Developing Contentment

Swami Prembhava Saraswati

Yoga ecology is the path of reconnecting to the rhythms and dance of nature. By examining Patanjali's eightfold path, we can find a way towards inner and thus outer environmental peace. Rishi Patanjali begins with the yamas and niyamas, which are the disciplines for living a yogic life – a life of harmony and balance.

Santosha (contentment) is a niyama, an inner discipline. It means to be happy with whatever one has, to enjoy living in the present moment without desiring or craving for more. Santosha is an attitude that we must adopt if we are to change the way we live in relation to the earth, to improve the quality of life we have now and will leave for future generations.

Living a yogic lifestyle means living simply and naturally, with respect for all other aspects of creation. In this day and age living simply is difficult. Our lives have become complicated and busy with little time to stop and feel the grass under our feet and the sun on our faces.

What is this hustle and bustle for? Why must we work so hard? Is it simply a desire for more? More what? More than one car, more than one house, more than one TV, more varieties of food, or, put simply, the human expression of greed. We are not satisfied with the basic necessities of life, food, clothes, and housing. We are striving for everything that we can get. The more we get, the more we need, and the more hours we have to work to attain it all.

How much happiness and contentment is achieved through material wealth? A happiness so temporary that our new toys soon become obsolete and again we search for our next important purchase. The consumer society encourages this need by continually producing bigger and better toys, and advertising supports our weakness, convincing us how happy we will be if we have it. When will we be content? Consumerism and over consumption are depleting the planet's resources and creating massive waste and pollution. We need to realize that the exploitation of resources by the consumer societies is continuing at an exponential rate that is destroying the ecosystems that we and all other species are an integrated part of and depend upon for survival.

The following statistics from the USA, quoted in The Sacred Balance (1997) by David Suzuki, are representative of western consumer societies. The eastern countries, who have not had access to this lifestyle until recently, are following close behind, as advertising and the media offer promises of a better life.

  • Parents spend 40% less time with their children than they did in 1965.
  • As family size has decreased, the average house size has almost doubled from 11,000 in 1949, to 20,260 square feet, in 1993.
  • 93% of teenage girls report shopping as their favourite hobby.
  • In 1987, the number of shopping centres surpassed the number of high schools.
  • Adults spend an average of 6 hours a week shopping and 40 minutes a week playing with their children.
  • Since 1940 Americans alone have used up as large a share of the earth's mineral resources as all previous generations.

What is the yogic perspective towards the causes and solutions of this continual desire for more? The more we have the more we want and in all these ways we are trying to satisfy all the senses. Trying to satisfy these desires leads to feelings of discontent and pain as the senses can never be fulfilled. As humans we continually identify with our bodies and our senses. Yogis believe this to be one of the root causes of human suffering and the root cause of our continual search for more material happiness and contentment.

The senses affect every living being. The moth is destroyed by its sense of sight. The fish gets hooked by succumbing to the sense of taste. The bee is entrapped by the lotus due to its sense of smell. The human individual is trapped by all five senses, all demanding fulfilment, leading to a constant state of discontent and dissatisfaction. As long as we identify with the senses and their appetite, we will always be in a state of agitation because the senses are always making demands, always craving and desiring.

We can start to adopt the niyama of santosha in small practical ways by becoming aware of our real needs. After assessing the basics of food, housing, clothing, love and companionship, what do we really need? If we can discover what ultimately makes us content and happy, we would probably find our lives a lot less complicated and cluttered.

Try it and see. Walk around your bedroom or house and identify all the things that you don't really need. Look around the local markets and shops and observe all the items for sale and the clever manipulative advertising. Do we really need the latest electric toothbrush or hot towel rack for the bathroom? Those old leather boots could probably last a few more winters, perhaps they just need resoling? The latest and greatest pair of Nikes can wait. Start to be aware of how influenced you are by advertising and the feeling that true happiness comes from more material wealth: “If we had that brand of tea bags, our family would have happy holidays, like the beautiful, blonde, bronzed family on TV.”

Affluence has definitely increased the standard of living of a few. Twenty percent of the population are no doubt more comfortable with air-conditioned houses, pantries full of unlimited food choices and more than one car to choose from. But what a high price we must pay for such 'comforts'!

We have become out of touch with our families, neighbours and the sense of community. The rituals remaining in society such as Christmas, birthdays, Holi and Diwali have turned into excuses for the media to extract money from us. Diwali, the festival of lights, has turned into a mass production of highly polluting and noisy fireworks. The pace of life has increased and time to play has decreased. We spend more hours making the money to buy the technology to make our lives simpler!

The earth is suffering. The air, water and soil are polluted with the toxins from modern material living, so we drink, eat and breathe pollution, and destroy the diversity of the planet in the process. The poor of the world are influenced by the changing and deteriorating environment, and it is not a result of their actions.

Start to look into your life and see what it is that really brings a lasting feeling of happiness and contentment. We must try to cultivate a deeper, non-material source of fulfilment and contentment, above and beyond the world of materialism and consumerism. We must start to realize and truly believe that we are more than just a physical body with sensual desires that need fulfilment We also have emotional and spiritual needs that we must discover and fulfil by living in an environment conducive to meeting those needs.

Most importantly, there must be a sense of spirit and an understanding of our spiritual needs. Once there is this understanding, we can begin to see the craving aspect of the mind, and aim at reducing and finally transcending it, thus opening ourselves to the futility of material wealth.

By living a simple life without the complications of material possessions, real lasting contentment will be easier to find and the more creative our expressions will become. We cannot give up everything overnight, but through yogic practices and awareness of our spiritual needs, our material needs will slowly lessen, helping to change our current path of environmental destruction, bringing us closer to nature and making us more content and happy – simply.