August 5, 2011

Contentment, Detachment and Western Ambition.

Santosha (Contentment), Vairagya (Detachment), and Western Ambition – Do They Mix?

Photo: Tom Thai

In the West, we are born and raised to believe in Capitalism, ambition, climbing the ladder, setting goals, and getting ahead. The game is to study hard, get a good job, make more money, and buy a big house. And all of that equals a good life and “happiness.”

So what if your life doesn’t look like that at all? Are you still successful – by Western terms? What defines success?

In the West, money and tangible things are often indicative of happiness. Right or wrong, this is just how it is. And if you’re not going somewhere, you’re floating, which is a negative thing in Western culture. ‘Floaters’ are often associated with homeless people, people stuck in dead-end jobs, stoner college kids, and the like. None of us are raised by our parents to believe that growing up to be a floater is a good idea.

In the Yogic Tradition (and many other Eastern philosophy systems), the concepts of contentment and detachment are forever at the forefront of the discussion. Yoga teachers never stop talking about contentment and detachment without much explanation of what that really looks like in an experiential way. Many of my students have even associated detachment with apathy, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Apathy is not detachment. Constant bliss is also not contentment. No one is blissfully happy every single day of their lives – we all have terrible days and moments where the sky is falling, but according to Yogic Tradition, we can be content in those terrible moments once we detach from our idea of what the future and the world should look like to us.

Photo: Liz West

The concepts of contentment, detachment, and ambition all make sense to me on paper. I am an American, so the drive to produce and make money is engraved in me. That’s just how it is. I’ve tried to re-wire myself, but it didn’t stick. I’ve also been a yogi for a very long time and have contemplated contentment and detachment for years on end. I’ve even have had my moments of running off to India for several years renouncing all of my money

and possessions; had my ‘starving yogi’ phase of my life living in Brooklyn where I rejected money even in the face of greedy American culture. I’ve also worked in marketing with some of the largest corporations on the face of this planet. And for the better part of the last decade, I’ve seemed to find plenty of balance between these ideas.

Until it all came crashing down.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve felt extremely torn between two worlds. I am a yoga teacher. I own and operate a thriving holistic medicine studio in Denver. I teach yoga teacher trainings and yoga therapy trainings several times a year. I’ve been vegan for 11 years. I have a Ganesha shrine in my house. I also work in corporate internet marketing. I have worked in International Politics and Political Journalism, and am still very active in government. I love technology products and expensive bicycles. I like living in a nice condo. I love to travel (which costs money). I love being engaged in business – it’s exciting to me. But I’ll often go on month long meditation retreats in the middle of the mountains.

So where does it all blend together?

Recently I’ve moved into a new condo in Uptown Denver. It was a split second decision that I’m glad I made, but over the past six months I’ve been seriously considering a move back to the east coast. Not for a job. Not for a relationship. Not to save money (the opposite in fact). But purely because I’ve not been at ease inside. To run. To start over. To make my slate clean. Which slapped me in the face, because it made me remember that I’m not practicing contentment. However, I feel extremely detached, but not the good kind of detachment.

So I guess I’m not practicing detachment either. After all, unhappiness and angst comes from a disagreement between your idea of what the world should look like and how the world really is. Detachment is detaching from your false perception of how you want things to look and embracing how things naturally are.

Then I was reminded of a quote: “The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”

That’s what I’ve been needing to hear! If I’m not happy where I am now, then why do I think moving 1,500 miles away will bring me happiness? It won’t, and I know it. I wish I didn’t know it…then I could run and my ego mind would be thrilled. However, this doesn’t serve the self very much, does it?

Why is yoga so hard? Not Asana, but the rest of it. The important parts of yoga. I can twist myself into all kinds of odd looking shapes with no problem, but practicing contentment and detachment is where the work really happens! Asana is not hard. Asana is the tip of the iceberg.

I’d love to end this piece by describing how I overcame my inner angst but the truth is, it’s still around as I type this. And I figure it’s going to stick around for a while. But the one thing I’ve come to remember is without Abhyasa (practice) one cannot find Santosha (contentment), Vairagya (detachment), or the ability to experience Maya (the perceived world) and Lila (our part in the world).

Many yogis believe that to be a yogi we must renounce Western culture. Those of us who were born and raised here often become jaded by its frustrations. However, we have a duty to play out Maya and Lila – to be engaged in this world. And in the middle of it all, try to practice contentment and detachment.


Alexander Webster is an Ashtanga Yoga & Restorative Yoga teacher; the founder/owner of Urban Village Healer in the Denver Highlands (a grassroots Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine clinic), a therapist specializing in Yoga Therapy, Ayurveda, Thai Yoga Massage, Reiki, and Chinese Medicine. He is also a Hindu Studies speaker for several colleges & universities across the United States. Alik has a Political Journalism background with The Washington Post, Politico, and MSNBC, and is currently a freelance Digital Marketing consultant specializing in non-profit marketing, website design, copywriting, and public relations. In his free time Alik is an avid marathon runner, triathlete, cyclist, rock climber, and vegan foodie.

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