On Happiness (or is it Contentment?) and Freedom

I guess I had a couple of objectives in taking this big trip. I sort of defined them in advance. From a previous blog post:

“One [goal] is to feel free, unencumbered, exhilarated. It’s good exercise for the soul and it’s lacking in my life here.”

I may have written to some of you when I realized I had discovered Happiness on this trip. As a reminder, it was September 22 and I was leaving Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I boarded the train bound for Beijing and found my berth–a four-compartment arrangement with three Swedish men as bunkmates. I settled into top bunk and arranged my gear. It was 7 a.m. I pulled out a packet of instant coffee, fished out my pink plastic mug that I carry around, scrambled down to the samovar for some hot water, and climbed back up. I took a sip of the putrid, boiling hot liquid and felt a surge–maybe it was my insides being burned, or maybe it was the realization that I had never felt happier. The self-sufficiency, the efficiency, the mobility–I love it all and at that moment it all made perfect sense. I was happy.

Or was I? I’ve revisited that thought and that moment many times. I’ve written about it in my journal. And every time I wrote it, another word popped into the back of my head: Content. Not happy. Not NOT happy, just not HAPPY. Content, instead. In fact, contentment IS a better word for that feeling, and I think the feeling may be more desireable, since it’s likely to be more lasting. I was turning this over in my head when I came across a quote at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore, attributed to Shi Fa Zhao: “Desire brings suffering, whereas contentment is a form of happiness.”

AHA! I thought. That’s exactly it: It wasn’t the bliss associated with happiness that I felt, but rather the peace associated with contentment. But call it what you like: It was a complete moment, scalded esophagus and all.

About a week ago, I might not have been able to distinguish totally between happiness and freedom. I guess I’d had a few working definitions of “freedom.” But on my last day in Bali, I felt that free, unencumbered, exhilarated rush I’d been searching for. I’ve had a few very high moments on this trip so far, but this one topped them all. It was my last day in Bali and I took out my scooter for one last cruise around the peninsula before heading back to the crowds up north for my flight tomorrow. Caralyn had gone, Emily didn’t feel well, and so I was alone. I didn’t really know where I was heading, but that was the fun of it. I traced familiar roads along the coast and finally inland, starting in Uluwatu and finding Pecatu. Then I headed towards busy Jimbaran, a developed area. I weaved in and out of traffic, feeling the warm air rush past me and the hot sun on my shoulders. Then I got sick of being on major roads, so I took a random left turn. And another. And then a right. And a left. And right, left, whatever. And eventually I ended up at the coast–a stunning spit of white sand beach, completely deserted. And on the cliff above, a temple sending waves of incense smoke to the beach below. It was magical. I stayed for about half an hour. I got back on the bike, checked the gas gauge and realized I should head back.

I tried–really, I did. But I got a bit lost, since I hadn’t really paid any attention to where I had originally turned. So then I had another adventure, finding a suburb of expensive homes occupied by what I assume are the Indonesian elite, dirt paths leading to banana plantations, and hidden temples everywhere–all the while honking around turns, veering around chickens and dogs and struggling to keep my eyes on the road, when so much beauty surrounding me. Gas was low, so I stopped on the side of the road and bought a glass litre jar of petrol from a wizened old man. I popped the seat up, dumped in the fuel, and took off, 75 cents poorer. The adventure continued for another hour before I reluctantly tapped into my sense of direction and found the main road back to Uluwatu. On the final stretch of gentle hills, I sped up, going much, much faster than someone who learned to drive that thing two days ago should be allowed to go. But it felt great. I returned the bike, tossed the keys to the owner and said goodbye to my motorized blue piece of freedom.

Petrol for sale in Bali

So, freedom-loving friends, that’s it. Freedom is a motorbike in Bali on a sunny day. I guess it’s not terribly creative, but it was real. The funny thing was, I didn’t necessarily feel happy–just free. I gave it some thought while I was riding. Happiness was a neutral thought, not positive or negative. And I didn’t even want to stay in Bali longer to continue being free–feeling it today felt like enough, and it was indeed good exercise for the soul. And, naturally, the bike in Bali isn’t the only place we can find happiness. But its not a bad place to start looking.

Freedom is a motorbike in Bali on a sunny day


3 responses to “On Happiness (or is it Contentment?) and Freedom

  1. Oh boy, look out, next comes a Harley!

  2. Shi Fa Zhao would be confounded by you. Or at least he would have to modify is claim that “desire brings suffering, whereas contentment is a form of happiness.” This entire trip was fueled by fierce desire — to climb things and eat things, tell jokes to strangers and sleep on their couches, and discover new parts of yourself. You called it wanderlust. It certainly wasn’t contentment that drove you up Mt. Everest in winter. Yet at your most lustily wandering moment — on a train, no less — you found contentment. So you tell me what desire brings.

  3. Gabe–fair enough. But desire brought me suffering on Everest! (Does he mean that kind of suffering?) I guess it’s desire that brought me to the high highs, but also the low lows. And somewhere in the middle there are just moments of normalness, where the contentment is. So maybe it’s not connected at all, totally random, and desire brings pad thai but also TD, and contentment comes from a pink plastic mug and one night where the Swedes aren’t hooking up in top bunk above me. But to say that the desire to travel brought contentment seems like a bit of a stretch. The desire was to go have a range of experiences, and contentment was one of them. And my hope is that I’ll come home and live a reasonably normal life, with contentment as the main character, having had high highs and low lows and now just being happy where I end up. Who knows. I’ll keep trying to figure it out and report back. xo.

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