Mental Discontents

Monday June 12, 2006


Once, when I started out practising meditation, I had the idea that this practice should lead to some kind of continual happiness, a freedom from mental discontent. But as time has gone past, it has become increasingly apparent to me that this view is mistaken. It isn’t just that I myself have been somehow inept in my practice of the dharma, for when I look at my fellow practitioners, none of them seem to be free of mental discontent either. It’s tempting to ask: what’s gone wrong? Is this whole Buddhist malarkey a hoax?

I don’t think so, because I think that the idea of the complete elimination of discontent is little more than a romantic myth. The various human practices we engage in can radically diminish our mental discontents, but I do not think that they can eradicate them. It is the same as with bodily discontents. If we drink a bottle of vodka between seven and ten o’ clock in the evening, we can be fairly sure that we will experience bodily discontent the following morning. Cutting out the vodka will cut out that particular kind of discontent. But this is not to say that we can be entirely free of bodily discontents by altering our habits. So with mental discontents: we can do things to minimise them – mental discontents arise out of a mass of conditions, some of which we can alter – but we cannot get rid of them altogether.

It seems to me that it is not the discontent itself that is the problem so much as the response to the discontent: a move from what might be called the affective realm to the ethical realm. There is in this something of what in cybernetics they call a feedback loop and in Buddhism they call samsara: I am experiencing mental discontent (affective state); I respond with ill-will (ethical response); which leads to further mental discontent (affective state). And round and round we go, folks! Yuk! I always used to throw up on fairground rides… Stop the wheel! I want to get off!

I suspect that separating the discontent from the response is helpful, because it frees us from feeling that we should be without this discontent, and it simply allows us to respond to the fact that there is discontent there in our experience, whilst also permitting us to acknowledge that discontent is not the entire story either and that there are also the experiences of ease and pleasure, even alongside the worst of discontents. The four efforts for cultivating a positive mind give a pragmatic outline of the things that need to be done – and they all focus upon the ethical response to discontent rather than the affective experience of discontent itself:

  1. Not to let an unwholesome-unskilful thought arise, which has not yet arisen ( Guarding )
  2. Not to let an unwholesome-unskilful thought continue, which has already arisen ( Abandonment )
  3. To make a wholesome-skilful thought arise, which has not yet arisen ( Development )
  4. To make a wholesome-skilful thought continue, which has already arisen ( Sustaining )

I should come clean and confess that the reason I’m reflecting upon this at all is because I have been feeling decidedly discontented recently. This discontent – with its many causes and conditions, both seen and unseen – has resolved into that most unpleasant of miasmic curses, a bad mood, which has lingered about me for several days. But a bad mood is an unpleasant thing, and this afternoon I became bored of snarling to myself. So I went outside into the glorious sunshine, taking my meditation cushions with me, installed myself in a nook by the shed where I would be in the least danger of alarming the neighbours, and sat down to meditate. Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat – who since the sun came out a week ago has been ambling round in a state of near-bliss, purring happily – came and curled up beside me and fell asleep (not much evidence of discontent there, the lucky sod…).

Whilst I sat and meditated in the afternoon sun, I began to notice that this supposed “bad mood” was itself something changing, fleeting, in constant flux, ebbing and flowing, and that it had both active – ethical, if you like – and passive – dimensions. What made up the bad mood was not just the discontent, but the multitude of actively unskilful responses to it. But I also noticed that when I relinquished my hold upon this state of mind, it appeared to be only a tiny part of the astonishing experience, of sitting there quietly in the afternoon sun on an ordinary afternoon somewhere to the west of Birmingham.

I’m not saying that after I got up from my cushions everything was sweetness and light. I will not pretend that my discontent has vanished away. It hasn’t. But as I look at Bodhicattva who is lying beside me as I write this, blissed out and half-asleep, at least I can now do so without envy or resentment…


# · Abe

That was very insightful. Thank you for sharing.

# · Gareth

Hi Will

Thanks for posting this. I think its important to realise that it’s not all bliss and rainbow lights…as I first imagined it might be when I started practicing a few years ago. A little disappointing? Perhaps.

What we get instead is a lot more space to explore things, and to see things as they really are, or at least to see a little clearer…that your bad mood was in constant flux, a series of responses to itself – for example.

Of course – I still find it far too easy to get caught up in the discontent, and give it far more existence than it really has…

I think the trick is to have a more disciplined sitting schedule. The practice of letting things come and go – that’s where I find the space and the clarity comes from. Anyway I seem to have written far to long a reply. Thanks again for writing this. As Abe said, very indightfull

Best Wishes

# · Jonah

Thanks for this article.
I once believed that by ‘practising Buddhism’ my discontent would go away. After all, is that not what it said on the Buddhist tin?

The discontent did not go away, but surely it could only be because I was not practising in the right way? Thus, I learned to be discontented with my practice.

I have now accepted that discontent is likely to be ever present, but it now sits alongside all the positive things that practice has brought about.

# · Sam

I always like your honesty and willingness to put it all here Will! American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck would say that to truly experience, or rather to BE the discontent, to ‘walk the razor’s edge’... is itself, joy. That all sounds very nice, but its very difficult to do; to experience the basic physical contraction underlying what we call “bad mood”. We want to think and fantasise and figure everything out.

I do think that with intense, intelligent, committed practice of this kind, it is possible to open up to a life of more joy, more compassion. My feeling is that very few people are really prepared to do a difficult, painful practice with their uncomfortable emotions. I’m not sure I am.

# · Sam

Some more thoughts…. “Discontent” surely has much to do with TIME. “Discontent” can only exist in time. In “the timeless Now”, as I think Eckhart Tolle describes it, there is what? Sensory input? That’s about all you can say about it. What would it be like to live fully in this Now? How many people really do that??

From what I have read, I have come to the conclusion that there is indeed an “enlightenment experience”, Satori. And it does happen to plenty of people (though they’re not necessarily Buddhists and it is not necessarily called Satori). As for ‘complete’ enlightenment, well who knows?

# · Will

Hello folks and thanks for the comments. I like your candour, Sam: My feeling is that very few people are really prepared to do a difficult, painful practice with their uncomfortable emotions. I’m not sure I am. I’m not sure I am either, at least not all the time, although when the conditions are right, it can be exhilarating…

I’m sure that discontent does have much to do with time. But not entirely. There is also simple discontent – unpleasant feelings (mental or physical) that arise here and now.

I’m sure you are right about disciplined sitting, Gareth. You just do it. Sometimes there is discontent, sometimes happiness, sometimes distraction… but you just continue to sit…

Best wishes,


# · Nacho

Good post Will. I agree wholeheartedly and would like more people who identify as Buddhists to really ponder this deeply. We fetishize the practice when we believe it is all about transcendence and finding a happy, blissful state, where no suffering exists.

And, Oh, do I know a bunch of mental discontents! : ) Well, yeah, I do know myself.

Sometimes it is not about being able or willing to face life’s difficults moments, or our difficult emotions. It is often about having to, because one reaches a place where not facing them is much more damaging and hurtful. This might happen when one is ready for it, or when there is just no escape. The choice is ours, but sometimes conditions are just so.

Thanks Will,


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