Santosha–Experience Contentment in the Here and Now
“Everyone is already the living Buddha, complete, whole, perfect as you are. All this action and effort to become special is just making you very unspecial and creating a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.” –Zen master Dennis Genpo Merzel
Moving right along to the second niyama–santosha, which means “contentment.” I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word “contentment,” the word “happiness” appears alongside it in my mind, as if the two were twins born seconds apart. But they are really different. And I’m not just talking the difference between identical and fraternal twins. I’m talking really different.
Donna Farhi sums it up nicely in her book Yoga Mind, Body, and Spirit:
Contentment shouldn’t be confused with happiness, for we can be in difficult, even painful circumstances and still find some semblance of contentment if we are able to see things as they are without the conflictual pull of our expectations. (p 13)
The way I see it–for most of us–happiness is a feeling of joy or pleasure that arises from getting something we want. She got a raise at her job, and she was really happy about it. He qualified for a place on the swim team, and he was happy about that. You get your dream house, you may tell yourself, and you’ll be happy. If we could all make x dollars, then we’ll all be happy together.
The trouble with this kind of happiness is that it’s externally driven, and therefore fleeting. There will always be some other experience that we will need to create to feel happy once the last experience is over, once we’ve gotten our masters degree, or climbed the summit of a mountain, or published a book, or gotten a nicer car. Now we’ll want to go for the doctorate, there are other bigger mountains to climb, greater books to write, and even nicer cars to acquire. If we are looking to external factors such as fame, wealth, and recognition to be happy, we will ultimately discover that there is never enough of any of it to feel complete inside.
The eight limbs of yoga lead us on a journey from identification with the outside world and all of the sorrow, limitation, and inadequacy that arise from such identification–to the realization that the true source of joy, of peace, is within. We learn gradually how to withdraw our senses from objects of attachment, and search inside, identifying the thoughts that give rise to the attachments, the expectations that things should be a certain way.
It’s easy to feel happy when we hit every green light on our way somewhere, and we find that perfect parking spot close by, and there is no line to wait in. But what happens when the opposite is true? How do you feel if you are caught in traffic and stopped at every red light, you circle the block for 30 minutes looking for one spot to open up, and are met with a long line to wait in upon your arrival?
Contentment doesn’t blossom when we get every single thing in life to go our way, although that can be really nice when it happens (does that really ever happen?)–contentment is freedom from the impossible expectations that we generate in our quest to be happy. We can cultivate a strong sense of neutrality in our mind, equanimity, so that we are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. We find balance. We meet challenges with a neutral, focused, powerful mind and are more effective in doing what needs to be done to move past them. With such a mindset we don’t wait for things to change in order to feel good. We know that the good feelings come from within–the peace, the joy, the fulfillment–and unlike the fleeting pleasures mentioned earlier, these are the feelings that will remain in the midst of life changes, if we have done the work of tapping into them, bringing them to light in our consciousness.
Our yoga practice, the faithful friend that it is, gives us a chance to experience this valuable work on all levels, but as mentioned before, it takes your commitment to show up on your mat, your courage to stay there as the challenges arise, some time and persistence, some patience and maybe a little faith.
In a world where we are constantly moving, multitasking, trying to be efficient, produce more, do more–it can feel really unfamiliar, uncomfortable even, to come your mat and just be still for a moment. This is where I like to begin class a lot of the time, asking my students to be still in a comfortable seated posture, to close their eyes and and go within, to center, to just breathe.
If you notice discomfort, I tell them, let it happen. If you notice thinking, let it happen. Whatever happens, let it happen–but stay aware. Beyond the sensations of the body and the neurotic, repetitive thoughts of the mind, is an awareness in you that is infinite. Beyond the noise, the movement, the chaos of the world, are the silence and the stillness of your true self. One moment of willingness to be still and watch the breath gives you a window to experience the deep contentment of this infinite self in you.
From this place of openness, of willingness, I like to encourage my students to move into their practice gently, with open mind, open eyes, open heart, as they tune into their body’s offerings that day. A few cat and cow poses, moving with the breath, stretching the front and back body, limbering up the spine. A gentle down dog with lots of self-directed movement to simply tune in to body, mind, breath. A standing forward fold to notice what it feels like to set down the weight of the world from our shoulders, rolling up the spine and standing with awareness, finding an intention to guide our practice, staying with the breath.
Every single pose is a chance to live santosha, contentment. Whether you are sitting, eye closed, watching the breath, or standing and swaying as you balance in tree, or finding a bind, twisting, in a revolved side-angle, in each of these places there are body, mind, and breath working in concert and the awareness in you that witnesses it all.
Once you get yourself into a pose, once you’ve tweaked your alignment until you’ve come to a place where you can sustain an even breath for a little while, this is where the real work begins. It make take three breaths or it may take ten, but after a while, the pose becomes challenging. What happens to the mind in the precise moment that the body begins to feel the work? “Wow, I’m doing some serious work here! I really feel these muscles of mine! This is pretty intense!” Maybe the mind can’t wait to get the body out of the pose. Maybe the mind says, “I’m weak. This pose should be easier than it is. I should be more flexible. This teacher is crazy. I should’ve gone to the later class. Who wants to think about all of this stuff anyway?” Any number of thoughts can race through the mind in a split second. Try your best not to believe any them.
Just come back to your breath. Maybe acknowledge the challenge of the pose, and without asking yourself to be stronger or more flexible, without asking the teacher to be better at pacing or dialogue, without asking the people around you to stop huffing and puffing, without asking life to be any different–just breathe, and be with what is. Feel your aliveness, and let it be enough. This is the essence of santosha.
A word of caution here. It may be tempting to think that contentment means that you should just sit back and let life unfold with no effort on your part, because this is the opposite of resistance and impossible expectations, right?
Donna Farhi offers:
Contentment also should not be confused with complacency, in which we allow ourselves to stagnate in our growth. Rather it is is a sign that we are at peace with whatever stage of growth we are in and the circumstances we find ourselves in. This doesn’t mean that we accept or tolerate unhealthy relationships or working conditions. But it may mean that we practice patience and attempt to live as best we can within our situation until we are able to better our conditions. (p 13)
Rolf Gates wrote, “Contentment isn’t complacency, it is reverence.” (Meditations From the Mat, p 96) We don’t tune out and go to sleep when things are unsatisfactory to us. We tune in on even deeper levels and search for the sacredness in this very ordinary moment. We do what needs to be done–take out the trash, wash the dishes, fold the laundry–with gratitude and love glowing in our hearts. It deepens our connection to others, and reveals a higher purpose beyond our function in the world. As we learn to live with contentment, it will shine through everything we do, and light the way for the those whose lives we touch to also feel fulfilled from within. This is some of the most sacred work we can do. Let us undertake to do it joyfully!
Coming next: Tapas, the third niyama. Please leave any comments or questions below, I’d love to hear from you!
Where can you begin today to cultivate more contentment in our life? Are there any particular areas where you have been harboring expectations for specific outcomes? Who would you be without the expectations? What would life look like if you could be content in this moment? More important, how would you feel if you were living in this contentment?