When it comes down to it, most of us just want a little freedom from our pain, whatever the cause may be. At this time of the year, a lot of us are thinking about happiness…and how to get more of it in the coming year. We often look for the antidote to unhappiness outside ourselves – in new shoes or electronics, new clothes or a good meal. But like we saw with a lot of the yamas, looking outside usually only enhances the problem, and ends up multiplying the craving/anxiety/unhappiness that we feel. What samtosha is all about is going back inside and trying to tweak our own reactions to life, so that we can learn to sit more calmly and less reactively in the presence of whatever life throws at us.
I have to say, I have a really hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that contentment is considered an “observance”– which is what all the niyamas are – as if one can just choose to be content. On the contrary, isn’t contentment sort of the overarching goal or endpoint of Yoga, something we should only achieve after we learn and become masterful at all eight limbs? Can it be as simple as making a choice to feel content? I’m reluctant to embrace this idea, but after talking with Patton Sarley, who has directed both Omega Institute and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Life, I start to warm up to it. He says that in fact contentment can actually be an outcome AND a practice – the seed is always present in the fruit, he says – so maybe it is that simple. (But it’s also a little more complicated.)
Part of the secret is that our perception of pain or unhappiness is intimately linked to our reaction to it. We’ve all seen that certain people just seem to let things, even very bad things, roll off them, and they’re the better for it. It seems like this might be an innate quality, but actually it can be learned, though it may take some practice. Sarley first explains the contentment-as-a-choice idea by bringing to mind the old Native American tale of the two wolves: a grandfather is talking to his grandson about how inside his mind are two wolves in a constant fight. One is anger, greed, self-pity, revenge; the other is love, kindness, empathy, hope. The child asks which one wins, and the grandfather replies, “Whichever one I feed.” In the same way, we can make a choice to be content – to practice non-attachment (refer to the yamas) and take each event in our lives a less personally. It’s not that bad things won’t happen, but we’ll learn to react to them very differently, which leads to a lot less pain.
“Most people think of contentment as a middle place,” says Sarley. “It’s arriving at contentment with the difficulties of life, the shitstorm of being alive, crisis to crisis.” Because, as he points out, life really can just feel like a string of unfortunate events. “With samtosha, it’s not that ‘everything is ok.’ It’s, ‘man this sucks, but I’m ok.’” In other words, you won’t be immune to bad things, but when they happen – when the shitstorm comes – you’ll weather them much better.
So how do we practice contentment? It’s using all the tools we have at our disposal, and using them again and again. We can breathe, meditate, practice asana, observe the yamas and niyamas. Anything that shifts our attention to what’s going on inside, so we can attend to it (in a nonjudgmental, non-attached way), describe it (if possible), and then let it go of it just a bit. Anything that helps us do these things will get us a little bit closer to samtosha.
It’s not easy or quick, and even Sarley says that “You can’t just meditate your way to enlightenment.” It takes some conscious effort – it’s about practicing over and over again, and gradually breaking down those fixed reactions that we’ve been falling back on our whole lives. To be sure, as Sarley points out, there’s a huge irony here: To change ourselves, we have to rely on the very thing that’s giving us the trouble in the first place – our minds. The endless and often destructive “mind chatter,” or chitta vritti, says Sarley, is what most people want to get away from, and largely the root of our unhappiness. Luckily, the brain is quite plastic, and with some practice it can be rewired. It may not be pretty and it may take a while, but we can learn another way of thinking that will totally transform us.
“Whenever you get jacked up about life,” Sarley adds, “with either fear or desire – each of which tends to dominate our consciousness – you always have a choice. It’s all about tolerating the consequences of being yourself. Yoga is the practice of tolerating who you are.”
Do you think that contentment is something you can cultivate? Do you make a conscious choice about how to react when bad things happen?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.