Consolation Comfort Contentment
These three words—consolation, comfort, and contentment—do not frequently appear as part of the conventional language of Zen practice. Zen is more often seen as confrontational rather than consoling. Being attached to comfort is often named quite specifically as a barrier to meeting “life as it is,” and contentment is sometimes used as a description of loss of commitment or vitality in Zen practice. Yet, we all long to feel consoled by someone we trust, to be comforted in their warm embrace, and to rest in the contentment of safe harbor. These are wholesome human longings of the heart and the freedom that emerges through Zen practice does open us to these universal, peaceful-filled qualities. If this were not the case, I am not sure how I could have continued this practice for so many years.
As I was reflecting on my own powerful and painful longings for consolation, comfort, and contentment over the past few months, I happened to be listening to an interview with Norman Fischer (Everyday Zen: Changing and Bring Changed by the World) posted in the archives of The New School at Commonweal hosted by its founder, Michael Lerner. Norman spoke about how he had come to create his own versions of the Psalms, first as part of his personal practice and then as something to share with others. He quoted the well known 23rd Psalm in the interview and I was stunned to find it touching precisely those tender places I was yearning to be touched. I remembered that I owned a copy of Norman’s volume of Zen-inspired translations of the Psalms, Opening to You, so I took the slim volume from my bookshelf and began reading these ancient and complicated poems. Here is Norman’s version of Psalm 23:
Norman Fischer translation
You are my shepherd, I am content
You lead me to rest in the sweet grasses
To lie down by the quiet waters
And I am refreshed
You lead me down the right path
The path that unwinds in the pattern of your name
And even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will not fear
For you are with me
Comforting me with your rod and your staff
Showing me each step
You prepare a table for me
In the midst of my adversity
And moisten my head with oil
Surely my cup is overflowing
And goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life
And in the long days beyond
I will always live in your house
There is much more in the Inquiry recording, but here are a few notes and reflections.
The dictionary tells us that Consolation is “to offer comfort to someone in distress.” Spiritual friendship is a powerful source of consolation, but a kind of consolation that does not say, “Everything is going to be OK.” Instead, it is a consolation that suggests that “Everything will be what it will be, and we will be OK—together. I will be with you, and you with me, as we meet what comes with care.”
Contentment is “a state of peaceful happiness; not wishing for more.” Softening our continual grasping for more is at the core of Buddhist practice. But contentment is not just refusing what we want, it is a more positive embrace of what is possible. “I will be OK no matter what. I will not abandon myself and I will not abandon you. I am content knowing I will be OK no matter what.”
To offer Comfort is “to ease distress or suffering.” This is at the very heart of the Buddha’s practice. Understanding suffering and easing the distress of unnecessary suffering is the primary fruit of practice. To be free of distress or unnecessary suffering can be thought of as nirvanic moments. When we are free from the constraints of conditioning and not caught in reactivity shaped by conditioning, then we are free. The deepest understanding of this freedom tells us, “I am never apart from you.” Who is this “I” that is always on our side, that is always with us? Big Mind, Buddha Nature, Boundlessness, Universal Consciousness, or a deity (God)—all fit as responses to this question.
Investigate your own longing. Share your vulnerable longings with those you trust. Listen to the longings of others. Offer consolation and comfort to others and realize the deep contentment that opens in its own between you and a friend. Discover the path that unwinds as we open to each other.