John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” A culture raised on the grass-is-greener principal, in a country indoctrinated in the church of hard work dogma, is it any wonder that while we hurriedly prepare for life’s next big event and advertisers magnify this sense of longing in us, the second niyama, santosha or contentment, is constantly just out of reach. Yoga reveals the path to the innate calm and abiding stillness that we are.
Patanjali states in Sutra 2.5, “Lacking self-awareness, one mistakes that which is impermanent, impure, distressing and empty of self for permanence, purity, happiness, and self.” This ignorance weds us to a perpetual wheel of suffering. We think we are free but in truth, we spend vast amounts of energy clinging to that which gives us pleasure and avoiding that which puts our pleasure at risk or we see as repulsive. Further, we expect our preferences to be a source of eternal bliss yet their achievement is often anti-climatic or disappointing and, without much ado, we are off striving after the next “if only” key to supreme happiness. Yoga philosophy tells us that all things are inherently neutral. The full spectrum of sensation, energy, emotion and thought are simply exquisite feedback mechanisms aiding us in our journey to become sensitive and effective caretakers of our being. It is our personalized labels that color experiences in a way that makes them appealing or repulsive and keeps us spinning. All this maneuvering between pleasure and avoidance shows up as the physically feeling of gripping in the body. The first nine months of my relationship was long distance. Each time my boyfriend and I would have the chance to see each other there was a simultaneous clinging to the joy of being together and a tense defense against the unpleasantness of our inevitable parting. Seeking and avoiding are expensive uses of our energy that result in a failure to appreciate the moment. Yoga Nidra teacher, Richard Miller, offers that in order to set energy free to experience the moment, we not only agree to ride life’s waves but we actively welcome them. As Bob Marley put it, “Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” We can always trace our emotional disturbances back to ourselves and thus, we keep ourselves out of the contentment we so desperately seek.
The 13th century mystic poet Jelaluddin Rumi expresses this coalescence of extremes:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.
Finding and remaining in this place of equanimity is simple but not easy. As with most things, it takes consistent practice over a long period of time. Each time we step onto the yoga mat we have an opportunity to cultivate contentment by genuinely listening to the many cues our body/mind offers and choosing to honor that feedback by modifying or intensifying the pose as appropriate. This is done without comparison to what the pose looked like yesterday or in anticipation of what it will look like tomorrow. The balance of effort and ease in any given yoga posture is a constantly changing dance with the breath. Quoting the late master teacher Pattabhi Jois, “Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.” An advanced practitioner hovers on the cusp of his or her intelligent edge of sensation - a place that is neither too much nor too little.
Contentment also requires a healthy dose of surrendering to the great many things in life that we cannot control. There is a paradox to contentment: the more we seek it or need it to look a certain way, the more it eludes us. It is easy to feel happy when life is going our way but what about when chaos abounds? Discontentment is the illusion that there can be something else in the moment. There isn’t. The moment is complete exactly as it is. The paradox of contentment allows us to appreciate what we have and to fall in love with our life. Next time you are feeling bored, depressed or overwhelmed consider making a gratitude list. Whether mental or hand-written, list everything for which you are grateful. From the moon and stars to the shoes on your feet nothing is too small. I have a gratitude jar. In it are little reminders of life’s fullness that I will review at the year’s end. Practicing gratitude cultivates the fertile soil for contentment to take root by keeping us centered in the joy and abundance of our life. Contentment is like a tall tree so rooted in the Earth no storm can topple it.