“I want the blue cup, not the yellow one!” my 6 year-old daughter whined as we sat down to dinner.
Knowing a good fight when he saw one, my almost 9 year-old son decided the blue cup was the most important thing that had happened to him that day and clung to it with determination.
As a parent, there were three options for what came next:
1. Let my color-conscious daughter have the blue cup since I know my son doesn’t really care either way.
2. Buy a duplicate set of cups in every color so we can avoid future such fights.
3. Make things harder for everyone (including myself) by trying to teach two thirsty kids a lesson.
“Remember,” I told my daughter in my best Mom voice, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
We learned this expression from one of the kids’ teachers a few years ago, and it’s become a staple in our house. It’s pretty profound stuff - contentment practice for kindergarteners.
From my “you get what you get” high horse, I like to think of myself as a content person. But contentment is different than the default state of being happy when things are good. Santosha (contentment) is one of the niyamas (personal habits recommended for healthy living) described in yoga philosophy. Far from being a passive state, contentment requires consistent action and is much harder in real life than it looks.
In its truest form, contentment is essentially a mindfulness practice that separates cause from effect. It’s accepting that the external world need not determine my internal state, knowing that it could snow in April, I could become ill or immobilized, and still it’s my duty/privilege to practice being okay or at least present with whatever happens.
Observing with compassion my daughter’s frustration at such a comparatively small disappointment, I came to realize that I have my own yellow cup situation going on right now. My shoulder and elbow have been a little wonky lately, and I’ve identified a few key movements that just don’t feel good.
“But I WANT to do that shoulder opener!” I complain to my yoga mat, with a persistence not unlike that of a certain 6 year-old someone I know.
As a physically-active person, I’ve experienced my share of injuries but it hasn't made the practice of contentment much easier during times of injury. Yes, I should consider myself fortunate to be healthy 99% of the time, but my inner child can’t help but whine that it’s not fair that my shoulder hurts today. While I initially resisted having to make any changes, I’ve started modifying my yoga practice to accommodate my current limitations. It feels much better physically, although it’s still a significant mental effort to accept having to do it.
I'm upping my contentment practice for when I get old. Sure, my hope is that by keeping up with yoga and meditation, regular exercise, and consistent massage (a self-care formula that has worked wonders for me thus far), I’ll be a vibrant, mobile, and self-sufficient 80 year-old. But there are no guarantees, and whatever kind of 80 year-old I am, I still want to be able to enjoy myself.
When I look at my 90+ year-old grandmother who must be experiencing pain as a result of how stooped over she is, I’m always amazed that she can still muster a smile and hearty laugh despite her current limitations. Accepting this can't come easily. It’s got to be the result of a lifetime of practice. So if that’s what it takes, I’m in.
And despite the fact that my kids think I’m channeling my old friend Mean Mommy when I deny them their color preference or requests for extra TV time or treats, I’m just getting them started early. I want them to learn to do their best, work hard, be kind, be conscientious, and practice self-care, but then also remember that you get what you get (yellow cups, spring snow, injury, illness), so you may as well not get upset, too.
Throughout the first course of dinner my daughter, not being one to take things at face value, valiantly argued her case for blue. She eventually accepted the insult of yellow, though she did refuse to drink any water for the entire meal out of spite. So obviously, I have more work to do with her in the contentment department.
But who am I kidding? Would I ever choose a wonky shoulder over a healthy one? When blue is on the table, I don’t want that ugly yellow cup either. My hope is that if we both keep practicing contentment, we can learn to drink in with a smile all the yellow the world cares to throw our way.