A friend of mine once had a small part in a Broadway musical that starred a legendary figure of the British stage. The script was a disaster, the director a tyrant, the cast a freakish assemblage of mismatched personalities. Everyone in the production seemed permanently on edge. Everyone, that is, except the Englishman.
One night over drinks, my friend asked the actor for his secret. “Dear boy, I’m a contented man,” he explained. “You see, I have a boat. I keep it docked at the 72nd Street Pier, and every few days I take the boat out for a sail. When I’m on the water, all the stress just blows away.”
A few years later, my friend ran into the Englishman on the street. The actor had changed dramatically: He looked drained, thin, and sad. When my friend asked if anything was wrong, the Englishman explained that he’d recently been divorced.
When my friend offered his condolences, the Englishman only gave a hollow laugh. “Oh, the divorce isn’t the problem,” he said. “The real problem is, my wife got the boat.”
In recounting this story, my friend likes to say that it needs no commentary. Most of us know all too well how it feels to lose something or someone we thought was the source of our contentment. What’s worse, we also know how it feels to go out on our own version of that boat, only to discover that suddenly it fails to bring us the contentment we’d relied on it for. And everything—be it a boat, a relationship, a house, a job, or money—that lies outside of our own selves will eventually cease to satisfy.
Clinical psychologists call this the problem of the hedonic treadmill. Suppose you win the lottery, marry your beloved, take your company public, publish your novel to universal acclaim. You feel great for a while. Then, little by little, your prize becomes part of the furniture and you find yourself looking for another hit. That’s because, according to some recent studies, we all have something called a “happiness set point,” an internal default setting that we inevitably return to, regardless of life’s rewards or setbacks. In other words, a person who is chronically depressed will settle back to his or her normal down mood even when everything seems to be going well, while an optimist will tend toward good cheer even in the midst of sickness or disaster.
Yet some psychologists, most notably Martin Seligman in his books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness, argue against the existence of an unalterable set point. Seligman maintains that working with our own thoughts and feelings can radically change our capacity for contentment—without the need for us to resort to Prozac.
The key word here is working. Seligman’s underlying point—and here, psychology aligns itself with the wisdom tradition of yoga—is that contentment is something that has to be practiced.
Most of us know how to practice discontentment. We routinely sabotage our good moods by worrying about the future; bitching about our bosses; comparing our achievements, looks, and body weight with those of others; or telling ourselves negative stories about our lives and relationships. The yogic practices for getting to contentment are simply tactics for reversing these tendencies, for retraining our minds to view life from a different perspective. And these techniques are universally applicable—they can work for you whether you practice yoga or not.
Step One: Stop and Focus
One of the watershed moments in my own journey toward contentment happened in 1980. I was about to give a presentation to several thousand people when, at the last minute, I was asked to change my talk. The change made me late for my own program and very nervous. As I raced down the hallway toward the audience, I could feel my heart thumping, my breath thready with fear. My mind began a familiar spiral into despair—I knew I’d never pull off the presentation in that state. I was in a near panic.
Then, out of nowhere, I realized that it wasn’t necessary for me to give in to my panic. I stopped in the middle of the hallway and began to coach myself. “Breathe,” I told myself. “You’re fine. Even if you do mess this up, you’ll still be a good person.”
This was such an unexpected thought that it almost didn’t compute—like most overachievers, I fully believed that my self-esteem could not survive a failure. Yet as I said it, I became aware that there was indeed an undercurrent of good feeling beneath my panic, a faint part of me that actually was OK. And then I made a radical inner shift: I gave myself permission to hang on to that undercurrent of grace, that sense of contentment with myself, come what may. As I resumed my race to the podium, I deliberately and consciously stayed focused on that sense of well-being. I don’t remember how other people reacted to my presentation. I just remember that while I was doing it, I felt good. And that had never happened to me in a high-pressure situation before. It was remarkable.
It was also fleeting. I’d caught a glimpse of the possibility of contentment, but ultimately, my experience was just a short-term fix. There are many such ways you can buy yourself moments of temporary contentment—you can talk back to your judgmental inner voices, stop and watch your breath, do a yoga pose, focus your mind on everything you have to be grateful for and whisper, “Thank you.” But the self-undermining—the doubt, the niggling desire for something more or something different—always kicks back in. It’s much harder to hang on to a feeling of contentment for the long haul, to make it a permanent part of your life.
The dictionary defines contentment as a “state of satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.” What the dictionary doesn’t say is that contentment is a state you have to bring up from inside yourself—often while you’re clamped in the jaws of loss, disappointment, or change. After dedicating 30 years to finding it, I’ve reached the conclusion that the only way to get to lasting contentment—the kind that’s there even when the bottom is falling out of your life—is to undertake a transformative journey. And the way to start is by looking squarely into the causes of your own dissatisfaction.
Step Two: Investigate Your Discontent
Feelings of dissatisfaction—no matter how much you’d like to lose them—should not be dismissed lightly. Any feeling of discontent contains a message, a built-in wake-up call. When you feel truly discontent, it’s almost always because you’re out of touch with your most authentic self and with the desires that come from your heart’s core. To achieve lasting contentment, you must be willing to examine your own feelings of dissatisfaction, to trace them to their source.
It seems paradoxical that the journey toward contentment could start with giving yourself permission not to be content. But you don’t change your state by resisting or running away from it any more than you get rid of unfulfilled desires just by telling yourself to give them up. To move on, you must first let yourself be fully where you are in this moment—even if where you are is frustrated, out of sorts, insecure, scared, and full of dissatisfaction, thwarted ambition, or anxiety. Usually, most people are afraid to do this, imagining that they’ll end up wallowing in misery. But accepting your situation is very different from giving into self-pity. Unlike wallowing, this inner acceptance lets you relax the inner muscle that keeps trying to control the uncontrollable, and frees you from the terrible stress of feeling that you have to pretend everything is OK when you know it isn’t, even if you can’t say why.
To start the process, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Let the breath be an anchor you use to keep yourself steady as you begin to ride the waves of your feelings. Now think of something that brings up your feeling of dissatisfaction or discontent, of wanting something you can’t have. Notice how it feels; see if you can find the tendrils of your own discontent in your mind, in your body. If you like, you can begin to ask yourself questions about your discontent: “What’s behind that feeling of frustration? What’s inside the sadness? What lies beneath the fear?” Observe what arises, simultaneously focusing on the breath. Don’t expect that this exercise will have you smiling and cheerful in a moment. But you’ll probably notice after a while that your feelings aren’t static. They shift and change all by themselves, because that is the nature of feelings. Your discontent is not intractable.
Step Three: 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. Here’s how Swami Hariharananda put it in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra: “Just as to escape from thorns it is necessary only to wear shoes and not to cover the face of the earth with leather, so happiness can be derived from [the practice of] contentment and not from thinking that I shall be happy when I get all I wish for.”
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? What about that skirt I have my eye on at Banana Republic? What about my calling to do something about preserving the environment and help farm workers get a living wage? How am I supposed to be content if I don’t accomplish all that?” 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.
Step Four: Relax with Reality
I came to understand this recently as I watched my friend Joel (not his real name) navigate his way through a major life crisis. Joel’s journey is paradigmatic—it shows in high relief the steps that can take you to steady contentment.
When his troubles started, Joel had what appeared to be a highly successful professional life. A recognized authority on large-scale organizational change,
he received handsome fees for giving speeches to business groups around the world.
In 1999, Joel got an idea for an e-business. His plan was to get it up and running, make it successful, cash out, and use the money to finance what he really wanted to do. A year later, just as the Internet bubble was bursting, he came down with a severe case of pneumonia. In the nine months that it took Joel to recover his health, his business venture went belly-up and the stock market tanked, wiping out most of his investments. His wife wasn’t working. They had a mortgage and private school tuition to pay, but their savings had been decimated, and between the two of them, they had almost no income.
That part wasn’t so bad, he says. It was spring, and he spent a lot of time out on the lawn, watching the birds and ruminating, something he hadn’t had time to do in years. His friends told one another that Joel’s illness was turning out to be a blessing in disguise, a much-needed opportunity for him to get some rest.
Life got harder, though, when he began looking for work. His lecture gigs had dried up, and when he looked for corporate jobs, no one would hire him. For Joel—as for so many former surfers of the 1990s economy—the first years of the 21st century offered an unremitting series of blows to the ego. “We were broke,” he recalls. “I was completely failing in my obligation to support my family, and the financial insecurity was really scary for my wife. All the external moorings—the things you count on, like praise and satisfaction in work—were dropping out of my life.”
The main things Joel had going for him were his wife’s willingness to hang in with him, a habit of meditation, and the teachings of the spiritual path he’d been following since 1979. He is a student of Siddha Yoga, a tradition that emphasizes integrating inner practice with daily life, and Joel had, as he puts it, “somehow developed enough of an understanding of how life works to accept what was happening.”
Joel found himself turning again and again to a statement from Siddha spiritual master Swami Muktananda: “Meditation gives you the power to be happy even when you’re unhappy.” He’d always heard that as a promise—that regular meditation practice puts you in touch with the state of wholeness beyond the superficial mind, the part of you that can withstand assaults on your well-being. But as he turned it over in his mind, he realized that Muktananda’s statement could be interpreted in a broader sense—not just as a kind of press release for meditation practice but as encouragement to accept unhappiness, instead of trying to escape or bypass it.
“This realization was big for me, because I have a real attachment to being happy,” he says. “But the more I relaxed into the situation, the better I got at dealing with it and the more I was able to feel OK with whatever was going on.”
Step Five: Know Your Authentic Self
As his job opportunities dissolved in the distance, Joel finally began to ask himself what message he was supposed to be getting. Part of his experience, he realized, was about learning financial discipline—it was time for him to discover how to make do with less. But when he asked what the deeper lesson might be, he saw that he really wasn’t right for any of the jobs he was seeking, that he really didn’t want them. As much as he might want the security and perks of a corporate job, he didn’t like working in the corporate culture.
Joel had always known he wanted to write serious fiction. In his early 20s, however, he’d decided that this was economically unrealistic, so he had given it up. But now, with his life’s work crumbling in his hands, he saw how much of his life had been spent in conflict between what he really wanted to do and what he thought he was supposed to do. The current crisis was demanding that Joel begin acting in alignment with his deeper dreams. So he decided to start writing a novel.
“Just committing myself to writing changed everything,” he says. “Once I was no longer at cross-purposes with myself, everything else started to fall into place. I realized that my day job also needed to be something I found meaningful—that nothing would work for me otherwise.”
Joel is still working on his novel and has found work as an executive coach and traveling conference monitor, which enables him to pay the bills. His family is not yet in the clear financially, and he’s frustrated that his travel schedule leaves little time for writing. But knowing that his novel awaits him whenever he can find the time, he enjoys his day job more. He feels content with himself, a writer.
Joel’s story exemplifies a truth we all know (and often ignore): that lasting contentment can come only when we are being our authentic selves. This, I find, is nearly always the real message behind our feelings of dissatisfaction.
In order to move toward a state of sustained contentment, Joel had to settle a few fundamental questions—ones that all of us can ask ourselves: “Am I living my own life, the life that expresses who I authentically am? Or am I simply living the way my culture and family and the people around me think I should be living? What do I need to do and who do I need to be to feel authentically myself?” If you ask yourself these questions and listen for the answers, surprising shifts will occur. And these shifts will hold the clues to your personal path to contentment.
Not everyone gets to choose his or her means of livelihood. Yet each of us can find ways to authentically express and nurture our personal strengths and gifts—the qualities of character that belong to our essential being. You’ll know that you’ve found this authentic expression when you feel most deeply aligned with yourself; you’ll know you haven’t when you feel off-kilter.
Step Six: Find Your Inner Truth
Because we live in a culture that values the dream of being “special,” of having a big destiny that drives us even when we don’t know it, the experience of real alignment often comes when you allow yourself to be—well, ordinary.
Miles, a teacher and spiritual counselor from New Mexico, told me recently that the most important shift he’d made in the past few years was releasing his need to be impressive. “Sometimes one of my students will invite me to dinner, and they’ll have invited their friends to meet their teacher, and I won’t have anything to say,” he says. “A few years ago, I’d have forced myself to hold forth for them, to perform. Now I can just be there, be as dorky as I am in that moment, and feel fine about it.”
This quality of being authentically yourself, just as you are, without pretense or struggle, is what is really meant by integrity—the ability to fully integrate even the uncomfortable, difficult parts of yourself into the whole, so that your thoughts, your words, your body language, and your actions all express your deepest values. In the yoga tradition of India, the inner truth that integrates all the different parts of us is called svadharma—literally, “one’s own law”—and real happiness is said to stem from our ability to follow that inner law, the path that rightly belongs to us.
Your svadharma is your inner compass, the path you follow to wholeness. People often used to ask my teacher how they could find their svadharma, their own personal mission or destined path. He would say, “Your real svadharma is to know your Self, the divinity within you.”
On my own journey toward contentment, I’ve come back again and again to a question that allows me to take a shortcut to the truth: “Does this thought or action or decision take me closer to my own divinity or not?” My ego might have all sorts of opinions about what’s good for me. The inner Self simply knows that behind all situations, challenges, and opinions, behind all questions of preference is the ground of what is, and that when we rest on that ground, we’re open to the grace that is the real source of contentment.
Step Seven: Be Content in the Moment
Everything you do to come to the state of contentment rests finally on your ability to occupy your own ground, the state of pure being that lies behind your thoughts and actions. Meditation is one of the keys to that state. “It was my meditation practice that showed me how to find the essence inside every moment,” one woman told me when I asked her how she was dealing with her own tough time. “Anytime I can stop, breathe, and feel the pulsation of life inside my body, I can feel contentment. I know at that moment that it’s my mind and ego that are worried and upset. My deeper being is always just fine.” She was talking about what I call the fundamental gesture of meditation, a core practice in nearly every Eastern tradition.
Here is a basic practice for experiencing a meditative state.
First, sit with your back straight (yet not rigid) and close your eyes. Listen to the sounds around you without trying to identify them, make sense of them, or push them away. Then draw your attention inward. Feel the sensations inside your body. Follow the movement of the breath, the entire arc of inhalation and exhalation. Notice the thoughts that are coming and going. Do this without trying to make sense of them or avoid them. Every time you notice yourself following a thought, as soon as you become aware that you’re thinking, bring your attention back to your breath.
Then focus your awareness in the center of your chest, beneath the breastbone, inside the body. Feel the pulsation of your own heartbeat and know that the rhythm of your heartbeat is the rhythm of life. Each heartbeat signals a new moment, a new present. Just be with it, allowing the breath to flow naturally. You aren’t trying to change your state or “get into meditation.” You’re simply being with yourself, in this moment, as you are.
The pulsation of the breath and the heartbeat are a constant source of natural contentment. They are always there, in the moment. To make contentment last, to make it a condition of your life, you practice both letting go and acceptance. You find your heart’s real calling, your authentic sense of self. You learn how to inhabit yourself by following your svadharma.
Yet in the highest sense, contentment is the gift that comes when you touch the timeless essence inside a particular moment of time—the ever-present now. In any moment, no matter what else you may be feeling, you can open the door to contentment by giving yourself permission to stop and be with yourself. It’s that easy.
Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute. For more information, visit www.sallykempton.com.