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Active Contentment: 5 Tips to Have Both Peace and Ambition

“Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.

Stress equals success.

I wholeheartedly believed this for many years. Who had led me so astray? I have only myself to blame.

The concept of peace had no practical application in my life. Peace was something that was necessary in war-torn countries, not in my mind.

This toxic belief began in college. The library often felt like a boxing ring where my fellow students and I competed to be the most stressed out.

Who had the most papers to write, the most books to read, the most labs to complete? Who had stayed up the latest the night before? Who had gone the longest without sleep or food? Or a shower?

If you were stressed out, you were respected. Accepted.

“I’m stressed out, so that must mean I’m achieving something,” I’d think to myself on a regular basis. Then I graduated, and the stress continued.

After six months of working a nine-to-five office job, I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life building someone else’s dream. I wanted to carve out a life of freedom for myself, so I decided to start my own business.

At first, I felt completely liberated. I woke up excited to work every morning. Then guilt set in.

Oh guilt, what a useless emotion.

As I sat working from my home office in my favorite sweat pants, I watched the morning commuters. Most looked tired, frazzled, and unhappy. And a big part of me envied them. Envied? Yes.

I no longer felt “accepted” in the rat race.

“What did you do to deserve this great life?” said my subconscious mind. “If you want to be happy, you need to be stressed out first. Peace only comes after a life of hard work and huge success. Retirement—now that’s happiness!”

I have no idea why these thoughts were so prevalent. Perhaps it was because I’d never known there was a different way of life out there.

And so with this mindset, I set about attempting to becoming as stressed out as possible. I believed that if I wasn’t cramming as much into my day as possible and setting ridiculous goals for myself, I couldn’t truly call myself an entrepreneur.

And then something happened. Something called yoga.

I started doing yoga and meditating on a regular basis, and the practice slowly but surely seeped into me and began to unleash a peace I’d never thought possible. I started smiling more and caring less. I experienced fleeting moments of pure contentment.

My relationships improved, and I learned how to handle stress in a healthy way. I no longer let it run my life.

I also stopped thinking about the future as much.

A few months after my turning point, I had coffee with a friend.

“All I truly want to be in life is content,” I told him confidently. I was sure I had life figured out once and for all.

“Great,” he replied, “but is content all you ever want to be? What about always aiming for something bigger? What about your desire to continually grow and learn and transform?”

Sigh. I knew he was right. After almost burning out on creating stress, I had gone too far in the other direction. I had lost sight of my vision.

I knew that if I gave up on my ambitions, I wouldn’t be content for a long. I had always been a big dreamer.

Balance, balance, balance.

Everything I was reading at the time told me to “live in the moment.” Yoga is all about being present in the here and now, and I couldn’t figure out how to factor this mentality into my budding business.

“How the heck can I apply the concept of living in the moment in a practical way in my life?” I shouted at the universe.

Finally, a tiny voice in my head answered me. There was no blare of trumpets, no fanfare. It was simple, beautiful:

Seek active contentment.

Active contentment. Such a liberating concept. It’s about being completely at peace with who you are and what you’re doing in the moment while simultaneously maintaining a vision for the future.

The following are five ways to help cultivate an attitude of active contentment:

1. Make time for downtime every day.

Downtime could involve meditation, light exercise, listening to music, reading something for fun—anything that puts you at ease and allows you to check out for a while. The recharge time will help you become more receptive to new ideas and inspiration.

2. Write a list of everything you’re grateful for right now.

Read it often. Gratitude is powerful, and taking stock of everything you have right now can help ease the pressure in stressful times.

3. Make two lists of goals: immediate goals for the week ahead and bigger-picture goals to work toward.

Being able to check off smaller goals grounds you in the present and will help motivate you to keep working toward those bigger, future goals. Momentum is also powerful force.

4. Celebrate small successes every day.

The biggest achievements are often a result of multiple small ones. By learning to appreciate the little things, you open yourself up to a world of joy.

5. Remember that in the end, there is nothing you have to do.

It’s your life. Just breathe. It’s good to be motivated, but sometimes just taking the pressure off is the most effective way to accomplish a big goal.

It’s a lesson that took me a long time to learn: just because you’re happy with where you’re at doesn’t mean you don’t want to be inspired or aim higher. Being at peace in the moment will only help you attract more success into your life.

Peace isn’t some distant goal to work toward. It’s something that can be cultivated on a daily basis to help you achieve your goals in a health way.

Active contentment is growth. It’s a state of mind that allows for ambition as well as peace. I challenge you to be actively content with your life. Namaste!

Photo by missportilla

Avatar of Rachel Small

About Rachel Small

Rachel Small is a freelance editor, writer, lover of words, yoga enthusiast, and music extremist. She believes life should be lived with passion (and, of course, vanilla lattes and red wine). Visit her at http://freelancingtofreedom.com.

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  • Kris

    I asked myself this question just Yesterday. I have had some huge life altering changes in my life in the last several months, some good some no-so-much. The good is i’v decided (at 53) to chase my dreams I won’t get into the not-so-much stuff. Tiny Budda has been a god send, but I have been feeling exactly the same the last couple of weeks, trying to live in the present, calm, peaceful yet trying to move forward with my plans. I started a gratitude journal yesterday and I think todays entry is going to be all of you young people that contribute to Tiny Budda. Thank You from the bottom of my heart, I am rediscovering the person I used to be at your age, it’s wonderful because I really liked her, hopefully I can be an older, wiser version of her. YEA

  • Lauren

    this is fantastic, thank you. i have been grappling with this concept for a while—how to live peacefully yet still accomplish satisfying goals. i recently started graduate school. during my first week my advisor told me that he wakes up at 4 in the morning every day to start working. that’s not the life i want, now or ever, i was ready to quit right then and there! another thing that i’ve found helps is checking the source of our motivation for achievements. is it to be recognized by others as ‘successful’ or for other people to see us as smart? or is it for personal satisfaction and the desire to make a meaningful contribution to the beautiful world that we live in? i try (but don’t always succeed!) at sourcing my work from the latter.

  • Dale

    OUTSTANDING ARTICLE!!! Yes, I was yelling… :) Since subscribing to tinybuddha, it seems every article I’ve read has come to me at a time when I needed to read that article. None more than this one. Thank you, thank you, thank you….

  • http://www.vishnusvirtues.com/ Vishnu

    Great points Rachel. I too used to think that success equaled stress. THe more stress meant the better I was doing. I appreciate the line – being at peace with yourself will only help you attract more success into your life! I think the suggestions you’ve provided – especially planning for downtime and remembering there’s nothing that must be done, is a good way to live and have more success. and be sane in the process:)

  • Rachel

    Thanks so much, Lauren. Great point – it’s very easy to start measuring our own success by how others define it, but this is definitely not the most fulfilling way to live!

  • Rachel

    That’s so great, Kris! Tiny Buddha has also been a godsend for me. Thanks so much for your kind words. All the best to you in this new phase of your life :)

  • Rachel

    You’re so welcome, Dale! Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for reading!!

  • Rachel

    Thanks very much, Vishnu! It’s so easy to get caught up in the chaos of stress and forget about your well being and yes, your sanity, which is why it’s so important to take the time to cultivate peace within yourself.

  • Aimee

    Rachel. I totally understand about the guilt thing. I just returned from a two month European journey and unfortunately I was so caught up in feeling guilty because all my friends were working and here I was traveling through Europe that I was unable sometimes to enjoy myself. Guilt is a useless emotion. Why should I feel guilty about doing anything I enjoy? I earned the money to travel. It’s not like it was someone else’s money. But I also find myself almost constantly thinking that if I am not struggling then I don’t deserve contentment. Through my trip I realized that right now for me, peace IS the goal. My ambition now is to find inner peace and that is a huge goal for me. I also love yoga and now I want to go to Costa Rica to a yoga retreat but find myself thinking, “but you JUST got back from Europe! You should work!” Why do our thoughts defy us? If I want to go to Costa Rica then I have the right. It’s my life. But the guilt creeps in. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought that you have to earn contentment by being stressed. We all deserve it and I just hope that soon I too can reach the goal of inner peace.

  • http://freehappiness.in/ Chetan Sharma

    It’s great when you find something to read which connects directly to what you have been thinking. I was a bit confused about the point that “You should be content in whatever you have.” But then I asked myself, “If I’ll be content in whatever I have, then how will I grow in my life.”

    But I think I found little bit of the answer to my question in your article. I have already been doing points 1,3 and 4 in my life. But I think today I’m going to make a list of what I’m grateful for and also ponder over your last point.

    Thanks Rachel! :)

    Also going to share this wonderful post on my blog as well.. :)

  • Rowena

    Beautifully said, Rachel! You articulated several ideas that I’ve felt instinctively for the last year. Thank you for composing them into a list to live by.

  • Rachel

    Thank you, Rowena :)

  • Rachel

    Thank you so much, Chetan! I very much appreciate the share. Your blog is wonderful – looking forward to reading more from you.

  • Rachel

    Aimee – thank you so much for this comment! This is exactly the kind of thought process I struggled with! You DO deserve it – you deserve to do the things that bring you joy and peace. And incidentally, I went to Costa Rica last year and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life! :)

  • Tanya

    Great article! Thank you for sharing. I currently have been struggling with what i want out of life and the stress I have from achieving that happiness. Is the stress worth the happiness from what i want? I guess I just need to work on balance.

  • Graham Fraser

    This idea of deserving to be happy without guilt seems impossible for me. By western standards I am beyond poor… and still feel guilty for even participating (as minimally as I do) in a (capitalist) system which subjugates so many to such misery.

    I have never once got to the end of a meal withoutseeing the faces of the millions of starving people out there. I can’t enjoy a trip or work without being painfully aware of the damage it creates. I don’t believe theseare “errors” in perspective; they are facts.

    So how does one maintain a value: “that no one deserves anything more than any other” while driving cars, starting a business, or stuffing yetanother biig-mac into your face knowing the hell caused elsewhere in the world as a DIRECT result of your actions?

  • Rachel

    Thanks so much Tanya! Balance is definitely key and something I work on achieving every day.

  • Rachel

    Really good point, Graham. I have definitely felt this way at times throughout my life. Rather than focus on the guilt though, I think it’s important to be grateful for everything we have, be mindful of our impact and reduce it whenever possible, and use what we have to give back to those in need in whatever ways we can.

  • David

    Thanks for the great article!
    Reminds me to enjoy the moment we’re in. Whether it is a bad or good one, it’s being mindful of those is what makes us peaceful.

  • Eva F.

    I wanted to yell!! I am making my list right now! And writing at the end to remind me, THERE IS NOTHING I HAVE to DO!
    Thank you!

  • Rachel

    Thank you Eva!! :) It’s definitely a liberating statement!

  • Rachel

    Thanks David! And very true – mindfulness is key to peacefulness.

  • sridevi

    lovely article! one small correction though…momentum is not force…the time derivative of momentum is force! jus kidding:D
    thanks for the article

  • D

    Hi all,
    I’m from Cape Town in South Africa. I’ve been living in Thailand for 3 years. It’s interesting how “spirituality” is something developing in the West, something special and novel, where in the East it’s second nature. Yes they’re predominantly Buddhist, but the whole mindset, culture and everything about Thailand is a complete reversal of thinking to the West. Their focus is without a doubt on inner first and outer second. Ours is becoming so, but the scales are still tipped in the direction of outer first it seems.
    Happy year everyone :-)
    D