Lately I’ve been thinking about what ‘contentment’ really means.
‘Contentment’ is one of the niyamas, the set of five personal observances that Patanjali lists in the second chapter of his Yoga-sutras. It’s also a state of being that can be very hard to attain. How do we find real contentment?
One way is to try to understand what the obstacles to contentment are. Two of those obstacles are 1) pining for an irretrievable past and 2) worrying about what the future will bring.
I’m particularly susceptible to dwelling on the past and thinking about all of the choices I could have made instead of the ones that I made. There’s value to reflection but, in this case, it’s just an indulgence of my mind’s desire to fantasize about what my life might be like in an alternate universe.
Whatever we could have chosen in the past, the choices we made have brought us to where we are now. Perhaps our current situation appears to be fortunate, perhaps it appears to be unfortunate. Good fortune today has a way of becoming misfortune tomorrow and today’s misfortune has a way of becoming good fortune down the road. We can’t know all of the things that, sooner or later, will impact the trajectory of our lives.
We can tell ourselves that there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been but logic alone doesn’t cut it. Practicing contentment means working on accepting whatever we have while letting go of what’s been lost or was never meant to be.
The flip side of lamenting for what’s gone is worrying about what’s to come. Will we get what we want? Again, as with our choices in the past, we find ourselves trying to navigate the unknown. We like to think, ‘If only I knew then what I know now’ but the saying will apply as much in the future as it does in the present.
The one thing we do know is that the pursuit of anything temporary is an exercise in futility: we may never get it and if we do we’ll have to worry about keeping it. Practicing contentment means working on accepting whatever we have and letting go of the propensity to strive for more than we need.
This doesn’t mean that we should forget the past or stop planning for the future. Those who can’t remember the past are indeed condemned to repeat it and that the most reliable way to predict the future is to participate in its creation. Contentment is not passivity; it’s action that’s informed by knowledge of how the past has created the present and performed based on spiritual values like simplicity, generosity, and truthfulness. Contentment is a willingness to be fully present in the present without hanging on to the past or rigidly grasping for a particular future.
Contentment is genuine acceptance of and gratitude for whatever we have. It’s being fully invested in the process of moving forward without being obsessed with possessing a desired result. It’s the process of cultivating inner peace even while experiencing life’s difficulties, living modestly even when we have the opportunity to live lavishly, and sitting with our true thoughts and feelings without bypassing them in favor of a display of artificial tranquility.
The payoff from practicing contentment is that we arrive at a place of inner freedom and happiness that doesn’t depend on any external circumstances.
Given the uncertainty of external circumstances, that’s a good place to be.