Karmacology: Mindful Living, Sacred Practice

Santosa: Contentment and the Embrace of Life

Realize that true happiness lies within you. Waste no time and effort searching for peace and contentment and joy in the world outside. Remember that there is no happiness in having or in getting, but only in giving. Reach out. Share. Smile. Hug. Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.
-- Og Mandino

Samtosha is the second Niyama -- or personal observance -- in the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is translated from Sanskrit to mean modesty, acceptance that there is a purpose for everything, or simply contentment.

That sounds easy enough. We all want to be happy and content. In fact, this is one of the foundational truths that America is based on. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Got it. Samtosha equals "pursuit of Happiness." No problem. Next?

But... From experience with the other yamas and niyamas, it's likely that Samtosha can't be that easy or that obvious. And the difference seems to be how we approach the concept of contentment. On further reflection, Samtosha isn't "pursuit" of contentment, but rather "practice" of contentment. And that's a profound difference.

Pursuit means that there is something out there -- external to ourselves -- that we can achieve. We chase these endless, transitory goals: we will be content when we graduate, when we get the better job, when we get married, when we retire. But "practice" implies present doing, or "being."

So how can we be content? It's easy to be content in certain situations, after a great meal, for instance, or upon seeing the first full blooms in our gardens. For a brief moment we are satisfied, and happy in the present. But how are we supposed to be content while sitting in traffic, or fielding calls at the office, or while rushing from dance practice to baseball practice with a SUV full of nine-year-olds?

The deck is further stacked against us because we live in a culture where our economy is fueled by discontent. We are immersed in advertising that is designed to foster dissatisfaction with our looks and our lives, promising happiness through material possessions, self-gratification and sensory or sensual experience. Cravings are cultivated, while we are simultaneously trained to avoid any form of personal discomfort. All the while, we unwind and relax by abdicating thought to passive, fantasy entertainment played out on television.

Unfortunately, this perfectly describes what the yoga texts called the five Kleshas, or obstacles, which block our path to contentment and liberation, and which are the cause of all suffering. Is it any wonder most everyone you meet is stressed-out and ill-tempered?

So how do we find freedom from this maze and experience contentment?

In the martial arts, various masters have described the natural human state of contentment and serenity as being like a still lake, smooth and calm. When it is disturbed, water responds with exact appropriateness, and then returns instantly to the calm state. It does not make a big splash over a small stone, and does not continue to make ripples long after the boat has passed. When the lake is choppy in high winds, it does not struggle to return to calm, nor fret about when the wind will subside. "Be like water, my friend," advised Bruce Lee, "be like water."

The lesson from Santosa, then, is to respond appropriately to the challenges that life presents to us, and to use our awareness to avoid the many traps of attention and attachment that surround us.

This is not easy to do, which is why it is called practice. But the other yamas and niyams have given us tools by which to free ourselves from the cravings and attachments and desires through which we can be so easily manipulated. We can turn off the TV, and tune out the noise of distraction. We can make mental decisions and moral choices.

We cannot change the traffic, but we can decide how we respond to it. We may not be able to change our workload, but we can change our attitude towards it. With awareness and consistent work, we can find our trigger points, and simply not let anyone -- even a savage pack of fourth-graders -- push our buttons.

And the best part is: it gets easier. When we exercise and stretch the body, it gets stronger. When we experience and develop awareness of contentment, even in those fleeting moments, then we can learn to expand, strengthen and sustain it. With enough practice, we find that we can return to those feelings of calm and contentment even when the world around us is abuzz in discord and disharmony. The more familiar this place of peace becomes, the easier it is to find our way back there.

When we recognize that life is a process of growth, then all experience and circumstance -- the fun and the frustrating alike -- becomes something that we can learn from. When we become aware that every action, and every reaction, has a consequence, then we become more increasingly more likely to choose the appropriate response. This is, again, where Karma comes in.

Through Santosa, a little rock causes only a little splash. We can watch the news without feeling hopeless and powerless. Our personal crises are no longer the end of the world. The loss of a job or the end of a relationship does not leave us feeling devastated. There are things that we can control, and there are things beyond our control. We experience empathy, regret, grief and the full spectrum of human emotions, but they are emotions we we have, and not emotional states that have us. As we quiet our emotional agitation, we allow the waters of consciousness to return to stillness.

Santosa means being happy with what we have, rather than being unhappy about what we don't have. It is cultivating the attitude of gratitude. It is about finding our greatest joy of self through selflessness and compassion. It is knowing our place in the universe at every moment.

And in those moments when we are content, we can know that there is a little more contentment in the world.