‘Knowledge is full of labour, but love is full of rest.’
From The Cloud of Unknowing
Imagine writing a song for every emotion you experience during the day. How many different songs would you need to compose? Would it be the same song repeated on an endless loop, or would you be flitting from one song to the next, like a preview sampler across all styles and moods? Would the feelings expressed in the songs be complex – bittersweet, a melancholy happiness, restless contentment – or would they be straight-forward – now I’m happy, sad, excited, calm?
Our emotions might seem random and vast, like an endless array of colours and possibilities, but can actually be grouped into three basic emotional systems, as Paul Gilbert describes in his wonderful book ‘Mindful Compassion’ (co-written with Choden):
- The threat and self-protection system
- The drive and resource-seeking system
- The soothing and affiliation system.
We’re all pretty familiar with the self-protection system of fight/flight, which activates the stress response. Most of us are also used to living much of our lives in the drive system, constantly striving to achieve more and more. The point about the model is that all three systems are important – we certainly need to protect ourselves, and without drive we’d just stay in bed in the morning and hope that someone will be kind enough to bring us a cup of tea and some toast at some point. However, all three systems need to be in balance, and in our hectic modern lifestyle, the soothing and affiliation system can easily miss out. And yet this is the system which promotes deep contentment, where we can feel most deeply ourselves, where we can rest in the simplicity of being present rather than getting caught up in chasing endlessly moving goal posts.
Although we all strive for happiness, I often find contentment a more useful concept to think about. It is more stable than happiness, less dependent on external triggers. There are times when I’m a little melancholic or anxious, but still deeply content. Like a beautiful Baroque Adagio, which can be yearning, complex, sad, yet still leaves us calm and at peace when we listen to it, so contentment can help us feel in the deepest sense ourselves. It is at the core of us, when we slow down and allow ourselves to be. Contentment is the state we touch more and more during meditation, and which over time infuses the rest of our lives. It balances the fight/flight and drive systems, without diminishing their importance in our lives.
A baby which grows up in a loving household learns from its caregivers to regulate its own emotional states through self-soothing. But even if we didn’t learn these skills in childhood, we can still develop them as adults – through learning practices which activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the resting and regenerating state); through our relationships with other people; and through an understanding that our three systems need to be in balance, even if this doesn’t seem to suit the dominant paradigm of our consumerist culture. Meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, prayer, gardening, walking, listening to music, playing with pets, holding a sleeping child, cooking with love – all these can help to ground us, to bring us back to ourselves. Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to bring with it a long list of benefits, which are all excellent, but essentially they all come down to just one factor – mindfulness meditation helps us self-regulate and balance our three emotional systems, so we live in greater harmony with ourselves and the world around us.
Weekly practice idea:
Find a piece of music which evokes feelings of contentment, and set aside a quiet time when you can listen to it – perhaps lying on the couch with the phone turned off, or with headphones in a park if your home is very busy. Allow your muscles to relax, and your breath to slow with the music. Over the coming months, come back to this piece of music from time to time when life gets overly hectic.