Practicing Contentment in a Consumerist World

A cat relaxing on a rock

Less is more.

We’ve all heard it. The problem with it is that, these days, you’ve got a whole industrial complex convincing folks to take it literally. Somehow or other, they convinced us that in order to live simply, eat clean, and otherwise pull ourselves together, first we need to buy a lot of stuff.

It’s water.

Here’s a story about how even one of our truly essential needs can become warped:

It’s fall, the air feels nice and crisp outside, and you’re shaking off the lethargy of a hot sticky summer. I want to clean out my system, you think. I gotta start drinking more water. 

At your local Whole Foods, approaching the water aisle, you get sidetracked by a display of “tonics” in tiny pop-top cans. ENERGIZE reads one label. CLEANSE invites another. Not really sure what half the ingredients are, you toss five or six into your cart and head into the water aisle. Now the choices get serious. Vitamin water. Smart water. Mineral water, sparkling and still. Lime-raspberry spritzer water.

Fifty-seven dollars lighter, you take the elevator up to the roof. Loading your tonics and spritzers into the car, realization hits. Ferchrissakes, I forgot to buy regular water. 

Of course, you don’t need reishi mushroom tonic to hydrate your body, any more than you need fancy pants to take a yoga class or a special cushion to meditate. But we’re bored, confused, distracted, and, overall, right where late-stage capitalism wants us. 

How can we not only consume less, but also create more? How can we focus? How can we shine?

Ideas Matter. Actions Matter More.

Before I left urban life and all its complicated conveniences behind to create an off-grid permaculture farm in Ecuador (yes, really), I taught yoga for sixteen years. The tenets found in yoga can have profound real-world implications and effects — if we apply them sincerely. 

In the Yoga Sutras are two concepts that address consumption and clutter. Saucha and santosha, commonly translated as cleanliness and contentment, offer a lens through which to see our patterns.

Personal cleanliness in terms of hygiene is just one way to interpret saucha. There’s also cleanliness of thought and action. Imagine how much more time and energy we could harness for creation if we didn’t fritter it away with scrolling.

Santosha, or contentment, can also encompass a sense of satisfaction at having enough. Santosha is the clarity of knowing when enough is enough.

Pare it down.

Ok, but how? How, on this seemingly unstoppable and out-of-control bus called modern life, can we find a sense of satiety, of sanity? 

In recent years, having flung myself headlong from the consumption bus to see what would happen, I’ve picked up some neat life hacks along the way. 

You don’t have to build a house from mud or raise chickens to be more of a creator. Here’s some very simple methods I’ve distilled that anyone can apply to practice clean living and contentment.

Order What’s on the Menu

Here on the farm, most of my food choices are made for me by what’s currently ready for harvest.  

Living in full-on “civilization,” you don’t have these advantages. A common scenario: You sit down in a café and look at the lunch menu. Fried fish and baked chicken are the specials. Served with fries and a salad. Immediately, your consumption-conditioned brain jumps into gear. Maybe I can get the fish, but baked? And substitute sweet potato fries for the fries? Or ask if I can skip the fries but get a double portion of salad?

Hey! Maybe you can eat what’s on the freaking menu? Didya ever think of that?

Because it’s not just one lunch. You have to make thousands of choices every day from the minute you wake up. Some social psychologists have even given this burden a name: option fatigue. And if you are too fatigued to digest your food properly, what you eat hardly matters. So give your brain a break. Order what’s on the menu, eat what’s on your plate, and move on to bigger things. 

Work Offline

To access a desktop computer and WIFI, once or twice a week I walk for an hour to a bus stop where a jolting bus picks me up and transports me via a bumpy gravel road to a small town where I sit in a 1999-era “internet café” in a cramped cubicle and get to work. There is no golden milk latte, no vegan cookies, not even coffee. And yowzah, do I get stuff done.

Not having these conveniences has taught me how to focus. Now, you don’t have to go all hard-core draconian about your work space — believe me, sometimes I would love a good coffee while I’m working. But being in a less-than-luxurious environment with limited time really can put a fire under your ass. 

I advised a friend who was having trouble focusing to use Airplane Mode and work offline. Not only did he tell me he started creating more content and easily meeting deadlines, but every time he saw the little airplane icon slide into the top display of his phone, his breathing and heartbeat slowed. 

In the Sutras, Patanjali also suggests that freedom is felt through the absence of suffering. Not a presence, but an absence. A space. 

Do the Thing You Want to Do. 

If there’s something you really want to accomplish, focus on that thing. For example, my whole life I could never do a pull-up, despite assiduously practicing various forms of fitness. 

A few weeks ago Juan hung a bar from a bamboo rafter in our kitchen. Once again, I tried to do a pull-up. Nada.

Without access to options, I tried something new. Every day I attempted a wide grip overhand pull up. I didn’t do anything else to improve my pull up attempt except try the pull up. Little by little I started to pull myself up to the bar.

Earlier this week, my chin cleared for the first time. The next day, I did two. Yesterday, three.

Lesson: If you want to do something, do the damn thing. Not other things. Cleanliness of action — that’s saucha. 

Put Utility Before Vanity

Speaking of exercise goals, if you want to feel more contentment about yours, try putting them in line with living your life in a balanced, enjoyable way.

Instead of spending every day “working out” with weights or yoga or calisthenics, devote at least some of that time to community-based activities. Run a 5k for a cause, get some folks together to do a river clean up, plant a garden on the rooftop of your apartment building. Make a choice to be healthy and useful. 

You be with you. 

The average “engagement” with an Instagram post is less than half a second. A movie frame is even shorter. No wonder our brains are so damn tired.

Turn it off. Watch the little airplane icon slide into place and breathe. Learn to play the violin, speak Arabic, do algebraic equations. Make art. Absorb yourself in it. Stop fighting with strangers on the Internet. Get off the bus, at least for an hour every day. 

The very first lines of the Sutras read, approximately: Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. 

You don’t have to take yourself out of the world to observe it, or observe yourself. But you do need to slow down, consume less, and stop getting caught up in the storm of material life. You need time to think, ponder, reflect, and create. 

And drink more water.