Remember the Stanley Kubrik film Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb? I grew up during the Cold War era, and still remember a duck and cover drill when I was in elementary school in the early 1970’s.
This week I am contemplating santosha, or contentment, one of the niyamas of yoga. Niyama means “rules” or “laws” but in the sense of personal observances. They represent an attitude we adopt toward ourselves as we create a code for living soulfully.
To practice santosha means to be at peace even while experiencing life’s difficulties. Accepting that there is a purpose for everything, karma or cause and effect, we learn to accept what happens. It means being happy with what we have.
If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.
-William Arthur Ward
What, me worry?
-Alfred E. Neuman, Mad Magazine
When I think of worry, I think of the subtitle of Dr. Strangelove. Even at that a young age, I sensed that hiding under a desk was not going save me from an atomic bomb. I distinctly recall one drill where they led the class into the hallway outside the classroom where we sat against the wall to protect us, presumably, from a blast.
I could not help noticing that their were transom windows directly above us between the classroom and the hallway. All I could think about was shards of glass raining down on my head. The air raid/bomb drill which was meant to calm our fear, only served to increase my worry.
I will return to santosha later in this posting, but first I would like to unpack worry. Remember Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman? Before the Internet and limitless TV channels, Mad was wildly popular with pre-teens and teens like me. “What, me worry?” Alfred’s motto has always been the perfect mockery of sensible, grownup thinking. (Today, many kids might mistake Alfred as a portrait of David Letterman as a child with his tooth gap.)
Ironically, “What, me worry?” does more for me to calm fears, because it takes worry head on and then dismisses it. What can you do when there is so much to worry about? Somehow you have to find the wherewithal to go on with your life.
Let’s parse this film title in a new way:
Dr. Strange Love: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Risk Failure
Dr.: Doctors are reassuring. They are well educated and are expected to have answers and solutions. President Jimmy Carter had a doctorate in Nuclear Engineering. Part of his downfall were the high expectations the electorate had for him. Compare him to President George W. Bush, who was always marketed to the public as an irresponsible Daddy’s boy, party boy, failed business man, etc. to lower expectations. Everyone was thrilled when he could put a complete sentence together on his own without speechwriters.
Sadly, doctor’s, at least Ph.D.’s don’t make us worry less; many make us worry more because while they may be intelligent and bright, they also have the stereotype of being different from the rest of us, disconnected from their feelings and the concerns of typical, less educated folk.
If like Dr. Strangelove they worked for the Rand Corporation, they were more to be feared for their calculations that prolonged the Vietnam War despite all the evidence that it was unwinnable.
Strangelove: Yes, as the song goes, love is strange. The word Strangelove also looks a little like “strangle” and in the film, Dr. Strangelove’s metal prosthetic hand eventually strangles the Strangelove when his rants become fascist madness. It is a strange love indeed that loves the bomb.
What strange loves do you have? I find I am in love with habits that are not good for me. Many people grapple with overeating, eating food with low nutritional content, a sedentary lifestyle (web-surfing, television couch potato), toxic people, procrastination, addictions, and so on. What makes us love these things when we know deep down that they do not serve us in achieving a happy, healthy, and balanced life?
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Fail: Yes, I know, I changed bomb to fail. Today we do not fear the H-bomb delivered by an ideological state rival as much as a dirty bomb from a terrorist attack. We do not hear as much about Mutually Assured Destruction or planetary Armageddon from nuclear war as in the late 20th century. But a failure of our leaders and of our security systems, and even of our national safety net, has become a deep concern.
Let’s take a look at personal failure now.
This is where yoga comes in. I have had the most success in my life when I took big risks without hedging my bets–no backup plan. I have changed careers many times over the years to adapt to changing circumstances: venturing out idealistically from college, making a cross-country move, earning more to support a family as the sole wage earner, taking care of my health and wellbeing, launching a business, etc. Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I failed.
I have been least successful during those periods of my life when I have been afraid to take risks. My failures became even more glaring and discouraging to me when I had not taken a risk, and things went sour. Nothing ventured, nothing dared.
For about six years, I went through long periods of unemployment, a divorce, and being a single Dad and I found it very difficult to rid myself of fear. I would try to start some new venture or job search and would sabotage myself by not believing that I could truly accomplish my goals. I had to play it safe and this turned out to be the worst strategy for me.
Discontent is good. Dissatisfaction is a healthy emotion to listen to. When we do not feel content, when we desire or need a change, we are uneasy and irritated. Irritation is good. It get’s us moving. When we don’t wallow in our discontent, we can use this information to make a decision to get clarity about what we want to change.
When we know what change we want, this translates to ambition.
Ward says, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.” This sounds a bit to “Law of Attraction” to me–some idea that if I tape a fake check for $1 million on my ceiling over my bed that I will just attract this into my life. Imagining is powerful, but real action steps are required to achieve it. Not everyone is going to achieve everything they imagine without a plan.
However, I do agree that you have to open yourself, be vulnerable and strong, and truly believe that you are capapble of achieving what you imagine.
When we let go of our fears we can dream. When we dream we can translate ambition into a focused goal and a strategy.
As Ward says, “If you can dream it, you can become it.” The only reason to dream it is if you are discontent and want to bring something into your life that you don’t have and eliminate things that no longer serve you.
So which is it? Contentment or discontent?
A meditation and yoga practice is the place to start to discover this answer for yourself. Yoga can help release fears and worries. Yoga can help you learn to love yourself and bless all people and situations. Then failures are no longer something to fear.