Contentment and Restlessness: A Review of Streams of Contentment

[This post by Bruce Epperly is part of a conversation on the new book Streams of Contentment, by Robert Wicks, hosted at the Patheos Book Club here.]

I have appreciated Robert Wicks’ wisdom for many years.  I find his integration of spirituality and psychology, and Christianity and Buddhism a challenge to experience life in a kinder, gentler way.  His work always reminds me of the importance of simplicity and self-awareness in a living a good life.

Reading Wicks most recent book, Streams of Contentment, has inspired me to reflect on the creative interplay of contentment and restlessness, and acceptance and vision, in spiritual growth.  Contentment without restlessness leads to complacency.   Without an inner movement toward change and growth, contentment leads to accepting injustice. On the other hand, restlessness without acceptance leads to anxiety and alienation.  In that tension between the Psalmist’s wisdom – “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it” – and Isaiah’s and Jesus’ challenge – “the Spirit of God is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor…recovery of sight to the blind…release to the captive…let the oppressed go free” – we experience interplay of acceptance and transformation.

As Buddhist teacher-therapist Tara Brach notes, “radical acceptance” is necessary to experience wholeness in life.  We need to start where we are in this present moment if we are to experience insight and enlightenment.  Yet, ironically, acceptance of the present moment leads to the experience of a certain restlessness and discontent with the way things are both in our own lives and in the world.  Living in the moment – this present moment – as Zen Buddhists suggest is not accidental but the result of intentionality, sitting meditation, and pondering the riddles of life, otherwise known as koans.   Oddly enough, it takes great effort and intentionality, as the story of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment reveals, to become free of the attachment and the sorrows that come from holding onto to what is constantly changing.

I have been pondering the interplay of living in present and imagining a larger perspective as I interact with my year old grandchild.  He lives fully in the moment, focusing on an airplane flying by, wrestling with his dad, or playing with his mom.  Yet, he often becomes frustrated when he must wait to get out of his stroller or safety seat.  He wants his breakfast now and not ten seconds from now!  In the course of growing up – and sadly, most of us don’t find this balance – he will need to find blend of living in the present moment and seeing the long haul to experience happiness and achievement in life.

Within the moment of radical acceptance of this present moment, I believe that there is a drive or lure toward something more.  There are seeds of growth that impel an infant to seek her mother’s breast, roll over, crawl, walk, and then run.  The infant doesn’t consciously choose this urge to grow, it is inherent in her cells and her spirit. The present moment is the womb of possibility and within possibility, there is always a divine restlessness, an urge toward new horizons.  This is heart of my vision of God as the Holy Adventure whose vision inspires us to choose our own adventures.  (See Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living)

Perhaps, we need the monk and the prophet, the yin and yang, the contemplative and active, to live a full and responsible life.  The prophet is spurred forward by a divine discontent to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  The monk watches the river go by, immersing her or himself in the fullness of this present moment and the divinity of the one standing before him.

Yet, the prophet must see things as they are and the divine potential in everyone in order to bring justice to the world. The monk must be countercultural in her acceptance and vision of divinity in order to bring out the holiness of troubled and neglected people.  Vision and action, contemplation and transformation, are really one dynamic reality.  This insight is captured in the drawings and sculptures of Michelangelo: out of large stones figures emerge; there is an angel in every boulder.  You must accept the boulder to find the angel.  Artistry involves seeing and acting, contemplation and transformation, to bring forth beauty in the world.

The key perhaps, as Wicks counsels, is the recognition of the impermanence of life.  The river funs, the clouds scud by, and the child grows up.  All things must change.  The monk observes the stream of emotions and thoughts that constitute the ever-moving self.  The prophet rejoices in small successes but recognizes that the path to justice is never finished.  The prophet must accept the finitude and imperfection of every institution while calling institutions to new embodiments of justice.   Alternative possibilities are built into every moment of experience, and move us forward even as we gratefully appreciate this wonderful moment.

Each morning I awaken with the words of the Psalmist, “this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.” I am filled with gratitude as I take the first steps on my predawn walk.  But, I follow this affirmation with a question, “What surprising challenge will I experience today?  May I be awake to possibility and open to respond with insight and courage.”  Gratitude leads to goals and back to gratitude for the fullness of life in all its wonder and possibility.  For those who have senses to experience, each moment is wonderful in its impermanence and possibility.  Sufficient is the day, but tomorrow brings new adventures.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.


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