For most of us, when we think of contentment, we picture something like a beach, a cozy cabin, a warm fire, being surrounded by loved ones, or completely alone, but the idea is the same. We have our feet up, no worries, everything is peaceful and perfect. It is then we finally find contentment. Is this even realistic? Is that even what contentment is?
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines contentment (Santosha) as: “the ability to be comfortable with what we have and what we do not have.”
This suggests that we need to try and find contentment when things AREN’T peaceful, perfect, and exactly how we want them to be. Does that mean we can’t have goals? Does it mean we don’t have work to make changes in our lives and in the rest of the world? Absolutely NOT.
Have you found yourself in a situation that you didn’t like? A job (or no job), a marriage (or no marriage), or any other situation that did not fulfill the dreams you had for your life? It could be anything at all that wasn’t quite right. Maybe you would like to make more money, meet a nice guy/gal, go back to school or even have a better wardrobe. Or it could be something big such as dealing with an abusive relationship, the war in the Middle East, starving children… you get the picture. All of these are reasons for action, for CHANGE. The desire to change comes from not being satisfied with the status quo, but that doesn’t mean you have to forgo contentment.
The real key to contentment is in the attachment to the outcome. When we decide to take action, most of the time we also have expectations of how things will turn out but in reality, that is out of our control. We can desire the change, do the work and have NOTHING happen. So the real work is letting go of the outcome and to try being content with what is.
I say try because I’m no expert. I am writing this as someone who struggles daily, no hourly, even minute by minute some days with this idea of contentment. If my house is a mess, I don’t have enough money for vacation, or I can’t quite master that damn handstand without a wall, I find myself reacting with strong emotions, usually anger and frustration. I find myself stuck in those emotions when I am reacting to something that is only a fleeting experience. I can hear the voice in my head say things like, “When this house is cleaned up, then I’ll be happy.” “When we can take a vacation, then we’ll be content.” “When I master my handstand, then I’ll be satisfied and complete.” Are any of these true? No, of course not. My house will get messy again, we will come home from vacation and I will find another pose I want to master. The cycle will continue.
Instead of reacting to things when I’m not happy with my life, what if I could stay present in my body and just enjoy the moment? My house is messy because my kids are home with me and they are happy and playing. It will get clean or not. I don’t have to be angry about it, I can accept it, clean it, and move on. If/when the vacation comes, I can enjoy the new experience, the time with my family and the change of scenery. If it doesn’t come, I can continue to enjoy each minute, hour, and day of my life. Or I can choose to think so much about a vacation I don’t have that I’m miserable even when everything at my home is absolutely divine.
There are two things that come to mind when I think about cultivating contentment. One is staying present. When we stay firmly in the present moment, connected to our body and the Divine, the things going on around us have less power over us. The other is gratitude. Staying in gratitude helps us to look at each situation as a potential for learning and growth, so even when it is something unpleasant that we wish to change, we can still see that there is something there for us.
Although, what about those life situations when the s#!t really hits the fan? What about when you go through bankruptcy, divorce, or even death of a loved one? How do you find contentment in those times? Is it even possible?
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that yes, I think it is. Have I experienced it? Only in the briefest of glimpses. I haven’t been through any of the examples above but I have had my own fair share of money worries, marriage issues, minor illnesses and injuries. In those times, I have had varying periods of contentment and a complete lack thereof. When there was a lack of contentment, the misery, sadness, anger and depression would creep in and take over. This would leave me feeling beaten and emotionally hung-over. When I was able to stay present in the journey and remember that this too would pass, it was then that I could see the silver lining in the cloud. I could be upset at a situation, desire and work for change while at the same time staying content with my life and my place in it. Or as Elizabeth Gilbert put it in “Eat, Pray, Love” :
Ultimately, life is a journey and journeys sometimes take us through rough seas, over blazing empty deserts, and through rocky canyons. Yet sometimes we DO end up on the top of a mountain with our dearest ones, listening to the birds, watching the clouds roll by an endless blue sky, with our feet propped up and not a care in the world.