The hardest part, for me, of participating in the din of social media, is listening to so much cheerleading about happiness, positive change, and improvement. This roar that you are just an improvement away from everything you always wanted points to an enthusiastic disconnection from what is.
Promises or suggestions or affirmations that you’ll always have joy, you’ll get what you want, you’ll be famous, students will love you, bloggers will quote you, money will pour in, you’ll accomplish a yoga posture, or your prose will be poetry are so much wishful thinking. Don’t get me wrong, the opposite — to be defeated, to be gloomy, to give up, to speak pessimistically — is, of course, just as bad.
So if affirming and giving up are both bad, is there a third way? In sanskrit, it’s called samtosha, which could be translated as ‘contentment.’ English translations of sanskrit often fall short, so let’s add some nuance to this idea of ‘contentment’ as samtosha by looking from its two extremes.
- One extreme: Contentment could be seen as accepting that nothing’s going to change, so just resign yourself to what is. But that interpretation lets you off the hook from doing the hard work that is in front of you (there’s always hard work in front of everybody). To be content is to try to stay balanced while doing that. The hard work is sometimes physical, but more often, it’s emotional, like letting go of hurt feelings. Those might be feelings of not getting what you want or deserve; or being overlooked, under appreciated, or even misjudged. Contentment equals carrying on when you’d rather give up; and ultimately getting less worked up over everything.
- The other extreme: Contentment could be seen as altering your perception of the way things are. My teacher, Alan Finger, caricatures someone in this mode with palms together, bowing to ducks and butterflies and peace and love — in other words, living in a dream of a perfect world. When talking about people who imagine only blue skies, one of my favorite teachers, Mark Whitwell, once commented,” If you’re not mad [at what’s going on in the world], you’re not paying attention.” Contentment is accepting a world that contains both dark and light — the world as it actually is.
Putting it all together, then, rather than affirm, give up, or delude, practice staying balanced and gracefully work on what is in your realm of possibility to do. You won’t believe what happens next: contentment.