how to be satisfied

May 19th, 2015

il_fullxfull-152079237One day in a Lutheran church in Texas, a miracle happened.

I had taken my baby daughter on a trip to see my mother, a trip carefully timed for one of the rare “good weeks” during a punishing course of chemotherapy. At seven months old, my daughter would be baptized. The faith was not my own; it was not my husband’s. All things considered, that mattered not one whit. The baptism was a gift. But it was not the miracle.

During the middle of the service, I took my restless girl into the church nursery. There, bobbling in the middle of the room was a contraption known to cognoscenti as a baby saucer. This was not the kind of thing that would ever land on my wish list. I thought they were hideous and huge, and I could not imagine giving up half of my living room to yet another baby thing, especially one combining all the crude amusements of a video arcade: garish colors, spinning balls, whizzers and bells. Then the miracle happened: Georgia liked it. I thought to myself: Hallelujah! I want to make her happy.

Home again, I went straight away to Sears and charged the $60 model. I impressed upon my husband the urgency of assembling it that night. He did; we rearranged the furniture.

She never willingly sat in it again. Oh, I’m sure there was a time or two. In a pinch, I would plop her there for the half-second before her screaming began. I thought: Maybe I should get the $99 one.

This was my first experience with the rule called Other People’s Toys. The emphasis is on the “other.” You like them precisely because they are not yours. The corollary to this rule is Other People’s Kids, precocious and polite, who make you think: Why can’t my kid be more like that?

We held onto the baby saucer for a while and then priced it to sell at a garage sale. I hope it delivered hours and hours of saucer happiness and satisfaction to generations of families thereafter. For me, it was the beginning of an up-close analysis of human desire as expressed by Georgia. What I saw was that her desires were spontaneous, impermanent and never-ending. Just because she wanted something now only meant that she wanted something now. Desires change. Satisfaction eludes. That’s what it means to be human, with infinite, insatiable desires. It’s not about the saucer! It did start me thinking: I want to have a separate playroom.

I tried to keep the big picture in mind when we went to Other People’s Houses and played with Other People’s Kids and Other People’s Toys. I’d see Georgia clutch something, somebody else’s something, with the fervor of new car fever. I didn’t have to buy it. She didn’t have to own it. It would probably never come up again. Desire comes up again and again, you see, not the momentary object of desire. Still, I thought: I wish she could learn to share.

This lesson took full form when she was slightly older and we’d leapt over that high-minded wall to watching children’s TV. The commercial kind. I would shudder as the hard sell washed over us in waves, gasping as my daughter pointed to every plastic, pink and shiny thing, “I want that. I want that. I want that. I want that.” She was, in her plaintive and almost irresistible way, giving voice to innumerable human desires. It wasn’t about the Barbie Color Curls Styling Head! Thank God, I thought, I want her to have classic old-fashioned wooden educational toys handmade from centuries-old patterns by artisans in remote Oregon workshops.

Inexhaustible desires are the silent subtext to our whole lives, including life as a parent. I want, I want, I want. We spend nearly every minute wanting things to be a little bit different, a little bit better. Even now reading this, you might be thinking defensively: But I only want what’s best.

We call it wanting the “best.” We say we want “advantages” for our children. We say we are “enriching” their environment and “exposing” them to more “opportunities.” That’s all well and good, but what do we mean when we say that? Do we mean that we want them to turn out smarter? More talented? More popular? More attractive? More admired? More successful? More accomplished? With more status and money? Yes! We mean all that and more! To what end? To serve whom? To serve ourselves? So we can be satisfied? We won’t be satisfied then unless we know how to be satisfied now.

We all have seen these kinds of parents: anxious for their kids to catch on, catch up, move on, move up, be first in line, be next in line, be ahead of the curve, be better, have it all. We all have seen these kinds of kids: bombarded with the best, assaulted with all the advantages, hustled from one opportunity to the next, overdosed on exposure, starving on enrichment, and haunted by the endless dissatisfactions of their parents.

I have seen these kinds of parents; I have seen that I am one.

And sometimes, only rarely, I see beyond my ravenous appetites to realize that all my needs are already met. I have the opportunity to gently remind myself that desires are inexhaustible, and vow once again to put an end to them. To fulfill that vow, I have the advantage of hearing Buddha’s teaching: Want little, and know how to be satisfied. And I should know how to be satisfied, because I have already been given the most precise and effective means to enrich my life: by not adding one thing to it! Not one more wish, not one more want, not one more thought. I can let desires, as they will, come up; and I can let them, as they will, go away, providing I don’t chase them all the way to Sears for the higher-priced model. I can trust that everything my family truly needs – every opportunity my daughter needs to fulfill herself – is already present and will be. Satisfaction is never the future outcome of some hoped-for event. Satisfaction always lies right where you are.

It is the things we don’t have, after all, that are truly educational. They teach us the a life-altering lesson: to see the chains of our dissatisfaction and how simple it is to step free. What a priceless gift to the ones we love.


Excerpted from Momma Zen ©2006 by Karen Maezen Miller.

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  1. You’ve done it again: shone a light on my mother, and on me. I want my life to be different, and I want it now. My mother, at 98, craves the sweets she sees in the bakery case and buys way too much. It all eventually goes into the trash because “it’s too sweet,” or too this or not enough that. Another way the old-old are like the young-young. Thank you for again helping me understand.

    Comment by Gretchen Staebler — May 19, 2015 @ 8:34 am

  2. You are both practicing letting go of what you thought you wanted.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — May 19, 2015 @ 9:27 am

  3. I believe that when my kids were small, I saw the “desire” not so much as a need to possess, as it was a need to explore and learn. Once my kids had gotten what they needed to know from a toy, be it theirs or someone else’s, its use to them and interest for them was over.

    My daughter often takes my grandkids to play at Target with this idea in mind. Things are to play with and explore. Possessing them isn’t always necessary.

    Comment by Laura — May 19, 2015 @ 9:45 am

  4. Oh, Maezen! Thank you for this. Mateo is a junior in high school at an amazing private school. We are at the beginning of all of the college angst: test prep? Summer internship? College tours? More test prep?

    He is on full scholarship (thank goodness), and many of his classmates come from wealthy families. We can’t take two weeks and go back East to look at colleges. I can’t give him private tutors…but you’re right. We both have all we need.

    Love, Robin

    Comment by Robin — May 19, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

  5. “That’s what it means to be human, with infinite, insatiable desires. It’s not about the saucer! ….. Desire comes up again and again, you see, not the momentary object of desire.”

    Thank you for reminding me of this beautiful piece you wrote on the topic of desire. You have a way of bring the truths right home, pun intended! 🙂

    Comment by Edith — May 20, 2015 @ 12:37 am

  6. Brava! There can never be too many reminders that “every opportunity my daughter needs to fulfill herself – is already present and will be” since of course “I have seen these kinds of parents; I have seen that I am one.” Thank you, again.

    Comment by Aparna — May 20, 2015 @ 4:11 am

  7. Thank you for your wisdom (once again). This is exactly what I needed to read while I try to help my daughter choose the ‘perfect’ dress for her school’s leavers’ dinner.
    ‘We spend nearly every minute wanting things to be a little bit different, a little bit better’
    ‘how simple it is to step free.’
    Thank you:)

    Comment by arti — May 20, 2015 @ 9:38 pm

  8. Beautiful.
    We have a saying over here: “If it’s not in them you won’t get it out (of them).”
    Have a wonderful day!

    Comment by Simone — May 21, 2015 @ 12:36 am

  9. […] Zen Buddhist priest, who inspires me and whose posts I have often quoted here—wrote in a recent post, excerpted from her book Momma Zen: “Inexhaustible, insatiable desires are the silent subtext […]

    Pingback by Extreme Caregiving 8: Learning to Be Satisfied | Daughter on Duty — May 27, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

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