There is a popular story–some call it an urban legend–that circulates about Itzhak Perlman, one of the greatest and most famous violinists of our time. He contracted polio as a child, requiring him to wear leg braces and walk with crutches. Now, at each concert performance, he makes a slow entrance on his crutches onto the stage, sits down, unclasps the braces on his legs and prepares to play. As the story goes, one evening in a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, he entered the stage in his usual way and began performing a challenging concerto. Near the middle of the performance one of the strings on his violin broke. Everyone in the audience could hear the loud snap. For any other violinist this would not have been a problem, embarrassing maybe, but not a problem. He would have simply gotten up, gone to the side of the stage and attached a new string or gotten another violin. The audience sat in silence waiting to see what Perlman would do. Would he have to put his braces back on and painstakingly make his way across the stage to find another violin?
They watched in wonder as he paused, closed his eyes, and remained still. Then he signaled for the conductor to begin again. Perlman picked up where he had left off and began passionately playing the piece in its entirety with only three strings. It was obvious watching him that he was creating, modulating, and reconfiguring the piece in his head to accommodate the absent string. At the end of the performance, there was an awed silence. Then the audience went wild, jumping to their feet in deafening applause. Perlman raised his bow to quiet the crowd. When the audience settled down he spoke in a reverent tone. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
Grandmothers used to call that making do with what you have; or making a way out of no way. In yoga making do with what you have, or finding a way out of no way, is one of 10 ethical principles practiced to cultivate inner harmony and strength. It is called the practice of Santosha, or contentment. To the yogi, practicing contentment is a wise way of making peace with our family, our community, and ourselves. It is a pathway to joy.
I used to think that making do was a sign of complacency, but I’ve come to recognize it as a way of being satisfied within the container of your own experience. It involves the practice of appreciating and wanting what you have instead of focusing your attention on having what you want.
Contentment should not be confused with complacency, which is a state of stagnation, or no growth. Rather, contentment is a sign that we are at peace with our circumstances, and ourselves. Being content does not mean that we have to settle for what we don’t want, whether it is a toxic relationship, unbearable living conditions, or inhumane working conditions. Contentment starts with accepting reality as it is, not as we want it to be. Accepting reality can lead us to make the necessary changes that result in an overall sense of well-being.
Paradoxically, accepting reality as it is can help us develop a greater capacity for hopefulness. It opens us to the possibility of a better situation than the one we may find ourselves in. The Perlman parable teaches us that by accepting reality as it is instead of longing for something different, we can learn to make something beautiful with what we have left.
Contentment is not the same as happiness. We all face difficult times in our lives. But it is possible to find contentment even in painful circumstances through acceptance of the situation. In the case of a devastating illness, loss, or other unwelcomed circumstance, we may go through various stages of emotional turmoil such as denial, anger, and depression before we reach acceptance. But it is possible to find contentment and inner peace, even then.
No matter what your circumstance, there is always the possibility of living life more fully. Contentment is the ability to appreciate how much you have, rather than how much you want. As we cultivate this attitude within ourselves we become more stable in our ability to remain joyful even when things don’t go as we planned or as we hoped they would. When we find a way to make do with what we have we have opened the door to making a way out of no way, to finding peace and contentment within ourselves, and to becoming joyful beyond measure.