Contentment vs. Passion

Aspire versus Desire

Is it possible to be simultaneously content and passionate about something?

By content, I mean in the Buddhist sense of acceptance of the present moment.

By passionate, I mean wanting something more, and feeling strongly about it.

It’s something I wrestle with.

One of the core teachings of Buddhism is the importance of accepting that which is out of your control. Getting upset, or depressed, or angry, or who-knows-what because of something you can do nothing about just doesn’t help. There are those who would say it’s pointless to even pay attention to it. You should instead focus on what is within reach: the present moment, what’s in your control, and your life as it is right now.

Yeah. No. I’m not that great at it either. I see the value, but when you have empathy, or care about something, it’s difficult to not feel something.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that wanting anything other than the present moment — how things are right here, right now — is bad. It feels very much like an argument for doing nothing at all, ever, other than meditating and “accepting” 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Some time ago a friend pointed out there’s a difference between “desire” (in Buddhism, the root cause of suffering), and to “aspire”. Much of the discussion of the philosophy seems to center on avoiding desire to reduce suffering.

I look at the difference as this:

  • Desire: wanting things that are out of your control. “By desire, Buddhists refer to craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be satisfied.”1
  • Aspire: wanting things that are not only in your control, but things that make you a better person, or the world a better place.

Desire is often inward-focused. Aspiration is often outward.

“I’m happy with what I am, but I aspire to be more” seems contradictory. If you’re happy with what you are, then why want more? Well, I can be happy with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but having an additional scoop of rocky road would sure be nice. I can accept my life as it is, but still take steps to make things “better”, for some definition of better.

If it’s within your control, you have the option to act on it. You can move closer to your aspiration. If it’s not, oh well. You can accept that as well. Accepting the present doesn’t mean ignoring the future. It simply means understanding what is and is not in our control, accepting where we are, and then building on that to move forward.

The word “contentment” is problematic because it implies a lack of even aspiration. It implies you’re done. That’s a misnomer. I can be content and happy, even, but I can still aspire to more. I can even be passionate about that “more”. Being content means I’m in a good place. Being passionate about something that remains in my control gives me purpose and direction.

I aspire to make the world a better place. I aspire to inspire others.

And that’s something I can be passionate about, which might even further those aspirations.

1) “The Basics of Buddhism” – PBS