I don’t know about you, but I feel icky. I find myself at the mercy of so many unknowns and worries and things beyond my control. I feel thrown off center and strangled by uncertainty. I’m mad that so many of the things that bring me joy have been taken away…simple things like feeling safe, my part-time job and teaching gig, the friends I interacted with there, music festivals, road trips to friends and family, a nice dinner out with my husband, a hug from my dad. As the election draws near, with so much at stake, and so much division and ugliness on display, I feel rattled and disheartened. I’m having a very hard time finding any joy, peace or optimism at the moment.
As often happens, I’ve gotten confused. While I’ve been busy bemoaning my loss of happiness, I have forgotten about the deeper, lasting experience of contentment. Known as Santosha, contentment is one of the five Niyama, or personal practices, laid out in the Yoga Sutra. But what is contentment exactly? Why is it so hard to hold onto? And, most importantly, how can we cultivate it in our lives? Expanded definitions of Santosha include: the ability to flow in life without struggle, being comfortable with what you have and what you do not, loving what is, the practice of gratitude and joyfulness, the ability to remain in the present moment, when the flame of the mind does not flicker in the wind of desire.
It can also be helpful to explore what Santosha is not. It is not enduring or muddling through. It is not resignation or apathy. It is not something that happens to us, but rather a choice, something we cultivate. It is not an emotion, but a state of consciousness. It is not to be confused with happiness. Generally, we feel happy when we get what we want. Happiness depends on external conditions matching our personal wishes. Santosha is a general feeling of peace and wellbeing unaffected by the fluctuations of the world.
Happiness is almost always fleeting, as it results from obtaining something we desire. We get it…the job, the partner, the house, and we are so happy! And then the shine wears off…the work gets boring or we get laid off, the partner turns out to be a complex, imperfect human being, the kitchen needs a remodel. Desire is endless, and running after it will leave us tired and disappointed. Contentment, on the other hand, is an internal state of being that we can cultivate, practice and strengthen. It is a sense of peace and equanimity that beats beneath the surface of every situation we encounter. As always, the yoga mat is the perfect place to practice this valuable life skill. Of course we feel happy when we finally master a pose we’ve been working towards. The true challenge is to find satisfaction and tranquility in the struggle along the way…the missteps, plateaus and foibles.
It’s okay to want what we want when we want it. And of course we should continue to strive. But if we’re looking for lasting peace, we have to practice being okay with whatever is happening in our lives right this minute. It requires effort, faith and surrender. We need to stay in the moment and look for the sweetness and the lessons in the now. When I ground into the present and embrace what is, instead of comparing it to what has been or could be, I can start to examine the beauty and the gifts of this uncharted moment. The peace in the pause. The opportunity to rest. The loving warmth and comfort of my home. The extra time and closeness with my spouse. The exciting adventure of an afternoon dog walk. The incredible miracle of my health. We will always find things to be grateful for when we take the time to look for them. Beauty is hiding in the darkness, waiting to be revealed in the spotlight of our loving attention. This second in time, this breath, is unique and precious in its own right.