#25 Contentment in the Present Moment

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Paul McAleer: Welcome to Designing Yourself. I am Paul McAleer.

Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.

Paul: And I have a simple question for you, Whitney. Are you content?

Whitney: You know, if we were recording this any other day, I might probably definitely say no. I would probably say no because I don’t think I live in a state of contentment. But you’ve caught me on a good day.

Paul: So you’re content today?

Whitney: You have caught me on a really good day. Yes, I have been feeling, in the past week or so, very contented. Is that a word?

Paul: Sure.

Whitney: Very content, very contented. I have been feeling like, yes, there are a lot of things that I am trying to get out of life, that I’m striving for in the future, that I’m really pondering, working towards, things that I feel could be better. And that’s kind of my natural state, which I guess is why I say normally I wouldn’t say I’m content.

But, lately I’ve been realizing that despite all of those things that I want, that I’m working toward, when I look around me, I have everything I could ever want. And because of that I’ve been feeling very at peace and serene with myself, my surroundings, my relationships, my work. And I’m guessing this is what contentment is because it’s an unusual feeling. Am I actually content, from what I’ve described to you?

Paul: I think so. So, it’s - goodness, it’s hard to define contentment, I think. I mean, I could always do the Wikipedia thing, but I’ll not do that. The way that I see contentment is, it sounds like a lot like you’re describing, where you are in the present moment, which is something I immediately picked up on, is that you’re talking about, first of all, how you often are thinking about the future and plans and striving and kind of looking ahead and what’s coming up versus where you’re at now with this state of contentment where it’s very much in the present.

And I see it that way as well. It’s not a situation where we look around at what we have in our lives and we really judge those things even on a small level. It’s, to me, looking around, seeing what you have, seeing who you are, and getting to a place of comfort and maybe satisfaction with that, not to the point where you feel necessarily there’s no room for improvement, right, but more of the idea that, you know, things are pretty OK.

Whitney: Yeah. There’s always room for improvement, but, as you said, we often see that with judgment. And I think that judgment then puts us into a state of discontentment, that now nothing feels good enough, nothing feels right, we’re not happy, we’re not at peace.

Because we’re so hyper-aware of how much better everything could be, we’re not focused on how good it already is. And I guess I’ve always trended toward the negative side. I mean, we all have a negativity bias. I think it’s something like we’re three times more likely to notice the negative in situations than the positive. And, that’s in large part due to our survival mechanisms, like we have to scan for threats. We have to see where the problems are coming from in order to survive.

But, as I’ve heard and read and I’ve experienced personally, being wired to survive is not the same as being wired for happiness. And so, I’ve often trended it toward that negative side of what more there is to have, how much more there is to go in order to reach this, you know, imagined state. Of course, once you get there you’re never satisfied by it anyway.

But rarely do I take the time to recognize how far I’ve gotten, how much I already have, you know, the exact opposite of that. And I think it has something to do with gratitude, maybe. Maybe when you have a gratitude practice you spend more time thinking about what you already have and who you already are and what life has already brought you and what it is in this present moment rather than what is left to do or what more there is to get.

So, maybe it’s through gratitude that you find contentment. But I just very recently have been at least giving myself the space to acknowledge things are pretty awesome. And if I don’t recognize it now and revel in it, who knows when they may be this awesome again? I mean, life is like a box of chocolates.

Paul: No. No, you went there. Oh, no.

Whitney: You know? I mean, you don’t. I mean, horrible things are happening to people all the time, not to be morbid, but like my Facebook feed is a danger zone because there’s always something, someone talking about some tragedy, and it’s horrible, and the world is filled with tragedy. And you can get really off-kilter when that’s your focus.

And so, I think that in part knowing that there’s so much that goes wrong in the world and in life and that that’s a natural part of life, especially lately as a lot of things have been happening to people that I care about and things in the news, I’ve just been able to realize that comparatively I have it really good. And I’d better acknowledge that and revel in it and appreciate it while it’s the case or it may be too late.

Paul: That’s interesting.

Whitney: So, is that contentment, do you think, gratitude? Or do you see contentment in your own life as something different?

Paul: Well, I definitely have the concept of this gratitude and thankfulness to be adjacent to it if it isn’t directly in this line of contentment. When you were talking about the fact that your Facebook feed has a fair amount of not great stuff in it and tragedies and things that people are going through, it reminded me of a couple of things. First, this is why I don’t use Facebook. And, two, it makes me sound all hipster-cool to say I don’t use Facebook.

But, three, more to the point, the question it brought to my mind is, how can we be content in the face of tragedy? How can we be content when things are going all wrong or everything is hitting the fan or things are terrible?

And, the short answer is I’m not sure. I think back to my time when - goodness, well, when I was unemployed, for instance. That was a while ago now. I’m very fortunate for that. But, you know, during that situation, I had basically been let go from a job, and from there I wasn’t able to get anything. It was - goodness, it was like 2003, and it was - you know, the tech bubble had happened already and things were kind of almost on the upswing.

But for me it was really hard to see that, you know, something that lots of people experienced. Just knowing your subject and being very good at it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a job. That was a very hard place for me to be, especially as a younger person, too, because I still had a bit of that fearlessness and that hunger and, you know, I’m in my 20s and all that good stuff.

And, it was extremely hard for me to be content in those moments because, again, it was kind of like I was looking around. But I was mostly looking at the future and worrying about, well, how am I going to pay for stuff? And there were some things I wasn’t able to pay for, plain and simple. And I was also just worried about my well-being and how I was feeling. And I was glad that I had people around, especially my then-girlfriend, now-wife at the time, to help me with that.

And, I don’t think I ever got to a place of full contentment in those moments. I know that if I look back on it now, I can see why I should have felt that way. But I don’t know that I had the emotional maturity to do that at that point, or the wherewithal or experience or any of that.

So, that is where I really - that’s where I went when you mentioned all these not-so-great things happening. And, insofar as my own definition of contentment, yeah, you know, in talking this out and thinking about it a little more, there really is a sense of thankfulness because for me a moment of contentment, contentedness - I’m going to go with your word; that is a word - was recently - and I wrote about this, and you may have read it, about how after I was fortunate enough to give a talk at South by Southwest with my friend, Elysse Zarek, how that next day it was just an incredible feeling all day long, all day long.

I was in the state - and I know we talked during the day. I was in the state of bliss. And I just felt so very calm and very thankful and like everything was great. Everything in the world was totally great. And it wasn’t really directly because of my talk being done, although, you know, much like runner’s high there’s something like speaker’s high. When you're done, you’re just like, wow, it’s done. Great. And you just are relieved in some ways and just feel like you’re in a different place.

But it was more of this wonderment of the world, for goodness’ sake. It was that kind of curiosity and excitement and presence that I had not had maybe until that moment because I was preoccupied with other things. And I wonder how much of it then is really, again, focusing on the current moment versus being wound up on the future, which I know we’ve spoken about before. But it’s a natural place for, I think, both of us.

Whitney: I love that you used this word, “preoccupied,” because it’s a term that we all use. I think it’s part of our vocabulary. And yet only when you just said it did it occur to me what it really means - to be occupied prematurely, right? I mean, that’s what preoccupied is, like to be taken by something. That’s what occupied means. To be wrapped up, to be taken before it’s necessary to, before it’s appropriate to.

And it occurs to me that in that preoccupation, in that worrying about the talk that was coming up or worrying about the travel that you would need to get there or whatever it was that was in your mind at the time, those are the things that distract me coming up to a talk, that it has a way of putting a veil over what your actual emotions are because you aren’t experiencing yourself now. You’re experiencing this imagined future.

And, as you were saying, and I couldn’t help but wonder, is contentment something we are all always experiencing? That it’s not like happiness, where happiness is the opposite of sadness, perhaps, where it’s like a peak in emotion, and sadness is a peak in the other direction, a valley, so to speak.

But that contentment is almost like this flat line across everything. And it isn’t an emotion that can necessarily be felt with as much of an extreme. But that’s also the beauty of it. It’s just a calm, a cool presence where everything is just fine as it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. There is no judgment. It’s just A-OK.

And that maybe when we are preoccupied we are not in touch with just how content we really are because we aren’t living in ourselves now. And I think that there’s a connection that I’m making to how I’ve been feeling recently as I’m preparing for a presentation this week. It’s interesting the parallels.

Typically, when I’m getting ready to give a talk, not only am I working on my material. I am also eating everything in sight, not sleeping, beating myself up a million different ways because of what I haven’t done, how I haven’t prepared, who I’m not, who I’ll never be, all this negative self-talk, making myself very unhappy with food, and just generally putting myself into a tizzy prior to any talk.

And what ends up happening is that I then build up this horror situation for myself which by giving the talk is like a pressure valve that gets released. And then I come down and I feel amazing afterwards. It is a high. It’s like a hope for the best, expect the worst. I expect the worst imaginable. And then, after the talk, how could I not be satisfied, because at least I didn’t die onstage? I create such horrific scenarios, and I put myself in such a poor state.

And this talk is incredibly important to me. It’s a very special talk. It’s to a very special crowd. And it’s a presentation that I’ve been giving for a while, but I’ve revamped it to be more relevant to where I am right now. And I’m proud of myself for that.

All this is to say that I made a conscious decision to not do this to myself for this talk, that this talk felt too important to drive myself crazy over, funnily enough. I went in the opposite direction. And so, I have been eating well. I’ve been sleeping. I haven’t been over-preparing. I haven’t been talking to myself negatively, at least not to the extent that is typical.

And I have been in full appreciation mode, just relaxing and developing my contentment, because I figure that if I - regardless of what’s on the slides and if I have the deck prepared to the extent that I want it to be, if I cultivate contentment and calm in the days leading up to this talk, I will have brought so much more to this presentation than I ever have to any other presentation that I want to see how that plays out. I want to see what me being present and happy with myself and happy with the situation and appreciative of all the opportunities I have, what that will do to the quality of my work.

And so, there’s something that’s not extreme about contentment. And it might be that in my life emotionally I’ve craved the extremes because then it gives me like a safety net because life can never possibly feel that extreme. So, if I conjure up those emotions and it doesn’t reach that, well, at least it wasn’t that bad.

But, maybe there’s something to say for the middle ground or, as we’ve talked about before, the middle way. I’m wondering if you experience contentment as different than happiness in that way in terms of the extremes.

Paul: So, it would be great for me to just say no and that’s it. But the truth is, yes. I do experience it a little bit in that way. And with the way that I see it, I think I’m in line with your very strong visual of it instead of being peaks and valleys more of a steady line. One who lives on a boat might call it a horizon or something of the sort. But something that is there, and we can return to at any time. It is always there. It’s a constant. And if we need to veer away from that, that’s on us. It’s cool. But it’s still there.

And I almost see a degree of comfort in that, in that interpretation and in that idea that almost running parallel, if not the same as presence, that there is that sense of, again, I’ve got everything I need. And it’s not in an extreme way, because, for instance, I can’t imagine what an extreme case of contentment would look like. Like, what would that be? What would that really be if you’re extremely content?

I don’t see that as having a negative or positive quality on it. It’s just hard for me to really imagine because it’s such an even-keeled word. And what it means to, it sounds like, both of us is just so very at peace and very calm. It would be like showing - well, I guess extreme compassion is a thing, I suppose, and being, I guess, too compassionate.

But, can one really be too content? I mean, that seems to me to be outside my worldview. I just can’t - like, I really struggle with that. It’s like, sure, somebody could be too compassionate, I suppose, at the expense of their own well-being maybe. But, as far as contentment goes, if I feel things are going well or things simply are, I don’t see that as being a negative thing unless I suppose someone is turning off the negative things and not really looking at those in that same space as well.

I mean, if it’s really a middle way, then you’re going to be looking at the contentment and what keeps you content as well as the things that are, you know, not so great, but again not necessarily going to those extremes. So, I don’t see a place for extremes here.

Now, that all said, I find it terribly fascinating that in talking about talks, as we kind of do a lot now, we - you went to the place of, well, at least I didn’t die onstage or something like that. And, that to me was - you know, it was just this incredible idea to even consider. And now I’m going to have that in my head when I give a talk later this week. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

But really, but if you look at it, that is an extreme case. Like, that is the extreme case. That is it. I don’t think there is anything that’s more extreme than that, at least from our own personal experiences. So, that’s like on one end. And then on the other end you’ve got, I don’t even know what it would even be, like something where you’re, I don't know, ill-prepared or called a fraud or something like that.

I’m not going to say it for you. For me, that’s what I would put on kind of this other end, is that I go up and I’m seen as a total fraud, I suppose. But again that comes back to the preparation that goes into it and goes into the presence of mind that you have going into something in advance of it, during it and after it as well.

And I find it really intriguing as well that for your prep for this talk you’re not going to these places that you’re familiar with that you probably have done a lot of times before. I do that, too. And instead you’re saying, no. I’m going to be a little more present and content with what I’ve got now. And it sounds like a little like you’re still going to be prepared, of course. But it sounds like the planning part might have just a little less to do right now.

And I’m just kind of wondering where you put this sense of contentment versus presence, and also of course if there can be extreme contentment.

Whitney: Well, as you were talking about the impossibility of too much contentment, I think, yeah, when we talk about too much compassion or too much empathy, I think we mean because it’s at your own expense and then that’s not sustainable, so that is a problem. But then there’s too much contentment. I don’t know that it’s actually possible. But I think that the way we refer to it or the way most of us think of it is that too much contentment has a risk of becoming complacent.

And complacent is never something you want to be because it implies that things could be better if you cared. But you don’t really care and therefore are just going to accept things as they are. It’s a little ironic because accepting things as they are is one of the, you know, deepest values of my spiritual path in particular. And it’s something that I strive for.

And yet at the same time we have this word in our vocabulary, and it’s very much in our societal lexicon, that when you don’t care enough to try harder or to make things better for yourself, that’s a negative, that accepting things just as they are is complacent and therefore negative.

What’s interesting about this experience in particular is that I have always feared being complacent, not caring. I’ve feared just doing my best in the moment without putting much effort into it ahead of time and then regretting it because I in retrospect could have done so much more.

I guess I have operated under this refusal to feel like there was so much more I could do. I want to never feel like there was so much more I could do. And yet that’s something that I really can’t control because myself today cannot engineer myself tomorrow how I’m going to be feeling. As much as I like to think that I can, I can’t. I really can’t because there are so many external factors, so many things outside of me that impact my emotional state, and my very fleeting emotional state in any given moment, that it would be impossible for me to say if I do all of these things in this moment right now that I can guarantee that tomorrow or on Wednesday when I give this talk, when that’s done I won’t feel regret, because you never know.

I could be up there in the middle of the presentation and suddenly it occurs to me I should have included this thing, or I should have said that, or this didn’t land with this crowd the way that it landed with this other crowd. That stuff is largely outside of my control. And I think that I’ve really wanted to over-engineer the situation ahead of time to try to avoid any future negative feelings.

But what that’s done, ironically enough, is brought a lot of negative feelings into the situation with me because I’m being so hard on myself or I’m just walking on eggshells around my own situation. And, I realized very recently that that puts me in a situation where I have to prove something to myself in the moment. And it makes me adversarial to myself.

And, you’re right. It may very well happen that the crowd thinks I’m a fraud, that they have absolutely no interest in anything I’m saying, that they think I’m too elementary, that they know all of this already, that they don’t think I deserve to be there. All of that could happen. Now, it’s not likely that it’s going to be the whole crowd because the crowd is made up of individuals, and individuals have their own individual thoughts and feelings and opinions.

So, I think it would be fairly impossible to say the entirety of any crowd would feel any one way. But it’s possible that they will have a whole slew of emotions about me. But what I can guarantee is that I’m likely to be more fraudulent in the way I carry myself if I’m up there trying to prove something to me, trying to prove that I can overcome this extreme expectations that I’ve set for myself, or trying to prove that I’m not a fraud. That’s a quick way to being a fraud.

So, instead, I am trying to look behind me and see instead not what I have yet to achieve and what I worry that I’m not, but what I know that I am, everything I’ve done, everything I am, everything I have, my friendships, my relationship, my family, my work, my business. It’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, to tell you the truth, because, like I said, I’m very future-forward.

But, if I can bring all of that to bear when I step on the stage, perhaps I’ll have the presence of mind to be there in the moment with that crowd and say what needs to be said for them in that moment. And if something occurs to me in that moment because just energetically it came through me, totally out of my control, then maybe I’ll also have the presence of mind to speak to it and actually offer it forward for other people to experience rather than only chastise myself later because it occurred to me but it didn’t fit into this plan that I had and therefore I didn’t say it or I didn’t offer it or I didn’t even question it or say, oh, that’s interesting. You know, it just occurred to me.

I mean, why do we look so poorly upon being present with oneself and then having the presence to actually reflect on it in realtime while other people are observing? Why is that so wrong? And maybe if I feel good, and not great, not - good and content kind of seem similar to me, like they’re even. If I feel good in the moment when I get onstage rather than feeling like I’m about to have a heart attack, then I’ll just exude that, and maybe it’ll make other people feel good rather than making them feel a slew of other things they could possibly feel if I go up there and act like I have something to prove.

Paul: Yeah. You’ve said so much good stuff there. And the one big, big, big thing that I now have to carry with me is this idea of setting ourselves up to have something to prove. And how often do we do that with ourselves just kind of in general? We may take kind of this extreme approach where we’re in a situation and we feel it’s pass-fail.

And what happens if we fail? How do we feel about ourselves in that moment and afterwards? Do we beat ourselves up? Do we look at what we could have done but chose not to do, for whatever reason, in that moment? I mean, there are conversations that I had last week that I think about, and there are points that I wanted to make in presentations and discussions with people and stuff like that. I think about it afterwards. It’s like, oh my gosh. I totally forgot. This is the big thing that I really wanted to get across. Totally forget it.

And, my initial reaction is, as you heard, kind of that exasperated and a little disappointed feeling of, wow, I missed that. But, instead, maybe another way to reframe that and just consider it is that the conversation still happened. I still said what I really needed to say in that moment. And the things that were most important did come out because I had enough presence in that moment to know what was important to say and what was important to do and how it was important to be there with that particular discussion.

And so, there were some things that I might have prepared for that didn’t happen. That’s OK. There were some things that, you know, ended up showing up that I really gave some play and time to. And that needed to be a little more important. And so, what I’m hearing in all of this is that really when it comes to contentment it is not just this sense of everything being OK in a moment, although that’s a big part of it, but also looking at how we navigate our day-to-day and how we are and how we act and not necessarily being in this “want-want-want” or “here’s what’s wrong” type of mentality.

Whitney: I love that. It so relates to our conversation on compassion and how in order to really be able to give that to others we have to have it for ourselves. It sounds like you’re saying something very similar, that it’s just a matter of - not just. It’s truly a matter of being OK with ourselves and having the compassion to acknowledge that and be with that and allow for non-judgment.

Paul: Exactly.

Whitney: I love it.

Paul: Me, too. And this has been a fantastic chat once again.

Whitney: Thank you so much, Paul. I look forward to our next discussion.

Paul: I do as well. Thanks, Whitney.

Whitney: Bye.

Paul: Bye.