December 31, 2013

How a Negative Nancy Found Contentment. ~ Nikola Ellis

“You’re never happy,” my father said to my grumpy eight-year-old self.

He’d spent all morning painting a wooden toy box for me, only to be told that the colors weren’t right.

My father was frequently exasperated by my childish ingratitude. Nothing anybody did for me was good enough, I always wanted more. (Give you an inch and you’ll take a mile, was another phrase that was frequently directed at me.)

As I grew older, I became increasingly contrary. There was nothing about the world that didn’t need changing and nothing about my life that couldn’t be improved. I was the anti-Pollyanna, the opposite of that fictional paragon of childhood who could find a reason to be glad about absolutely anything.

Finding fault with the world (and oneself) is a perennial adolescent indulgence, but I never seemed to grow out of it.

Then I trained to be a yoga teacher and learned about Samtosha. Samtosha is the second of the Niyamas (a set of guidelines for living a good life as described by the ancient sage Patanjali). Samtosha means contentment. Master teacher TKV Desikachar’s description of the benefits of applying this principle is compelling:

“The result of contentment is total happiness. The happiness we get from acquiring passions is only temporary. We need to find new ones and acquire them to sustain this sort of happiness. There is no end to it. But true contentment, leading to total happiness and bliss, is in a class by itself.”

It certainly seemed like a skill worth cultivating, but I was at a loss as to how to make myself contented.

As with many of my learning experiences, it took a crisis to teach me one of the most important lessons of yoga.

Soon after graduating as a yoga teacher, I fell pregnant. I was determined to have a ‘yogic’, wholly natural home birth. Everything went well until the labor itself, a 36-hour marathon of pain. Rather than compromise my ideals and go to the hospital I stayed at home and toughed it out, a decision that left my ideals intact, but my body in tatters.

The combination of exhaustion and adjusting to life as a new mother proved overwhelming and I fell into post natal depression.

I knew how effective yoga was at treating depression and anxiety so I cobbled together a personal practice. It brought some relief, but I still felt helpless and desperately unhappy.

One morning while feeding the baby, I started to cry uncontrollably. Why was I feeling this way? I had everything that anyone could wish for. I decided to put my feelings down on paper, so when the baby had finally fallen asleep, I turned on the computer and typed in “Things that are good”.

At first I found it impossible to feel good about anything at all. Then I typed “Ruby.” Of course I was grateful for my perfect, healthy baby. Then I typed “Kevin,” recognizing the unstinting support my partner provided. As I looked at those two words on the page, I realized that I didn’t have to make myself feel ‘good’ about anything; I simply had to acknowledge gratitude for the people and things around me.

I began to type more quickly, acknowledging my parents, friends and students.

I looked around and saw how lucky I was to have a comfortable home in a peaceful country. A sunny day, the hibiscus in the garden, the food in the fridge. The list of things to be grateful for grew longer until the baby started crying and it was time to stop.

As I turned off the computer, I promised myself that I would add at least one item per day to my list of things to be grateful for.

Some days it was easy to fulfill that promise—Ruby slept well, the sky was blue and friends looked in to see how I was.

Other days, when the baby howled all night and bad weather kept us in the house I had to read every single item on my list several times over before I could dredge up a single extra thing to be thankful for.

But the discipline of going back to the list every day made a difference.

Like a regular yoga or meditation practice, the simple conscious, ongoing effort gradually changed how I felt. I began to spontaneously experience gratitude in every day life and was less susceptible to knock backs. I felt positive and more resilient.

I still use the gratitude list now—it’s an important reminder of how lucky I am and why I have so many reasons to be contented.


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Assistant Editor:  Terri Tremblett/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: zsófi B via Flickr

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Nikola Ellis