Contentment is often thought to be such a sought after, much-prized state…or is it really? Sometimes when I mention “contentment” as a state of being, there is a flash of fear in the eyes of many clients. Why is that, I wondered? One client said: “But Nerisha, if I become content, then that means that I won’t strive for anything anymore. I would just sit at home and do nothing”. I realised that many of us confuse contentment for complacency.
The ancient Yoga Sutras or “threads” of wisdom by the great sage Patanjali describe contentment as being one of the niyamas or personal attributes that one needs to practise on the journey of self-mastery. There is nothing passive about practising contentment, particularly in the world of instant gratification in which we live today. Our minds are constantly bombarded by digital media to a point where we crave entertainment or perpetual stimulation. If we don’t get it, we risk experiencing boredom and therefore unhappiness. We have lost the art of being content. How does one cultivate contentment and not risk becoming complacent? And why do we even want to practise contentment?
How contentment differs from complacency
Contentment liberates us from “the state of the unhappy mind”. This is a state where nothing is ever enough. It is a state of perpetual striving and seeking, sometimes for no clear purpose other than from blind habit and fear. It is almost a sense of being driven along like a hamster on a wheel, rather than consciously leading a life. In contrast, contentment nurtures a mind of wisdom and peace. It gives rise to a way of being that is not dependent on external factors for happiness. From this state of contentment, one gets on with achieving one’s goals, delighting in the process and liberated from fear. It implies an “ease of mind”, having taken stock of one’s life and being fully appreciative for the good whilst receptive to growth and continual improvement.
Complacency, on the other hand, implies a form of laziness. One who is complacent does not actively seek growth. There is a fear of change that underpins complacency. At a superficial level complacency may sometimes come across as contentment, but deeper investigation reveals that the roots are very different. One is rooted in appreciation and the other is rooted in fear. At the other end of the spectrum from complacency is mindless striving. Mindless striving keeps on in a constant state of unhealthy dissatisfaction and stress. Happiness, for the mindless striver, seems elusively dependent on the future.
The case for contentment
Learning to be content helps to cultivate focus in our lives and to find peace in our hearts. It prevents us from doing the things we ought not to do, and guides us along the path that is right for us. One of the biggest benefits of contentment is letting go of comparison with others, which is the root of jealousy, insecurity and greed. When we are content, we are happy with where we are and can also be happy for the success of others. It is also important to discern the difference between excitement and contentment. Excitement is a state which is provoked by one sense pleasure after the next. It is temporary and unreliable as it depends on external circumstances for positive feelings. Excitement keeps us on an emotional rollercoaster. The higher we go, the lower we fall. Contentment is an inner attitude. It is a calm inner happiness that is not extrinsically based. Difficult to attain and sustain? Absolutely! Which is what makes contentment an active attribute rather than a passive one.
Cultivating contentment in the now
Now, you may ask: How do I cultivate contentment if I am currently in a job that I don’t like, working for a boss that makes my life miserable? Or how do I cultivate contentment if I am ill? Or, how can I be content if I am bored with life? The answer to that lies in fully understanding and accepting the concept of impermanence. Nothing in this world lasts forever, not even us. Knowing that and having faith brings courage to either accept the situation or change it. Hand in hand with impermanence is the feeling of gratitude for what we do have. This mind of ours is often so prone on fixating on the lack in our lives. “If we only had that, or could achieve this, or could be better than we are now” are the thoughts that plague us. Contentment involves consciously turning the mind to focus on the abundance in our lives. Thoughts become your reality – an ‘abundance’ mind set attracts even more abundance! A contented mind brings even more contentment.
There are many ways to cultivate contentment. Play with these three practices for the next fortnight and see what it does for you:
- Examine what your mind keeps telling you that takes you away from contentment. Often there is a lot of self-criticism in there, comparison and “should-ing”. Start to refute these thoughts.
- Keep a daily or weekly gratitude journal detailing the things that you are grateful for and celebrate them. It works.
- Meditate regularly, even if it is for just 10 minutes daily. Meditation takes us into an inner space of calm and contentment. When we practice meditation and touch the seeds of our inner contentment, we are able to sustain this state off the meditation mat and into our lives.
Remember: Contentment is an active component of self-mastery, invoked by the pure power of conscious choice. Contentment, as Socrates declares, is true wealth.