by Morgan Webert
Traveling through places like India, South America, Mexico, and southeast Asia has brought me in contact with people who exude a deep inner contentment, a sense of being satisfied with life and who they are. Their eyes glow with kindness and their willingness to share comes without hesitation. Ironically, across all of these countries, the people who fit this description have often been some of the most materially impoverished people I’ve met.
This seeming paradox has always baffled me. How can nations of abundance have widespread discontent, depression and insecurity while in so many third world countries I’ve seen widespread contentment, joy and self assuredness?
Now, I’m not idealizing poverty and I realize it brings tremendous sorrow to many across the world, but recently I’ve had a little insight into the relationship between lack and contentment and why “rich” is not synonymous with “satisfied.”
The hunger satiation cycle
This insight came while looking closer at the hunger satiation cycle of eating. Basically, we eat, our stomach stretches, and this stretching creates a sense of satisfaction and contentment. Then we digest, our stomach empties and shrinks rendering it ready to be stretched again, which will again generate satiation.
Now, in the West and most affluent countries, there is a widespread problem with continuously eating, snacking, and not allowing the stomach to become empty. If we eat when our stomach is still stretched out it’s harder to trigger the satiation response. Meaning we feel less satisfied by our food, or because what we really crave is the feeling of fulfillment, we over eat and stretch our stomachs even further.
A viscous cycle begins; because we ate on a stretched stomach we didn’t feel satisfied, so we crave more, and then eat more and again only feel partially satisfied, and we continue on without letting the stomach empty and shrink.
This pattern clearly contributes to the obesity epidemic, to indigestion, malabsorption of nutrients and the cascade of health issues that come with poor digestion and over eating (diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol to name a few).
But it also effects our emotional and psychological health.
Over eating with all the senses
We can see this pattern of over consumption in all parts of affluent society. We buy too many clothes, electronics and things; we constantly consume information through our phones, computers and TV; we over schedule our days, weeks and years; we always want more, more, more and yet…never quite feel satisfied.
The Yogic and Ayurvedic systems understand that we “eat” with all of our senses, and as such also have to digest EVERYTHING we take in. But how can we possibly do this if we keep taking more and more in!?
This lack of satisfaction is our body, mind and spirit telling us we’re over consuming and not letting our physical, spiritual or psychological stomaches digest and shrink.
Being discontent not only makes for an unhappy life, but according to Ayurveda it depletes our Ojas, our vitality, and weakens the immune system. We see discontent manifest as ungroundedness, frustration and attachment, and when we lose our deep sense of contentment we also lose access to greater connectivity. So being content is not a luxury, but an essential part of being healthy.
In fact, the yogis considered it so important that they listed contentment as one of the ten ethical precepts laid out in the Yoga Sutras. Santosha, the Sanskrit word for contentment, is taught to all yogis as part of the Yamas and Niyamas, the first two limbs of the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Like most things in yoga, santosha is a practice. I find it crucial to see contentment as a practice, not just something that magically happens. It means we are empowered to choose satisfaction and contentment, and choose a life that will generate it. It also means we have to work at it, and like all practices, the more we do it the better we get.
The epiphany I’ve just had studying the hunger satiation cycle is realizing that letting go, emptying out and allowing true hunger to develop (not just for food, but for information and experiences) is a necessary part of practicing santosha.
I’m taking baby steps to improve my practice of contentment:
- As a chronic snacker I’m focusing on simply drinking more water between meals to allow the stomach to empty, and enjoy the feeling of an empty stomach, knowing it means I’ll savor the next meal that much more.
- As a person always hungry for information, I’m committing to daily mediation as well as simply spending time each day taking a short walk and day dreaming knowing this is part of digesting and letting the mind empty.
- As a busy bee I’ve actually schedule into my schedule time to just chill out.
Tell us how you’re refining your practice of contentment.