1. Contemplate. Meditation quiets a busy mind and cultivates a witness who can watch what’s happening in your life with a bit of emotional distance. The benefits are enormous—many meditators say they have more clarity, experience less anxiety, and feel better physically. Most of all, the practice offers an experience of calm and contentment.
Find a comfortable seated position. Bring yourself to the present moment by breathing, relaxing, feeling, watching, and allowing any thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations to come and go. Instead of reacting to those things, simply be aware of them. Deepen the breath. Watch the breath. Let go of all technique and come into effortless being.
2. Step by Step. If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you’re familiar with asana, Pranayama, and meditation. But you might not know much about the first two steps of the path: the five yamas and five niyamas. These are the ethical precepts, or core values, of yoga as well as its starting place—meant to be practiced before you do your very first Sun Salutation. They provide a recipe for living in the world with ease.
Rather than thinking of the yamas and niyamas as a mandatory “to-do list,” view them as invitations to act in ways that promote inner and outer peace and bliss. “They create harmony within you, and in relationship to your environment and to others. Where there is harmony, consciousness can expand,” says John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga. “They lead us to a natural revelation of insight into the nature of being, and joy naturally arises.” The yamas and niyamas give you infinite opportunities to truly transform your life.
3. Let Your Consciousness Be Your Guide. Indeed, yoga and meditation can profoundly shift your worldview, and certain kinds of psychotherapy and bodywork can help free you from much of your patterning. But for real freedom, there is no substitute for becoming conscious of what lies in your unconscious—for the kind of self-inquiry that can start to show you what lies beneath the surface mind. To some degree, you are always going to be at the mercy of your unconscious until you learn not only how to drop the thoughts that cause suffering but also how to loosen the tendencies behind them.
This is the beauty of the path of consciousness. If you take responsibility for your own experience and try giving attention to your own part in the process, consciousness has an amazing way of freeing your capacity for creative response.
4. Make a Nature Date. It’s easy to overlook the most obvious accessible antidote to stress, worry, and busyness: the outdoors. Sense the earth beneath your feet, watch birds soar, feel the wind on your face—these are all reminders that your troubles, and even your joys, need not be all consuming; you are part of something bigger.
Whether you decide to head for the mountains, streams, or sea, take time out of your schedule to make a nature date once a week. When you’re outdoors, allow your thoughts and concerns to float away like clouds. Stay present to the natural beauty that surrounds you; cultivate a sense of gratitude for the abundance that is right in front of your nose.
5. Accept What Is. Every one of the world’s great wisdom traditions contains a prescription for shifting dissatisfaction to contentment, and every one contains basically the same message. Whether you read the Stoics and Epicureans of Greece, the Tao Te Ching, the teachings of the Buddha, Indian texts like the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita, or St. Paul’s kick-ass Letter to the Corinthians, you’ll discover that the bottom-line practice for contentment is to give up wanting what you don’t already have and learn how to accept what you cannot change.
Try experimenting with this yogic affirmation: Breathe in and think to yourself, “What I have is enough.” Breathe out and think, “What I am is enough.” Breathe in and think, “What I do is enough.” Breathe out and think, “What I’ve achieved is enough.” Repeat this cycle for several minutes, paying special attention to the feelings that arise along the way. Become aware of both the feelings of peace and the feelings of resistance that might come up. If you’re like most contemporary Americans, some part of you is going to have a series of doubts: “Yes, this is a nice exercise, but what about my dreams and wishes?” In short, you may find yourself wondering if this practice isn’t just an invitation to goof off, a justification for social inequity, or a consolation prize for losers.
Yet the practice of contentment is not for wimps. Not only does it require a willingness to accept yourself and your situation, but it also demands that you be willing to change yourself in ways that may be uncomfortable precisely because they are so freeing.