The Practice of Contentment

by Jen Whinnen

Many, many years ago my grandparents bought a cabin in the woods near a lake in northern Idaho to commemorate one of their wedding anniversaries.  They paid cash. I think my grandma said they paid $5,000 for it. It was a summer cabin, just one step up from tent camping and small; about the size of most modern suburban living rooms with a small alcove off one end that could fit two twin beds, one along one wall and the other at its feet along the opposite wall.

It didn’t have a heating system and wasn’t insulated. It sits high in the mountains where, even in the middle of summer, the temperature can easily dip down into the 40s. My grandpa was a furnace repairman so he built a wooden stove out of sheet metal and this was the cabin’s sole source of heat.  The only other amenities were a kitchen sink with running water, electricity, a hot plate and a refrigerator.

It did not have a bathroom. There was an outhouse. The outhouse was smelly, dark and creepy. As such, it was a constant source of fascination and repulsion to us kids. We hated it, but couldn’t seem to stay away from it. We found seemingly endless ways to tease each other over it.

There was the time my sister and my cousins convinced me that a chicken had fallen in and that we were gonna have to send down the skinniest kid (me) to save it. Or the time my uncle lined us all up under a tarp and made us stand in line in the rain while everyone peed before going to bed. Or the countless times we took flashlights in so that we could stare down into the pit of poop. If you were trying to do your biz, there was a 99.99% chance that someone would materialize outside the door to tease you saying things like “don’t fall in! Wipe fast and don’t look down!” or promise you that something creepy was going to come out of the ooze and drag you down with it.

I am pretty sure I spent most of my early childhood summers constipated.

My grandpa eventually built a “bathroom” in the cabin. He installed a little toilet and sink off the side of the miniature bedroom. It was the size of a broom closet. Being a frugal man, he refused to open up additional fields of the septic system. To this day no one in my family can quite grasps the logic of this choice or how it relates to being frugal, but in doing so, everything made the little toilet back up. You could sneeze near this thing and it would need a couple of hours to settle down.

My grandpa was obsessed with the toilet. It was as if he felt like he’d spoiled us all by putting in this small piece of modern plumbing. What was the point of a toilet when there was a perfectly acceptable and useable outhouse 20 feet from the cabin? He simply did not want anything to go to waste. Not even an outhouse. Therefore, the toilet came with a set of very specific rules:

  1. No Pooping in the Toilet Until Night Time. If you had to do #2 during the day, go to the outhouse.
  2. No Peeing in the Toilet Until Night Time. During the day, use the outhouse.
  3. If You Pee in the Toilet at Night, DO NOT FLUSH. Wait until morning and flush everyone’s pee at once.
  4. If You Poop in the Toilet At Night, You May Flush the Toilet ONCE. Any left overs could wait with the pee for morning.

Basically it was a nocturnal toilet.

These rules created a weird sneakiness among my family.  I am pretty sure, although no one has openly admitted it, that everyone at one point sneaked in and used that toilet while the sun was up. I definitely remember slipping into the cabin after everyone had gone to the beach, making a mad dash, praying that no one would catch me and that damn thing would fully flush.

But, despite the hassle of the Nocturnal Toilet, the cabin itself was a bright, cheery, cozy little haven. White washed pine walls and gingham curtains, a large red kitchen table, a huge oval red and grey rag rug and a front porch with two rocking chairs and a little hibachi. It was homey and sweet and simple. Everyone was welcome (provided they only used the toilet at night) and everyone had fun.

The cabin was the sum total of all my summer vacations. Every summer we went to the Lake. We’d play cards, read, swim, hike, pick berries, build bonfires, roast marsh mellows, skinny dip, have epic pillow fights, put on vaudeville shows, eat piles of junk food, laugh until our sides hurt, see moose, deer, elk, bear, rabbits, squirrels, collect bugs, rocks and pinecones.

Looking back now I realize how lucky I was to have the cabin, however, at the time I felt like I was missing out. The cabin was small and cramped, it wasn’t on the water, we didn’t have a boat, our beach was communal and not private, we had the outhouse and the Nocturnal Toilet. I wanted Disneyland and Hawaii, a European vacation or even a trip to Yellowstone. Something I could take back to school and say “THIS is what I did on summer vacation!”

When my mom inherited the cabin she opened up the septic fields, put in a full bathroom, a washer/dryer and built a small bedroom. She knocked down the outhouse, put a shed over it and filled it with water toys and bikes. And now, I take my children to the lake lake every summer. It is the sum total of all our vacations. We hike, swim, pick berries, play cards, eat junk food and have a great time.

We are very lucky.

One day while we were at the (public) beach, I was struck by the unbelievable beauty of the lake. I was overcome with sweet childhood memories and a wave of gratitude. I couldn’t believe how amazingly fortunate I was to have grown up coming to a place like this and that I was now sitting here with my own children.  I felt like my heart was going to burst from pure, uninhibited gratitude and joy.

And then, I had a moment of contraction. Suddenly I was struck with a numbing fear.  We were going to be leaving soon. I may never see the lake again. I panicked. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to lose this moment! I didn’t want it to end!

But then it occurred to me, it’s already gone.

The minute I started to panic, it was gone. The depth of my gratitude, my peace and tranquility were gone. And I did it. I was the cause of both my peace and my panic.

And then I had one of those moments that comes when you are truly lucky. I realized that contentment is something you can actually practice.

This is revelatory to me. Up until this point I have always thought of contentment at something you achieve, something you earn. Work long days, put in hard hours, study and keep your nose to the grind stone and some day you will get to retire and spend all your hard earned money contentedly sitting around. It never occurred to me that contentment is something I could actually practice right now.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the second of the “observances” (Niyamasa) is Santosha: contentment. The Sutras say that in order to become enlightened one must  practice being content. I am sure oft over-used yoga catch phrase of “acceptance” could be used as another way of saying “contentment” but to me that would be incorrect. Acceptance implies a kind of acquiescence, a rolling over and letting the world pass over you. To practice contentment means that you are actively choosing to engage in the world according to your own terms. It means acknowledging when you have enough and being satisfied with it.

In conversations with my friends and students the question of being depleted and being dissatisfied has been coming up a lot. And while I am by no means above the fray, I can’t help but wonder, how often do we think our needs are not being met when in fact they are?  How often do we actively practice being discontented and how drastically would our lives change if we did the opposite? Americans are constantly being encouraged to crave, to be dissatisfied, to hunger so that we keep consuming. The fabric of our economy seems to depend on us remaining discontent, believing that we are too fat, too ugly, too old and too poor.

But are we? What would happen if we didn’t believe that?  What would it look like if we looked at our tiny cabins, and our outhouses and nocturnal toilets and said things like “Wow, this place is perfect. I get a respite from my life and time alone with my family. I need to take a crap and here is a place to do it. It satisfies my need. I am content with that.”

this post was taken from Jen’s personal blog “The Cabin” on 7/19/12. To read more, click here: