Are you familiar with if/then statements? They’re conditional statements that pair a hypothesis and a conclusion. Someone makes a guess about ever changing conditional factors and proposes that if this happens, then that will happen. Conditional statements are part of science experiments and mathematical formulas. But they’re also part of our daily life—part of our ongoing thought process. For example, we might say to ourselves: If I eat that cookie, then my sadness will go away. If I buy that cool shirt, then I’ll feel more confident. If I get that promotion, then all my financial troubles will be over. If so and so asks me out, then I won’t be so lonely. If my boss praises my work, then I’ll know I have value. Conditional statements describe something that is dependent on something else. Something must happen before the other thing can happen.
I’ve been asking the question: Who are you becoming? Who are you becoming through your habituated patterns of thought and feeling? Today I’ll add: Who are you becoming through the if/then statements constantly running through your mind?
We make our happiness conditional. We decide our happiness is dependent on something external and say to ourselves: If this happens, then I’ll be happy.
These conditions, are of course, built from a house of desire. We have cravings—for certain sensations and tastes and feelings. We have cravings for praise and success. Sometimes our cravings come in the form of attachments, of clinging. We cling to our anger, we cling to the idea that we are right, we cling to some imagined version of our perfect future self. Sometimes our cravings come in the form of aversion, of avoidance. We avoid the hard conversation, we avoid the harder choice, we avoid the feeling in our gut that tells us something is wrong. We have cravings—for anything and everything. We want things to be different than they are. We want things to be a certain way. We want, we want, we want. And we’re deeply skilled at justifying our wants as needs. In a consumer based society, we’ve been trained in scarcity.
But the teachings of yoga ask us to train in contentment. Remember, we’re talking about the niyamas—the observances—the daily rituals that we enact in order to care for ourselves. Yoga Sutra 2.42, which describes the practice of santosha, contentment, says that: “From contentment, comes happiness without equal.” In his commentary on this sutra, Pandit Rajmani writes:
“…practicing contentment means eliminating all craving. Craving is the mature state of desire. There are as many desires as grains of sand on the earth and stars in the sky. These infinite desires are always accompanied by an entourage of fear, doubt, worry, and anxiety. Transcending desires altogether is extremely difficult. As long as we are ignorant of our true identity, and as long as our desires and actions are propelled by deep-rooted [conditioning and habits], we are impelled to keep chasing our desires.”
“…practicing contentment means eliminating all craving.” Let that settle in. It’s quite a statement. Can you imagine life without craving? Could you go an entire day without wanting for something? Could you go an hour? What about a minute? Could you sit contentedly for one minute without any craving of any kind? These kinds of questions help us recognize how much of our life energy we spend on craving—how much of our life energy we spend on wanting things to be different than they are.
How many of your thoughts are spent on the formula: If this happens (or when that happens), then I’ll be happy (then I’ll be content)?
Let’s pause for a minute and be compassionate with ourselves. Let’s remember that yoga is a practice of uncovering. Yoga Sutra 2.42—“From contentment, comes happiness without equal”—isn’t describing the temporary happiness of sensory pleasure. It’s referring to an inner and abiding sense of joy. When our minds are clear and we’re able to abide in our own True Nature, a natural happiness arises—the happiness of Being that exists beyond craving.
In his book Love and Rage, Lama Rod Owens reminds us that:
“Happiness doesn’t exist outside of ourselves. It is who we are. It is the essence of our minds. Many contemplative traditions seek to lead us to this essential truth about ourselves. In my practice, I often think about the metaphor of a cloudy day. Because the sky is overcast doesn’t mean the sun is not shining. A really dramatic experience of this can be seen on a plane flight as the plane takes off and ascends above the cloud level, breaking through to the intensity of sun radiating in the clear sky. Happiness is always there, but often I have to be reminded of that.”
Lama Rod isn’t alone in needing to be reminded. We all have to be reminded. The practice of remembering—of remembering the Truth of our Being—is yoga.
Practicing contentment means showing up to the present moment in full remembrance of our true identity. This means that rather than allowing the present moment to be colored by our attachments and our aversions and our fears and our cravings, we stand in every present moment grounded in the Truth of our Being. We remember that even when it’s too cloudy to see the sun, the sun is still shining. And in the same way, we remember that even when we’re facing something that’s really hard or we’re dealing with a deeply habituated craving, the Truth of our Being remains the same. Contentment is not conditional. It’s not an if/then statement.
But let me also name the fact that contentment is not the same thing as complacency. Contentment—santosha—doesn’t mean we stand by in the face of unacceptable circumstances or injustice. Contentment isn’t blind acceptance. It’s a frame of mind. It’s the understanding that true happiness isn’t contingent on external forces. Contentment, far from passive complacency, is the active practice of remaining rooted in our true identity as we work to improve bad circumstances and fight against injustice. Practicing contentment means showing up to the present moment in full remembrance of our true identity. Practicing contentment means responding to what’s real, not from a place of craving or attachment or aversion, but from a place of ease.
Dealing with what’s real is an ever changing proposition because the present moment is always new. Practicing contentment is an ongoing process. Pandit Rajmani said that “…practicing contentment means eliminating all craving.” I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an overwhelming and virtually impossible task. Which Pandit Rajmani didn’t gloss over. He said: “Transcending desires altogether is extremely difficult.” And he added that: “As long as we are ignorant of our true identity … we are impelled to keep chasing our desires.” Practicing contentment is an ongoing process. It’s the ongoing practice of retraining the mind and redirecting our attention. Over and over again, as cravings arise, we pause and remember the Source of happiness without equal. We remember the Truth of our Being.
We can’t ignore or deny or suppress our cravings. We have to be present with what’s real. When we experience a strong craving, we need to acknowledge it, but we don’t have to focus on it. We get to decide where we put our attention. We get to decide what we actively practice. We can remind ourselves that our minds are skilled in the art of delusion. And we can stay cognizant to the fact that no matter how our conditioning tries to delude us, none of our external cravings will ever bring us lasting happiness. Everything changes. Things break. Bodies age. Clothes go out of fashion. Houses burn to the ground. Until we’re able to release our attachments and aversions, we’ll continue to spend an enormous amount of our life energy on craving.
We can’t ignore or deny or suppress our cravings. But we can decide where we put our attention. We get to decide what we devote our life energy to. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer—who’s a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation—has a chapter called “Allegiance to Gratitude.” It’s dedicated to the Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee) Thanksgiving Address, which Kimmerer describes as an “ancient order of protocol [that] sets gratitude as the highest priority.” She writes:
“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”
Practicing contentment is the daily practice of offering gratitude for the gifted nature of life. It’s the daily practice of working to find freedom from the cravings that cloud our thinking process and our decision making. It’s the daily practice of working to find freedom from the capitalist conditioning that constantly tells us we’re lacking something. Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us that “contentment is a radical proposition” and that practicing “gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness.”
Practicing contentment—practicing gratitude—allows us to experience the joy of simple pleasures without clinging to them, without trying to control them, without trying to make them last forever. The practice of contentment doesn’t mean we stop taking care of our basic needs or stop working toward our goals. What it means is that we take care of ourselves and we put forth effort in the world from a content state of mind.
Releasing our attachments, our aversions, our mental habits of craving, is an ongoing process. Training in contentment is an ongoing process. You can start by noticing how much of your life energy is spent on wanting things to be different then they are. Every time you notice this inner craving: Pause. Offer gratitude that you noticed—because you could still be lost in the craving—and turn your attention to the present moment. Allow yourself to show up to the present moment—to what’s real right now—in full remembrance of your true identity. Do this again and again and again. Because when our minds are clear and we’re able to abide in our own True Nature, a natural happiness arises—the happiness of Being that exists beyond craving.