Practicing Contentment on the Road to Apocalypse

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

A while ago, I co-led a small pilot workshop as part of a project called Next World Teams where we facilitated a meditation practice and reflection on clarifying goals. In our discussion portion, one of the participants asked about how this applies in a time of collapse or apocalypse. An easy question, clearly!

I’ve been thinking about this for about two and a half months now, as the clear evidence of living in a time of collapse piles up around us. Since it was not urgent enough to humanity to need to rearrange how it lives and operates in order to slow and ideally reverse some of the harms done to the planet, we are now faced with the compound complexity of managing an easily transmittable pandemic virus that’s not well understood and with a mortality rate of at least 2% (based on what we know now). While work on the climate crisis has been comparably slower, most evident in activism and policy battles, the effects of a pandemic are hitting the economy swiftly and with great volatility. The combination of disease + potential mandated quarantine + travel restrictions + market volatility can easily lead to long term chaos and breakdowns in basic life standards that we’ve come to be accustomed to.

And so, this afternoon, after stocking up on groceries and making plans as to how to build up a little more of a self-sufficient household should we not be able to get basic staples for a month or more at a time, I’m sitting down to think about how to discuss santosha, contentment, the third niyama discussed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

The typical way I think about contentment is through gratitude, appreciating each moment for the beauty that it has in it, like the delight of the hot chao ga with a cold Vietnamese iced coffee I had for lunch before my apocalypse edition grocery shopping trip. This is good too, but Sri Swami Satchidananda offers another interpretetion in his commentary in Book Two, sutra 42.

By contentment, supreme joy is gained.

As a result of contentment, one gains supreme joy. Here we should understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction. Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn’t matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike.

Yoga Sutras, 2.42. Italics added for emphasis.

Simple, right?

Straight away, I’m reminded that, while my gratitude for delights may be a positive practice, that’s different from observing contentment. Me finding equal acceptance in spending time outside on a beautiful day and getting stuck on my bike in a torrential storm might be closer to leaning into this practice. Since it’s easier to be okay with things you want to have happen, the bulk of the work here is to not get bowled by things that you maybe would have preferred didn’t happen. Perhaps, you might even go so far as to not have a preference, because both are what they are and cannot be anything else.

We can see right away that this simple idea pushes us swiftly back to the brink of non-dualism, where a virus migrating across the world is objectively similar to a mass migration of birds where smaller flocks break off along the way to settle in different locations. The scale is different, and certainly the effect is different, but in terms of looking at patterns of the behavior of life forms on this planet it’s not so different. It’s our feeling about the meaning of the occurrence that makes something ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If a flock of birds nest in your roof and make a racket all night or begin to dive bomb you as you leave the house for work each morning, you might find the birds take a lower position in your mental model than a pandemic from which you will likely recover.

I’m being a little glib here just to put things in context and to raise questions.

I don’t take this idea of contentment as meaning we should roll over and wait to see what happens, either. This isn’t fatalistic. Whether you choose to live life as usual or change your behavior to try to align your actions with your shifting beliefs, you are still the actor and your work is to be content with the outcome of your action. It’s important then that we do our best, whether that means doing our best to not try to control what can’t be controlled, or doing our best to be prepared in ways that we think make sense to be prepared and are feasible. We can just as easily create circumstances that make it difficult to be content, like when we choose not to take a raincoat with us on a hike with a 90% chance of rain because there’s a chance it might not rain. True, it might not, but when it does rain you’re probably going to have a hard time not disliking your decision to gamble on a 10% chance of it not raining. Spending time with people whose lifestyles you disagree with so you can feel better about yourself is another example — this isn’t contentment, it’s clinging, egoism, and fear.

To practice contentment, then, let’s put ourselves around people who make it easy for us to want to try to live our beliefs. Let’s give ourselves a bit more space in making decisions and taking action to feel that we’re giving ourselves our best shot at knowing that regardless of the outcome, there was effort and intention put into the outcome. Let’s be mindful of the yamas (restraints) of nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, energy restraint, and non-grasping to guide our actions.

When it comes down to it, maybe the better answer is to recognize that we could always be in apocalypse and not know it; and even if we did, the challenge is largely in our frame of reference and our own minds. Whether it’s a beautiful day or a thunderstorm, living a practice of yoga fully offers the same response.