“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. ” — Lao Tzu
Today’s post is inspired, like so many, by a discussion we had in yoga class. The theme of the month is santosha, or contentment. Santosha, as I understand it, is not about being mindlessly happy. It’s about finding happiness within, despite the circumstances, instead of relying on external factors to make you feel good. Instead of wallowing when things go bad, we look for the good in them, and the opportunities for growth.
Our discussion in class today centered around the role of acceptance in practicing contentment, and how difficult that can be. Contentment is about accepting people and things as they are, and not dwelling on how you wish things should be. It’s about keeping a positive attitude when there are difficulties, and not letting your unfulfilled expectations of a person or situation cause you inner pain.
For example, I have a disabling back condition and have been in some level of non-stop pain every single day since 1981. I spent a lot of time railing at the world about how unfair it was that I had this condition, why it happened and how I wished it could be different. But over the last ten years or so I’ve just accepted it. It sucks, for sure, but I can be content with it, because I’ve realized wishing to be pain-free isn’t going to happen. I make myself more miserable fighting against it. The best I can do is to accept it, and do whatever I can do to not aggravate my condition. Coincidentally, yoga is one of those things that helps.
I remember years ago I was unhappy about the results of the presidential election and was ranting about what I didn’t like about the winner. My grandpa said, “You don’t have to like who’s president, but you have to accept that he is. That’s not going to change for the next four years.” I’ve reflected on that conversation many times since the last election.
Contentment seems to come up a lot in thinking about weight loss and body image. I think many of us have that experience where we look back at a picture of our younger selves and wish we’d been happy about our appearance when we were young and cute and thinner. We weren’t content with how we looked at the time where we probably looked the best we ever have.
Now we’re firmly in middle age and wishing our bodies weren’t sagging, or our stomach was smaller, or that there weren’t wrinkles around our eyes. Instead of accepting the inevitability of aging and its effect on our bodies, we continue to create unhappiness by engaging in self-criticism and railing against things we mostly can’t change. How would things change if we practiced contentment and accepted that this is our body right now? We bring a lot of misery and suffering on ourselves wishing things were different.
The idea of santosha isn’t that you should just BE content, it’s that you should PRACTICE contentment. It doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it, you have to seek it.
I find this idea of contentment and acceptance more difficult when it’s about accepting other people’s behavior. We all have those things about other people that drive us crazy: the person who’s always late, the person who promises to keep a confidence and immediately blabs, the coworker or spouse who doesn’t do their share of the work, the person who lets you down again and again.
Here again is an opportunity for growth. As they say, you can’t change other people, you can only change how you respond to them. When we expect people to behave differently than they have in the past, we’re almost always disappointed. Our work is to accept them as they are — we don’t have to like it, we just have accept them as flawed beings that we can’t change.
We give people emotional power over us and we give them space in our head, but we don’t have to do that. It’s not so much that the people create the stress for us, it’s that we allow ourselves to be stressed by people acting just as we know they are. By practicing contentment we can cultivate patience and try to be neutral about their behavior.
And if their behavior is truly egregious, or we really can’t get to a place where we can accept them as they are, then we need to make a change, not them. We need to be responsible for our own contentment.
How can you cultivate more contentment in your life today?
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