When was the last time you felt content? Can you remember? And what exactly did it feel like?
Often, we find ourselves putting off our contentment. ‘I’ll feel content once I’ve got this out of the way’, we might tell ourselves, ‘this’ being whatever is going on for us which is, in some way, bringing up feelings of discomfort. Or perhaps the thought-story is, if only I had more this or that, or once I have whatever is the thing I am currently craving, then I’ll be content.
The problem with this is, there’s very likely always going to be something going on in our lives that we would rather isn’t, and even when we get or achieve the thing we want, there’s always the next thing and the next thing after that. Indeed, modern society is only too happy to enforce this idea that we need something else to feel better, or worse than that, to feel complete or enough. There may even be a felt – though erroneous – judgement of sorts that to be content is to be somehow passive or complacent. Instead, we are encouraged to keep looking outside of ourselves for more to satisfy us and make us happy, because contentment, even when we happen upon it, is supposedly not enough.
Yet as contentment researcher Dan Cordaro explains, ancient civilisations not only highly prized contentment as ‘a cornerstone to the fundamental human goal to know what it means to be well and enjoy life’, they also defined it as an ‘unconditional wholeness’ which is independent of whatever is happening externally to us.
So how do we cultivate this contentment? The one that, as Cordaro explains, is sourced entirely within, offering us an ‘incredible power and stability. Nobody can give it to us and nobody can take it from us.’ Sounds good right?
The research paper ‘Contentment: Perceived Completeness across Cultures and Traditions’, by Cordaro and fellow researchers Marc Brackett, Lauren Glass and Craig Anderson, proposes three evidence-based strategies to cultivate contentment: practicing mindfulness, building awareness of attachment to future oriented goals as contingent for contentment and radical acceptance of all emotions. And it is my belief that the holistic practice of yoga can help with all three.
Practicing mindfulness is inherent to yoga practice; if it is not mindfully practiced then it is not yoga. We work with present awareness of the breath, sensations created in the body, and gain insight into our habitual thoughts, behaviours and patterns. And we learn to inhabit the present moment again and again and again, as our physical practices, our work with the breath and our concentration practices provide us with hooks for the mind to attach us to the power of now. This is important if we are to experience more contentment in our lives. We can only ever be content now, in the present moment, as we are never in our imagined futures where we might envisage our contentment to exist. And, according to Cordaro, Brackett, Glass and Anderson, Zen teachings maintain that:
‘if we can reduce our perception of reality to pure experience of the present moment, we can feel an unshakable, fundamental contentment.’
Building awareness of attachment to future oriented goals as contingent for contentment
Through practices such as mindfulness meditation, we become familiar with our thought-stories, observing when we notice our minds taking us into attachment and the ‘I’ll be content when …’ mode of thinking. With this awareness we can start to make different choices in our thinking and tell ourselves different stories.
Yoga also reminds us of the centred and healthy way we can work with our desires, and that is with heartfelt sustained effort without attachment to the end result – abhyasa and vairagya as it is known in Sanskrit. Or as Viktor Frankl so beautifully puts it: ‘Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.’
Radical acceptance of all emotions
And finally, as we hold our yoga postures, building strength, developing flexibility and learning to be with and breathe into, and even soften into, intense sensation, we build confidence in our own resilience and ability to withstand what is arising, knowing that like all things they will ultimately dissolve. Our quiet meditation practice shows us time and time again that this same impermanence is true of our feelings, that we are the expansive sky who is accepting of any passing weather, undefined by any storms that blow in and through.
One of my teachers Cyndi Lee taught me, ’emotions are just energy with a storyline.’ Once our practice shows us that we are the observer of the storyline, and not the storyline itself, we witness how this energy can flow through us, without us having to do anything at all. In this way we can start to find more peace and contentment with whatever emotion arises; as Rumi wrote, ‘welcome and entertain them all.’
Supreme wellbeing and the knowledge of enough
And what then do we find, with the fruits of all these practices, as we start to step slowly in this new state of being, and the deepening knowledge that things are ok exactly as they are, that we are enough as exactly as we are? Patanjali tells us that supreme wellbeing is gained through contentment; Cordaro, Brackett, Glass and Anderson found that contentment is ‘foundational to the experience of fulfilment in life.’
Through our committed yoga practice, we learn that we can still have desires, we can still experience that which we would prefer not to, and we can be perfectly ourselves with it all. As Cyndi Lee says, that is exactly what contentment requires of us, to be with things as they are and as they change, leading us to spaciousness, clarity and confidence.
We remember that deep knowing that already exists within us, that, as Pema Chodron writes, ‘everything you need is contained in this present moment’. For this is the only moment you will ever live in. The only moment you can affect change from. The only place to be content. And you can find this moment on your yoga mat, you can practice remembering it there again and again, and then take it out into your life.
© Catherine Rolfe 2023
Inspired to practice? Here are some of my favourite ways to work with contentment
Contemplating the poem ‘The Guest House’ by Rumi – a reminder to welcome and embrace all emotions as beneficial messengers.
Setting an intention to notice every time you feel content – a great way to start to change up our natural negativity bias. Cyndi Lee says, ‘Notice when you are content. Just touch into it. Get to know that feeling.’ This quote by Kurt Vonnegut Jr is also a good reminder and always leaves me smiling: ‘And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’
Coming back to the affirmation ‘let go, let be, let in’ from Rick Hanson. Let go of attachment to a future outcome, let be whatever is right now, and let in contentment. Like mindfulness meditation, I find this three-part intention beautifully simple, though not always easy.