Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to ask for nothing?

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the “Santosha” of my blog name means contentment. I write about the struggle to find contentment more than what it means to have it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said that “We never reflect how pleasant it is to ask for nothing.” Now I see that I’ve been asking for contentment more than discovering it right here.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Jo Tastula, says that we tend to focus a lot on what we want to receive, rather than what we want to let go of. She relates this to the season of Fall, and recommends that we consider the image of the tree dropping its leaves. What does that perspective look like? From up in the branches, perhaps it is a relief, or a comfort, to let go of what’s been weighing us down; to be bare and pared down to essentials. The fullness of Fall (imagine a nice round pumpkin or apple) gives way to completion (harvest, year-end). It’s a time to rest, to renew, and to strive less and prepare more.pumpkinsWhile Seneca has a somewhat mixed historical reputation, he is still considered to be one of the first great Western thinkers, and much of what he had to say about emotions is relevant to us today. When he said that “Contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life,” he was talking not only about emotional regulation, but also gratitude, because contentment is impossible without feeling grateful for what we have already. Contentment requires us to stop asking for things, so that we can reflect on what is present. Thanksgiving_23

A recent episode of the comedy TV show “Blackish” demonstrated this idea in a gently humorous way. The main character, Andre, is upset to learn that his daughter is questioning her belief in God. But his own belief often consists of prayers that are requests  — asking God for some action or some thing that he thinks will make him happy. Later in the episode, after a moment of crisis for the family, he realizes the value of what he has and what he almost lost. Then his prayers change, and are about gratitude and thanks. In that moment, he stops striving, knowing that he has what is essential to him.

What would happen if you stopped striving for a while, maybe even shed some dead leaves? Perhaps you’d have time to nourish the truly important parts of your core. Or maybe just have time to breathe, and in that moment, discover santosha.

It seems to me that contentment is about satisfaction, and happiness is about satisfaction-plus. The plus is extra joy, extra pleasure. It’s like dessert at the end of the meal – it’s nice, but you don’t need to have it every day. I’m reminded of two books that I used to read to my kids when they were little. One was called “More, More, More, said the Baby”, and the other was titled “Just Enough is Plenty.” It’s nice to have more, but on many days, simply to be satisfied is enough, in fact it’s plenty.

 

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It’s easy to be hard, harder to be soft

Contentment is hard to find in January. There’s a letdown after the holiday months of November and December. Many of us are experiencing winter at its harshest. And the resolutions that we made a month ago with optimism and enthusiasm have collapsed, wavered, or become a struggle to maintain. It’s easy to fall into patterns of judging ourselves pretty harshly and with a lot of negativity. If ever there was a time to practice self-compassion, this is it.

This morning, feeling like I needed to start my days in a more positive way, I hauled myself out to an early yoga class. When it came time to set an intention for the practice, I realized that I rarely set an intention or dedication of love toward myself. I usually send love and compassion to someone else in my life, or if I do direct an intention toward myself, it leans toward self-improvement: Energy! Patience! Greater productivity! I’ve become attached to outcomes in a big way, and forgotten to treat myself with the care and kindness of a good friend.

By the end of January, it’s easy to get into patterns of negativity and isolation, beating ourselves up about not reaching our goals, and cocooning ourselves at home with TV and comfort food while we wait for spring. But by looking forward rather than in, we miss an opportunity to flourish right now. Practicing self-compassion can, on the other hand, help us realize greater emotional well-being and more of that elusive feeling of contentment.

Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, says that there are three core components to self-compassion: self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness. Mindfulness means that we acknowledge our pain and discontent, our flaws and our failures, along with all of our good qualities. But we don’t feel isolated by those imperfections and our mistakes don’t feel so personal, because by recognizing our common humanity, we see that everyone else has the same needs and desires, and ups and downs that we have. And by directing loving kindness to ourselves and others, we reap a lot of potential benefits.

Neff’s research has shown that people who have more self-compassion experience less anxiety and depression, and have increases in happiness, optimism and other positive emotions. They engage in less negative self-talk, and their self-esteem  stays higher when something goes wrong for them, because they realize that everyone makes mistakes and they don’t take it so personally.

Author Karen Armstrong says that, “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently every day.” The recommended way of practicing compassion is through loving kindness and compassion meditations. Here is an example of loving kindness meditation (practice it by directing it first to yourself, then one-by-one to others: benefactors/teachers, beloved friends and family, a neutral person, a difficult person):

May I be happy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe from harm.

May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind and spirit.

And a compassion meditation (practice the same way as loving kindness):

May I be free from suffering.

May I hold myself with softness and care.

May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May I be free from the suffering caused by greed [or anger, fear, confusion, etc]

May I experience ease of body, mind and spirit.

May I respond to suffering with compassion.

Each time I go through these meditations, I return to the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care”, because I know that sometimes this is the thing we forget in our day-to-day lives. Softness and care, rather than harsh judgment: That’s what we need in January, and beyond.

What is contentment?

My daughter gave me a little book for my birthday called “Contentment Is…” The book is a compilation of quotes about contentment and happiness that was first published in 1968. I keep flipping through this little gem, finding nuggets of inspiration on almost every page.

If I’m content with a little, enough is as good as a feast.” I should have read this advice, courtesy of Isaac Bickerstaff, before the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s the only time of the year that my own cooking makes me feel sick. Why do we feel the need to stuff ourselves silly on this one day when having just enough would still be a feast? Isn’t the first taste of something always the best?

Thanksgiving_23Contentment is a pearl of great price, and whoever procures it at the expense of ten thousand desires makes a wise and happy purchase.” This wisdom comes from John Balguy, a philosopher who never heard of Black Friday, but seems to know something about the relative value of happiness compared to possessions. It seems kind of crazy to spend one day counting our blessings, and then the next one acting as if none of our desires have been met.

When we cannot find contentment in ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.” Francois de La Rochefoucauld was a French nobleman who probably had a lot of experience with people seeking happiness in fancy clothes, partying and illicit affairs. He clearly was a keen observer of those around him, and used his insight to write books of maxims like this one.

What makes many persons discontented with their own condition, is the absurd idea which they form of the happiness of others.” Ah, envy – it’s a sower of discontent if there ever was one. We look at those around us and make judgments about their houses, their cars, their jobs, their children and their money – and decide that they must be happier than we are. In truth, we have no idea if the house is mortgaged to the max, the spouse is about to file for divorce, or the children are brats. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

And finally, there is this observation: “Contentment is a matter of hoping for the best, then making the best of what you get.” Our ability to see the silver linings, to be optimistic, and to be grateful for what we have, determines the level of contentment we can achieve. It doesn’t mean we stop dreaming, but perhaps it means we stop grasping.

I realized after reading through my little book that it doesn’t contain one single definition of contentment. Some of the quotes tell me what it’s not; some tell me how it feels; some tell me where to look for it; and others tell me where I won’t find it. We have to create our own definition within ourselves.

The word ‘santosha’ means contentment, or satisfaction, in Sanskrit. The reason I use the word ‘discover’ in my blog’s name is because I do believe it is something that we each can find, or uncover, on our own life path. When we were babies, contentment was simple: to be fed, to be held, to be warm and dry. What is our baseline for happiness and satisfaction as we get older? Can we establish it and then always find our way back as life bounces us around?