There’s an old story of four boys who discovered an old lamp. After rubbing off some of the dirt, a genie popped out … but this was no ordinary genie. “I know what you’re thinking,” said the genie. “Now that you have called me from inside the lamp, you each expect to be granted three wishes. However, I am a special genie – I study spirituality in my spare time, and so I shall only grant a single wish to the one who comes up with the best one.
The first boy, in an effort to make a profound wish, told the genie, “I wish for ten million dollars. That way, I can enjoy life without desiring more, and will never have to worry. Also, I’m not being greedy – I could’ve asked for more.”
The second boy, catching the genie’s bemused look at the first, decided to go one better. He said, “I wish for one billion dollars. That way, I’ll have enough money to enjoy life forever, and I’ll certainly never have to want for anything.
“Plus, I’ll give a large amount away to people who are poor and much less fortunate than I, and so more people will come to benefit from my wish. I’m sure a genie with your sense of compassion will see that this is the better wish.”
Shaking his head at his friends’ attempts to pander to the genie, the third boy thought it would be best to adopt a more realistic approach as he delivered his wish.
Dismissing the previous wishes, he told the genie, “Don’t listen to them – they’re just really thinking of themselves. I wish to be the owner of Facebook! That way, I’ll be able to have enough money for myself, but I’ll need to keep working hard in order to keep my wealth.
“Because of me, more people will have jobs, which means more families will have roofs over their heads and plenty of food. Give me the wish, genie – I’ll even give you shares at a discounted price!”
After listening to the three friends, the genie turned to the fourth, “And what about you? You’ve been very quiet this whole time, what would you wish for?”
Stepping forward, the bashful boy replied, “Well, genie, those other wishes are very good – I don’t think I can compete with any of them. If I could have one wish, I would wish that I could be so contented with life that I didn’t feel the need to make any wish at all.”
This story reminds me of an insight offered by the Buddhist abbot Ajahn Amaro. He was delivering a talk at Amaravati monastery in London as he spoke about the “just one more” mind-set. Through an interesting thought experiment, he asked the people gathered to get comfortable, take a few deep breaths, and try to relax into a particular moment when we felt most at peace.
After a few moments, he said, “You tend to find that, as soon as the mind’s at peace, only a few seconds pass before it feels agitated again and needs to get up to something. This is where meditation can help, to focus the mind; to become calmer, more present, and be content with the way things are without needing to change them.”
After the talk, I recall chatting with one of the monks and asking how people could expect to make any progress if they were being encouraged to accept everything the way it is. He replied, “It’s not that striving is unhelpful, but how often do you think about what you strive for, and whether its purpose is helpful or harmful? We also need to consider our excessive striving – in many people, it’s never ending and causes much suffering, and they wonder why they are never at peace with themselves.”
Often, our minds are addicted to striving, and we believe that we’ll be happier after “just one more” of some thing or other. Whether it be just one more promotion, just one more car, just one more relationship, or just one more cookie, the striving never ends. As a result, neither does our sense of dissatisfaction. We remain in a continual state of wanting, of feeling that our lives are “not enough” – in always pushing for more, we are never content.
In today’s world, the notion of being content seems counterintuitive, as though by feeling content we’re somehow resigning ourselves to mediocrity and, therefore, realising less of our potential than we otherwise could. However, it’s not that we should stop pushing ourselves or trying to make progress.
But we should begin from a place of contentment – of feeling and appreciating that what we have is already enough. In turn, we’ll surely be able to use that appreciation in a way that informs the kind of striving that’s purposeful and substantial, rather than constantly chasing empty pursuits that leave us with the feeling of always wanting just one more.