“Through life’s mightiest storms, I am contented, for I hold in my heart God’s peace.”
—Affirmations for Self-Healing by Swami Kriyananda
This past winter has undoubtedly been a challenging one for us New Englanders. As I’ve tried to remain positive and upbeat despite the onslaught of blizzards and the challenges they’ve imposed, I’ve realized that relating to the weather this winter has, for me, become an exercise in practicing contentment.
Contentment is one of the 5 niyamas, the “do’s”, in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. It is considered one of the supreme virtues – the ability to live in the present moment without wishing things to be other than they are. And so this has become the challenge that I’ve been working with recently. Can I remain content when my commute time doubles and it unexpectedly takes me an hour and a half to get to and from work? Can I remain content when I’m standing in the cold on the subway platform and the usual time display that shows when the next train is arriving remains blank and I have no idea whether I will be standing there for 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or more? Can I remain content when I’ve been standing there for 15 minutes and the subway train that arrives is completely full and there is no room to get on and I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to wait for the next train? Can I remain content when the doors on the subway train that I’m riding home malfunction and everyone has to get off the train and I have to walk 25 minutes in the dark and blowing snow to get home?
What I’ve learned is that contentment is neither mere passive acceptance nor grim determination not to let circumstances get the best of you, but it is active engagement with life’s circumstances and trying to make the best of what is in the present moment. But how do we actually practice this? As I’ve been learning, there are a variety of different ways to practice contentment. Here are four in particular that I’ve been working on.
- Can I find something amusing or that will make me smile about this situation? Perhaps it’s the smiley face someone has drawn in the snow, or the variety of articles that Bostonians set out to save the parking spaces that they have dug out along the road. My sister has been helping me use humor by sending me web links, such as a story on Boston Mayor Walsh’s pleading with the citizens of Boston to stop jumping out of windows into the snow (yes, really), or the photo she sent me of the painter Bob Ross in front of a white piece of canvas with the words “I call this one New England. See how I’ve layered snow upon snow?”
- Our relationship to things change when we have the proper perspective. For example, it used to be that if I left the office at 8:30 pm and arrived at North Station only to see that I’d have to wait 10 minutes for the next train, I’d think, “Darn, I have to wait 10 minutes! I just want to get home.” Recently I’ve noticed that my whole internal dialogue has shifted around this situation. “Yay, the orange line is working! Thank goodness there will be another train arriving in 10 minutes!” One morning I walked a mile and a half to get on a green line train to get into work when the orange line was down. That hadn’t been my initial plan, but that was ultimately how it worked out. Fortunately, the thought that came to me was, “Well, at least I got my exercise today. It’s a lot more than I would have gotten otherwise!”
- “Be a cause, not an effect”. I’ve heard this oft quoted phrase from Swami Kriyananda before, but have sometimes struggled with understanding exactly what it meant. In these last few weeks, I have actively been working with this principle. Rather than standing by passively or getting irritated when a bus drives by completely full, I’ve taken matters into my own hands, tuning in and asking for guidance on which route I should take before leaving for work in the morning. This experiment has resulted in an almost endless variety of variations of routes and each morning has become an adventure. “Good morning, Divine Mother, how shall we travel to work today?” Boston’s transportation woes have also led me to discover a delightful practice. If you are standing crammed like a sardine in a slowly creeping subway car, body pressed upon body, reaching awkwardly for a rail to hold onto, unable to read email on your cell phone or engage in any other “useful” activity, why not start silently blessing everyone in the train? First blessing those closest to you and then sending waves of blessings throughout the car and to the neighboring subway cars. I can vouch that while many of my fellow passengers may have emerged from their subway journey on the somewhat grumpy side, I often found myself arriving to work in a rather cheerful disposition and ready to meet whatever was waiting for me once I arrived.
- With the truly phenomenal amount of snow that has fallen in the city over the past month, I’ve been amazed by how quickly the roads are cleared and my apartment entrance is shoveled. There are scores of people who have been working overtime to keep the city running amidst these trying circumstances and appreciating their efforts, however large or small, has been a lovely practice. I’ve been grateful for the fact that I do not own a car and haven’t had to dig it out of the snow or to try to find a parking place for it. I’m grateful that I don’t own a home and don’t have to worry about ice dams or shoveling the sidewalk to keep it clear.
And while compared to some of my colleagues and friends I have only been minorly inconvenienced by the recent snow storms, I have had a dawning insight. If we can begin to practice exercising the muscle of contentment with the small things, then gradually that muscle grows stronger and we can begin applying it to the larger and more challenging circumstances of our lives. And if we keep exercising that muscle of contentment, we will one day come to a place where, as the chant suggests, nothing will disturb us, nothing will affright us. All things will pass, but we will know that God changes not and we will be able to remain content and centered within ourselves, no matter what the external circumstance.