Contentment: Like it or lump it.
Dave Patanjali c. 400 BC
“Like it or lump it”, my mother would say as I gazed dolefully at our evening meal. I was a none too impressed ten year old when she declared that the family was giving up meat and we would be living on bean stew and Sosmix for the coming years (for those of you who escaped Eighties vegetarianism in Britain, Sosmix was the rather suspect clumpy, gooey, salty meat substitute of the era). It is only in my thirties that I have come to appreciate the wisdom in those words, and that is nothing to do with the fact that I am now the sole vegetarian in my family.
The theme of Yoga by Nature’s next retreat at Springhead will be Contentment, or Santosa. According to Patanjali’s system of Raj yoga, scribed 2000 years ago in India, Santosa is one of the vital qualities to be cultivated in order to reach self-realisation. It is one of the Yamas (observances) and Niyamas (restraints) detailed in the eight-fold path of yoga, along with Ahimsa (non-harming), Aparigraha (non-grasping), Satya (truthfulness) and so on.
For me, the word contentment conjures up images of an elderly couple sitting on the terrace of their country home watching the sunset, or of a family resting together in the sitting room, replete after a sumptuous meal. It conjures up notions of having got to the end of something; of having one’s fill and then sitting smugly patting one’s tummy. So, let’s fast-forward to the end of that terrace scene where one of the couple remembers that the washing up still hasn’t been done, and the other one needs the loo but can’t be bothered to get up – suddenly not so peachy! What I’m saying here is that Patanjali was getting at something quite different from satiety when he talks about contentment. Satiety is temporary while contentment rests with us as a continuous state.
We can thank problems for our evolution. Nothing ever evolved or developed that wasn’t subjected to stress, and we can therefore feel joyful that life is a series of problems to be solved and tasks to be performed, because responding intelligently to our environment is what makes us Darwinian superstars. If we didn’t analyse and solve difficulties, we would still be cute little amoebas floating in the ocean (now, there’s an image of contentment). So it’s not problems that are the problem. We go wrong when we begin to grasp at the future and struggle with the present. When we want things to be different from the way they are now, right now. In order to create lasting, consistent contentment and equanimity in our lives, we have to stop fighting what is.
Joyfully washing up
I recently assisted an intensive yoga teacher training where thirty-six trainees underwent two hundred hours of demanding work in my teacher’s ashram in Rishikesh- sometimes fondly referred to as “the pressure cooker”. During the closing circle at the end of training, one of the graduates astutely observed that, “expectation is premeditated resentment”. Psychologically, we exist in the past, present and future so it’s impossible not to have any expectations, and almost as impossible to let them go when they aren’t fulfilled. The soon-to-be yoga teachers on the YTT had invested $3000 in course fees, packed all their dreams of India, sun and all-day yoga into their suitcases and come to Rishikesh expecting …what? Cold? Rain? Sitting in lectures for 6 – 8 hours per day and having to attend evening programmes and 5am meditation class? Food poisoning? Everyone got their own little jolt into reality, whatever their expectations may have been. Each of us struggled privately, and sometimes publicly with the conflict between how we wanted things to be and how they really were. Most, if not all of us came up against resentment at some point.
“If you think you’re enlightened”, said Ram Das, “go and see your family.” Well, our yoga family at the ashram certainly brings out all the samskaras (habits of thinking) we wished not to have to meet again. For myself, I didn’t mind the cold or the rain so much, I’m cool with gruelling schedules, and I didn’t get food poisoning. My stumbling block came when I discovered that my colleagues were already a tight-knit friendship group and I quickly learned that I was going it alone for a month in the pressure cooker. Suddenly Santosha seemed like a quaint, fanciful anecdote and those smug old people on the terrace became inexplicably irritating. In my head, I was going to make friends for life like I always had done at Anand Prakash ashram. We’d go for tea together and talk about our day, sharing stories and advice and offering a shoulder to cry on; we’d affectionately tease each other with a slight undercurrent of annoyance about spending too long in the bathroom, and save each other places in the dining hall at mealtimes.
Well none of that happened, and I had my big opportunity to do some real work on Santosa and find out exactly how unenlightened I am. While I was fighting the situation with stories about how it should have been, I was missing everything, and I knew it. There was so much to be happy about – I was in my beloved India – better, I was in the Himalayas!, there was so much warmth and learning to be had from the group, I was spending all day every day absorbing privileged knowledge and gaining once in a lifetime experience. Yet, it wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I began checking myself every time I slipped into a story about how lonely I was, asking myself the question “am I lonely right now?”. Of course the answer was always no. If you are present, you are never lonely. I also pulled myself up every time I began a story about how others should be behaving to me, reminding myself of the impotence of “should”. Each time I remembered to step out of my tale of woe, I realised that there was nothing at all wrong and that it might actually not be all about me. If I didn’t have any colleagues at all, I’d have been perfectly happy so why was I obsessing about their absence while they were there? My time at the ashram became an erratic zig-zag of inner tantrums and bigger pictures, and when I wasn’t being my inner seven year old, I was learning to smile at her as she stood there in the playground feeling left out. This was my chance to grow – resistant as I was.
There is a teacher of advaita vedanta (non-dual) philosophy who teaches at the Ajatananda Ashram in Rishikesh. During one of his satsangs, he spoke about abiding in presence versus attachment to the world. Presence, or reality, he says is never boring – it’s the world that is boring. The world is repetition. We must exist in the world and we can enjoy it with detachment, but we have to remember that it’s an illusion. These words really moved me and I began to see how, whatever the story in my head, it was just a repetition of an old story – either mine or someone else’s. The playing out of events in the world is just samskaras repeating themselves endlessly until you become conscious and break the pattern. The bigger the drama, and the more engaging the story, the deeper the samskara. It’s so tempting to get involved in drama after drama as these stories make up the fabric of our personalities. The more dramatic our lives, the bigger the I AM, but the truth is, the more dramatic we are, the more we bore others and ourselves with repetitive stories and the more we fool ourselves into unconsciousness.
I was humbled to witness thirty-six people of all ages and nationalities, bringing all their hopes, their grief, their pain and their laughter into the circle, day after day during YTT. Collectively, there was enough heartache and personal tragedy flowing from the group to burst the banks of Mother Ganga, and because of the nature of the work we were doing together, it inevitably all came out. What was humbling was that, despite all the scars that they were wearing, every single person there was hoping to find Santosa, and was determined to do the work that it took to get there. Each person was willing to let go of whatever they thought defined them, and to try a new way of being.
It can be hard to let go of emotional burdens or grievances, because over time we grow to like them. They give us an excuse for being a certain way, and they help us to stay small – confined within our limited experience and self-limiting beliefs. They give us a sense of identity, or of self-righteousness, or they can seem to protect us from further harm. The truth is, if we hang on to how we think things should be or should have been, we will never be content. If we run after things in the future or obsess about accumulating stuff, we will never find Santosa. Santosa means accepting what is right now – you don’t have to like it, but stop fighting it and life will become a hundred times easier. That’s not to say we should stay in a dangerous or destructive situation – there is no passivity implied here, rather we can work for positive change more effectively if we work with what we have instead of getting into a futile dialogue with our fantasies.
I’m not saying I don’t ever want to sit on my terrace and watch the sunset with a self-satisfied grin on my face, but I hope I will be just as happy to go and do the washing up afterwards. Whatever may pass, I hope I can feel grateful for every moment of life that I have, whether I like it or not.