“When we free ourselves of desire, we will know serenity and freedom.”
~ Gautama Buddha
No two people in the world are exactly alike, and yet we all face the same fundamentally human struggle: accepting what is—whether it’s what we want or not.
We spend a huge chunk of our time and energy trying to ensure that we’ll get the job we want, the meal we want, the airplane seat we want. But why?
If our efforts don’t work out, it often ruins the whole experience, making it impossible for us to enjoy any of the other beautiful things about the moment we’re in. And if it does work out, our satisfaction only lasts as long as that job, meal, or flight—assuming the thing we fought so hard for even lives up to our expectations.
See, when we let external factors dictate our mental/emotional state, it means we’ve rejected (or just don’t recognize) that we have the power to be untroubled regardless of circumstance. But we do. And we know it because we’ve all met people who manage to remain satisfied, centered, and optimistic even when things don’t turn out the way they hoped.
But what’s their secret? It’s all about mastering ragac (the attachment to pleasure) and dvesha (the aversion to pain). So, consider this your primer on these two obstacles to freedom—and the strategies that can help you tap into transcendent contentment.
How raga and dvesha hold you back from your true potential
Raga and dvesha are responsible for most of the suffering we experience.
Santosha is the deep contentment that arises when we are at peace with our ever-shifting circumstances. The reality of life is that we will always experience difficult or uncomfortable circumstances; the only thing we can control is how we react to them.
Trying to manipulate situations that make us uncomfortable is not only a waste of time and energy, but it keeps us from becoming the people we need to be to fulfill our individual purposes.
Choosing, instead, to remain present with discomfort—or even agony—is transformative. Every moment is carefully crafted to foster our spiritual development. And transformation can only occur in the present.
I developed a simple mantra to help me when my discomfort felt too great:
“This is what is happening now.”
It’s a reminder to stay attuned to the present moment when we start feeling the urge to run from it.
The first step to contentment
During a dinner conversation, someone remarked that she would rather take a pill every day to manage her irritable bowel than change her diet. Her stomach discomfort is her “normal,” and her unhealthy diet is her “comfort.” Even though change is difficult, accessing greater overall health and a vastly improved quality of life is ultimately worth the mild discomfort of transitioning to healthy eating habits.
Recognizing our own discomfort and how our actions might be enabling it is the first step to overcoming the attachments and aversions that hold us back.
The transformative power of presence
A decent portion of our battle in trying to overcome the obstacles that obscure our true, blissful nature is simply trying to remain present. When we do, it empowers us to embrace all the experiences in our lives—each of which is a part of our personal growth and development.
Being present and allowing life to happen exactly as it is—without resistance—gives us permission to participate fully in everything that happens. Rather than missing out on what is by running toward an elusive desire or trying to numb ourselves, staying present facilitates full immersion into all the expressions of our humanness.
In the present, there is no worry, regret, anticipation, or anxiety. The present is the only place we have the opportunity to soften our conscious personality. In the present, everything is perfect exactly as it is, simply because it can be no other way. There is nothing to argue with, avoid, push away, deny, exclude, or repress. The present simply is.
Cultivating connection to cope with discomfort
We work so hard to avoid the present by living in our devices, sticking our noses in someone else’s business, projecting ourselves into an uncertain future or into an unchangeable past. If we do succeed in leaving the present, we lose not just the connection to our personal potential for transformation and contentment, but to the outside world and the people we love.
The practice of being present with those we love is a gift. So, how do we alleviate that distance and forge stronger and deeper connections with our loved ones?
It starts with making a commitment to ourselves to be in the moment with the people around us whenever we’re needed. Once we start doing that, we quickly see just how much we miss out on when we don’t fully connect with the present.
See, humans are hardwired for connection—with ourselves and with others—and without it, the difficulties we inevitably face in day-to-day life become too painful for us to bear psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally.
So, staying present isn’t key to overcoming raga and dvesha just because that’s how we practice connecting to transcendent contentment. It’s also crucial because presence is a prerequisite to the deep, soul-affirming bonds that give us the strength not to run from pain or chase after pleasure when the urge threatens to overwhelm us.
That’s why the practice I recommend for moving closer to santosha day by day centers on forging and strengthening connection.
Eating with friends: a practice for unlocking santosha
Just like making the commitment to staying present with those you care about, this practice will reveal so much about your attachment to pleasure and aversion to pain.
Everyone eats every day. So, naturally, we develop attachments to the kind of food we eat, both because certain foods bring us pleasure and because certain foods are distasteful to us, or cause negative side effects.
As a caveat to this practice, if you have a food allergy or illness that means you have certain dietary restrictions, please follow them! This practice isn’t designed to cause physical harm. Instead, it’s meant to force us to confront the discomfort that occurs when faced with the possibility of not getting what we want. Here’s how it works:
The next time you’re eating out with a friend, try the following: set down your menu or give it to the person across from you. Explain to them that as part of your yoga practice, you’d like them to order for you. Alert them of any dietary needs or restrictions, but do not tell them your preferences. Not liking green beans is not a dietary restriction—it is a preference.
Your dinner companion will likely protest. It can be a lot of pressure, and they may try to wiggle out of it. Stand your ground! Explain that your work is to be content with whatever is chosen, and you will be content with their choice. Do not answer any questions of, “Well, do you want this or this?” or “Have you had this before?” Allow the person to decide for you and wait contently for their decision.
(This will be a good opportunity for your friend to practice remaining present in an uncomfortable situation as well).
When the food arrives, put on a smile and eat it—whatever it is! The person across from you has gone through an agonizing decision process on your behalf, out of love and consideration for you.
Feel the joy in their heart when you take a bite, smile, and proclaim a job well done. Watch them smile in relief and marvel at the trust and vulnerability you’ve shown. It’s just one meal. Use it to confront your resistance and to establish a deeper bond with the friend with whom you share it.
Practice this experiment as often as you can. And let it inspire you to identify other day-to-day experiences you can turn into opportunities for tapping into santosha.
Long line at the ATM? Embrace the downtime by observing your environment. Can’t decide what movie you want to see? Let your date make the call and surprise you when you get there. Before too long, you’ll realize that contentment has become your baseline and that you can observe raga and dvesha without acting on them.
Learn more about the obstacles keeping us from transformation and bliss (and discover more practices to help you overcome them here.