The Pursuit of Contentment
Everybody wants it, people spend their whole lives chasing it, and yet almost nobody has it. What is it? Contentment—or as we say in the yoga biz, santosha. And lately it’s been on the lips of many of my students.
For the past few months, we’ve been discussing the eight limbs of yoga and how they relate to us, not only in our formal practice, but in our everyday lives. As part of this exploration, the concept of santosha or contentment has struck a chord with many of us, so I thought we’d spend a bit of time looking at it here.
Contentment is a slippery notion: while nearly everyone knows what it is, few of us can create it in our lives in any kind of sweeping way. Nevertheless, ask anyone, and they’ll tell you their plan for getting there. So if we all know what it is, want to get there, and have a plan to get there—how come nobody’s there?
The short answer is that we are all going about it in the wrong way. The truth is that contentment is not “there” it’s “here.” We’ve just duped ourselves into thinking that it’s “there.” As a matter of fact, there is no such place as “there” at all—it’s a figment of our imagination. So while we all spend our time trying to get “there” we are actually moving further away from “here” which is where contentment really is in the first place. Got it?
Let’s break it down.
It all begins when we manufacture a glorious and perfect situation that we believe will result in blissful contentment as soon as we are able to create it in our lives. Our task then becomes to achieve this goal despite all odds, so that we will be able to finally live happily ever after.
While this may seem like a sound strategy in theory, the truth is that it just doesn’t work. For whenever we put conditions on our happiness, we are doomed to failure. Making contentment contingent upon everything going our way is problematic at best. Conditional happiness (I’ll be happy when X, Y, & Z happen) is really no happiness at all, because rarely does our environment, and everyone in it, conform to our expectations. What’s more, in the rare instance when they do, things change—or if they don’t, the mind gets bored and creates a more glorious and more perfect ideal that we once again are compelled to chase.
Our discontent therefore has nothing to do with what we have or don’t have, who we are or are not. It is wholly created by our thinking that we should have something we do not, or that we should be someone we are not. It has to do with the rejection of the present in favor of embracing an imaginary future. It is about choosing “there” over “here.” Our thinking is the problem, not our situation.
An example may serve to clarify: I drive an older car, a not-so-shiny Mercury, with rattles, scratches, and the like. Now the thought may arise that I need a new car, a nice new Lexus, because my current car is not befitting of someone of my station in life, or because I deserve a nicer car, or any number of other rationalizations that the mind is apt to create. Now as soon as this desire firmly takes root, I find myself thrust into discontent about the car I drive. I think that I should be “there” (Lexus) and not “here” (Mercury).
In all likelihood, I fall for this age-old trick of the mind and believe, that yes, I do need a new car, and as soon as I get it, I will be content (because hey, that’s what they told me on T.V.). However when I step back, and really examine the mechanics involved, I see that I am not unhappy because I drive a Mercury; I’m unhappy because I drive a Mercury (and here’s the important part) and I think I should be driving a Lexus.
Nevertheless, for most of us when we find ourselves in similar circumstances, we go right off chasing the Lexus, because after all, as soon as we get the Lexus everything will be fine. Right?
But alas, things are never quite so simple: when we get the new Lexus, we soon find ourselves bored—and the next phase begins. It then becomes: I am not unhappy because I drive a Lexus; I’m unhappy because I drive a Lexus and I think I should be driving a Mercedes. And on and on it goes—not only with our cars, but our homes, our jobs, our finances, our mates, and our children.
We create perfection in our minds then waste countless hours and immense life energy striving after dream after dream only to come up empty handed.
As we can now see, the real problem is not the car, the husband, the house, the job, or the money. The problem is the thinking habit, the “and I think I should be/have.” The root of the problem is that we are choosing for “there” and against “here.” And “here” my friends, is the only place we can ever be.
So it is our thinking, and not the object of our thinking that is the real culprit. We can go on fulfilling desire after desire for eternity and find no satisfaction. Until we eradicate the problem (our habit of thinking we should be “there”), our discontent will continue to manifest unabated.
Knowing now that it is our thinking that is the problem, there is one last trap to be aware of. Do not, under any circumstances, try to change your thinking. It is tempting. When we see that it is our wrong thinking that is causing our discontent, the thought might arise that we should do something about it. Sounds like a good idea, no? However, wanting to change our thinking evokes the same habit pattern that keeps us unsatisfied.
It goes like this: I see that I am unhappy because I have job X and I think that I should have job Y. Ah ha! I say. I see my habit. I think I should be “there” (job Y) and not “here” (job X). I see that my wrong thinking is causing me frustration. In my excitement I begin to want to get rid of problem of wrong thinking. I now become frustrated, not because I have wrong thinking, but because I have wrong thinking and I think that I should not have wrong thinking. I am now dissatisfied because I think I should be “there” (right thinking) and not “here” (wrong thinking). And I find myself back at square one.
So what is the modern day yogi to do? The answer lies quite simply in paying attention. As we do in our asana practice, we watch and notice. When the desire for a new job (or house or car) arises, watch how you become dissatisfied with job X not because you have job X, but because you have job X and you think that you should have job Y. Watch the process, for we only need to bring consciousness to our habits for transformation to occur. It is the bringing the process to a conscious level that creates shift and through that we are liberated.
Transformation in yoga is fundamentally a process of letting go, not a process of doing, trying, or achieving. Whenever we actively seek to move toward enlightenment, we inadvertently move away from it. Enlightenment is “here” it is not “there” and so long as we continually strive to get “there” we miss the point. We are all already perfect; we have only to realize that. And it is through our practice that this realization occurs.
As challenges arise, as life presents us with situations different from our thinking, our task is to relax and accept, not to fight. Difficulty is the fertile ground from which realization sprouts. Through hardship our habits that keep us in bondage are revealed—if we are paying attention. So the next time you find yourself faced with a challenging or painful situation, instead of asking why me, smile, say thank you, and pay attention.
About the Author
Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized speaker, teacher, and author and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As the founder of one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers, Eric has long been dedicated to making ancient wisdom and techniques practical and relevant for people from all walks of life.
In addition to his work in his wellness center in Phoenix, Arizona, he is the creator of BOOTSTRAP, a yoga-based program to help troops and veterans heal from post traumatic stress as well as BetterBox, a subscription box revolutionizing the self-improvement industry. An ordained Yogacharya (preceptor of yoga), Eric is currently finishing a book on the Science of Happiness.