By Ambā Ann-Marie Everitt
The woman’s world number one tennis player, Ash Barty, retired at twenty-five, with no reason other than being satisfied with her achievements. Many fans and fellow athletes found this startling, unsettling, unthinkable. And yet, this proud Ngaragu woman, an Aboriginal Australian, won the Australian Open, a huge home-court victory, and bowed out.
What is really hard for most to comprehend is that she is saying “no” to future tennis earnings, which are in the tens of millions of dollars. She does not need to earn another day in her life, and she’s happy with that.
Would you be?
She is turning her back to more wins, more titles, and, the chase.
The driving philosophy of expansionism, growth for growth’s sake has met, in Ash Barty, a patch of waratahs, a beautiful and hardy flowering bush. These inflorescent, magnificent red proteas flowers are happy with their corner of the sky. They have no interest in invading their neighbor’s territory, they are content with their own.
Ash Barty is saying yes to life, opening to all its possibilities.
As we contemplate how to cultivate contentment in our lives we can appreciate how helpful the yogic toolbox is. In “Raja Yoga: A Practical Guide” by Swami Suryadevananda1, he shares, “When one is caught up in what is mistakenly called ‘quality of life’ — there is loss of quality in the life being lived’!
The yogi questions all and any ‘what’ that arises and sees clearly if any of it is necessary.
It is common to be fearful of contentment for it is associated with complacency and lack of passion. However, if we pause we can see that contentment is not a state of passivity in life, we see that when we have santosha, contentment we have exercised viveka, discernment and vairagya, non-attachment, and we have been fully engaged in our choices of what we need to do and what we don’t need to do. The result is power and agency over our lives.
Vairagya allows us to see clearly, to not let the mind be colored by imposed ideas of how to live. It can free us from being tricked by motivations that don’t feed our souls like the social myth that unbridled growth is natural, and that unlimited expansion is a sane and correct organizing principle.
When we have the clarity and willingness to do what needs to be done, and also the clarity to eschew harmful social norms, we learn how to separate thought from action. Far from complacent, this is a liberating process leading us from selfish to selfless living.
Vandana Shiva, the great Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist, and anti-globalization author, who also gets my vote to be included on Integral Yoga Institute of New Yor’s wall of saints, teaches that the intersecting catastrophes that we are experiencing globally are solved first inside our body and mind.2 It is impossible to stop the 1% when we are playing their game of “progress.”
As Sri Swami Satchidananda encourages, Karma Yoga, simple living in service of others, so too Vandava emphasizes, is central to making a shift from selfish egocentric thinking and living, to selfless ecocentric thinking and living. “Egocentrism leads to greed, consumerism, taking others’ share of things. Ecocentrism leads to caring, sharing, and not taking others’ share.”
It often feels like the dominant economic paradigms of limitless growth have spilled over into our personal lives and we are on a constant self-improvement grind. Ash has successfully questioned the rules of this game and sees clearly what is necessary for her. We too can engage in a process of disentanglement, to allow contentment to arise naturally in our lives while creating the right conditions for humans to reconnect with one another, create equitable living systems and heal the planet.
1. Raja Yoga: A Practical Guide” by Swami Suryadevananda
2. ONENESS vs the 1% by Vandana Shiva