Swami Sivananda (1897-1963) was greatly responsible for the rise of yoga in the West. His teachings are instrumental to the way that I try to live. Speaking about one of yoga’s ten commandments, he said, “Contentment with whatsoever one obtains of its own accord without effort is Santosha. Riches and poverty are not counted by the amount of wealth one keeps. A king, if he keeps too many desires and if he wants more, is considered to be a beggar. A beggar, if he is contented with what he has, is really a king. From contentment comes real happiness. If a man has no contentment, his mind will be always wandering.”
Since I was a young child, the division between “haves” and “have nots” bothered me. Today, I seem to be drawn more to the worlds of the “have nots.” Void of physical possessions, they value things that I deem more important.
For example, just 48 hours since returning from three months in Central America, those divisions are glaring at me.
Namely, I feel uncomfortable in a world where supply and demand necessitates big box stores. Where people load their carts (physical or online) with so much stuff that they don’t need. What one really needs is love.
In Nicaragua, my co-workers work six days a week. Many, commute. Or, live beyond overflowing streams and rivers via unpaved roads in a tropical jungle. Their pay? $130 a month is the most recent government mandated minimum wage for the tourism sector.
Fermin and Cruz are two night guards where I stay.
On my first day in town this year, Hurricane Harvey hit. Fermin lost his entire house. Half of Cruz’s home was washed away. it wasn't a two-story brick house with white picket fence. Their living quarters were most likely simple concrete block walls topped with a tin roof held in place be heavy rocks, bricks or pieces of wood. Fermin lived in his home with his wife and children. His mother and sister lived in another building on the same lot. Their house, too, came crumbling down in Harvey’s force.
Fermin and Cruz, despite the fact that their material worlds have been upturned, maintain their composure and professionalism. Neither Fermin nor his family can rebuild on the land they own. The river is too high. They are living in limbo. His mother and sister are with in-laws. Fermin and his family are with friends. During the day, he hangs out on a street corner, not far from where his home was.
Consider this. When Harvey hit, our entire region in Nicaragua was without water and electricity for a few days. The border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was closed for several days because of the lack of power.
On the other hand, the night I returned to San Antonio our house is without water. We called the plumber, and they came at midnight to fix the problem. This is America, right? You can’t bear to be without running water for more than a few minutes. But you have to pay for it. A lot.
Power was just reinstated in the home of a friend’s elderly mother in Puerto Rico. She’s one of the lucky ones. Seven weeks after Hurricane Maria, more than half of people on the island are without power. While Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, it’s not a state. So the same rules don’t apply.
Stateside, if Superman were to look into people's homes or car trunks, maybe he would know what seem to be the necessities for John Q. Public. An iPhone 8? A Ford F-150? Sony PlayStations? A quadcopter? Starting with a daily Starbuck’s Caffe Latte?
However, where on the list of priorities do we place friends, families, neighbors, co-workers? Or, connection with nature?
"There is no end for craving in the life of a worldly man,” taught Swami Sivananda. “That is the reason why a worldly man is ever restless despite his wealth and comforts. There is always dissatisfaction with his lot. He is ever discontented. Before one craving is satisfied, another craving is ready to occupy his mind, and this craving agitates the mind and makes a constant demand for gratification.”
In our society, we tend to be so focused — and attached — to material things. Yogic teachings do not say one must live in a cave. Rather, the problem is with attachment and lack of contentment. We must be able to release at any time. Just as from one day to the next, Cruz and Fermin lost their homes.
During my month in Nicaragua, many backpackers from all over the world fill my yoga classes. One young guy from the U.K. had just begun his adventure in Nicaragua. He was planning on being in Central America for three or four months with his childhood best buddy. All he had with him is one rather small and light tubular backpack. Then, he got bit by a sting ray. The barb is embedded in his foot. He called his parents, and decided to leave the next day to return to the U.K. for treatment.
“I’m so sorry you have to cut your travels short,” I tell him. His response exuded contentment: I get to be with my girl friend, and it’ll be more comfortable to have treatments while at home. He also shows detachment. First, for being on the road for that long without his family or girlfriend. Second, to change his plans and head across the Atlantic from one day to the next.
“Be not bound to anybody, any place or thing. Do not desire to possess. Possessions bring pain,” said Swami Sivananda.
Read more about contentment and detachment.