisfaction?

"Isn't that a most natural thing to do?" asked the friend. "If you are in pain, you want to get rid of it."

We are not understanding each other. What do we mean by being discontented? We are not inquiring into the mere verbal or explanatory meaning of that word, nor are we seeking the causes of discontent. We shall come to the causes presently. What we are trying to do, is to examine the state of the mind that is caught in the pain of discontent. "In other words, what is my mind doing when it is discontented? I don't know, I have never before asked myself that question. Let me see. But first of all, have I understood the question?"

"I think I see what you are asking, sir," put in the brother. "What is the feeling of the mind that is in the throes of discontent? Isn't that it?"

Something like that. A feeling is extraordinary in itself - is it not? - apart from its pleasure or pain. "But can there be any feeling at all," asked the sister, "if it is not identified with pleasure or pain?"

Does identification bring about feeling? Can there be no feeling without identification, without naming? We may come to that question presently; but again, what do we mean by discontent? Does discontent exist by itself, as an isolated feeling, or is it related to something?

"It is always related to some other factor, to some urge, desire or want, isn't it?" said the friend. "There must always be a cause; discontent is only a symptom. We want to be or to acquire something, and if for any reason we cannot we become discontented. I think this is the source of her discontent."

Is it? "I don't know, I haven't thought that far," replied the sister.

Don't you know why you are discontented? Is it because you haven't found anything in which you can lose yourself? And if you did find some interest or activity with which you could completely occupy your mind would the pain of discontent go? Is it that you want to be contented?

"God, no!" she exploded. "That would be terrible, that would be stagnation."

But isn't that what you are seeking? You may have a horror of being contented, yet in wanting to be free of discontent, you are pursuing a very superior kind of contentment, aren't you? "I don't think I want contentment; but I do want to be free from this endless misery of discontent."

Are the two desires different? Most people are discontented, but they generally tame it by finding something which gives them satisfaction, and then they function mechanically and go to seed, or they become bitter, cynical, and so on. Is that what you are after?

"I don't want to become cynical, or just go to seed, that would be too stupid; I only want to find a way to soften the ache of this uncertainty."

The ache exists only when you resist uncertainty, when you want to be free of it. "Do you mean I must remain in this state?"

Please listen. You condemn the state you are in; your mind is opposing it. Discontent is a flame that must be kept burning brightly, and not be smothered by some interest or activity that is pursued as a reaction from the pain of it. Discontent is painful only when it is resisted. A man who is merely satisfied, without understanding the full significance of discontent, is asleep; he is not sensitive to the whole movement of life. Satisfaction is a drug, and it is comparatively easy to find. But to understand the full significance of discontent, the search for certainty must cease.

"It is difficult not to want to be certain about something."

Apart from mechanical certainties, is there any certainty at all, any psychological permanency? Or is there only impermanency? All relationship is impermanent; all thought, with its symbols, ideals, projections, is impermanent, property is lost, and even life itself ends in death, in the unknown, though man builds a thousand cunning structures of belief to overcome it. We separate life from death, and so both remain unknown. Contentment and discontent are like the two sides of one coin. To be free from the ache of discontent, the mind must cease to seek contentment.

"Then is there no fulfilment?"

Self-fulfilment is a vain pursuit, isn't it? In the very fulfilment of the self, there is fear and disappointment. That which is gained becomes ashes; but we again struggle to gain, and again we are caught in sorrow. If once we are aware of this total process, then self-fulfilment in any direction, at any level, has no significance at all. "Then to struggle against discontent is to smother the flame of life," she concluded. "I think I understand the meaning of what you have been saying."