At first glance, SANTOSHA (contentment) sounds like a warm, fuzzy, 1970’s high-on-dope sort of virtue – like, yeah man, come sit and smoke with me and watch the world go by.
However, if you’ve been with me from the beginning of this journey through the yamas and niyamas – ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha and saucha– you’ll have realized that NONE of the yamas or niyamas can be taken at face value. Each is multi-layered – including santosha, loosely and popularly translated as ‘contentment’. A better-fitting translation would be “inner contentment”, which is quite correct, up to a point.
Let’s see what the experts say. Georg Feuerstein speaks surprisingly briefly about this niyama, but in a few lines sums ‘contentment’ up as “an easy state of mind under all circumstances”. We need to bold the “all circumstances”, as it means a mind free from “anger, desire, greed, frustration, ambition, fear”. He quotes one commentary that understands ‘contentment’ as “not hankering after more than is at hand”. 1
A similar, but fuller explanation is “The inner state where exists a joyful and satisfied mind, regardless of one’s environment, whether one meets with pleasure or pain, profit or loss, fame or contempt, success or failure, sympathy or hatred”. 2
This appears to be humanly impossible, yet stories abound of people who have remained calm and even optimistic in the midst of dire circumstances. There’s the story of the Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was interred in a German concentration camp for several years during world war II, who not only kept his own spirits up, but also those of his fellow prisoners; he later wrote about his experiences.
I have also read, numerous times, of Tibetan Buddhist monks imprisoned by the Chinese occupying force. Even in the face of torture, many monks use the experience to practise the principles of forgiveness and non-judgement.
Santosha can be understood in various ways. As “intent”, santosha is “doing one’s best and accepting the results of one’s efforts”. As “inner state”, it is “contentment that combines with and works with other virtues such as asteya (non stealing) and aparigraha (non hoarding)”. As an “outward expression”, santosha is the “observed serenity of being totally satisfied, not desiring anything other than the fundamental”. 3
While santosha is rooted in the desire to avoid anything negative to self, others, all living beings and to nature, it is not the state of abandonment or being without needs. Rather it is the “state of neither taking too much or taking less than one needs”. 4
To my mind, that is a far more “human” understanding of the term santosha. Otherwise we could get to the point of saying santosha is desiring to be desire-less, which is ridiculous.
Shankaracharya was a sage in India about five hundred years ago. He stated that santosha is a necessary virtue “because it frees a human being from the compulsions of all bondage, manipulation and fears”. 5 The “bondage” here refers to the dependence we frequently have on things, food or relationships. This is particularly the case here in the West where our commercial culture seeks to make us feel incomplete by continually offering ”things”.
It is important to understand that santosha does NOT imply “no progress”. It means being happy wherever we are NOW. Having the urge to want to grow and expand our minds and push ourselves a little towards a goal is not a bad thing – “it just becomes bad when we base our entire sense of peace and happiness on this”. 6
I believe that it’s important to stress that santosha refers to inner contentment.
Without some discontentment, humanity may still be in caves, and women may still be owned by their husbands. Discontent can be a strong motivating force. It leads people to want to change the world. Swami Vimalratna stresses, however, that in looking for freedom from discontent, we need to seek “freedom from our own expectations and illusions” and that santosha is “NOT about being passive. It is about engagement from a different place…it’s a place where we drop our expectations of other people and our judgements of them, (thus) allowing them to be themselves”. 7
For me, this week, having just spent 36 hours at the Mangrove Mountain Yoga ashram, santosha means not hankering after a glorious past.
The ashram and its management have been going through very trying times and it now looks as if the ashram will be sold. I was feeling very sad about it till I remembered santosha: everything in life changes. What is likely to be sold is a few buildings and some land. The spirit of the ashram and the people who have built the organization is still there. It and they will probably move to a new home which is more in keeping with the demands of today and the future – not the past. Santosha – inner contentment – had been very comforting and nourishing for me that day.
We don’t need to have that kind of “light bulb” moment to find santosha: remember that contentment refers to detaching from our desires and cultivating an inner peace and joy that is not dependent on what is happening in our lives. We can practise santosha during asana practice: instead of delighting only in the practices that our bodies do easily, learn to enjoy those that challenge the body. 8
Here are some useful tips to help us foster santosha in daily life 9:
- Become mindful – notice the times when we’re living in the future or the past and bring awareness to the present moment.
- Meditate – meditation helps to bring the mind into the now and find contentment in the present.
- Become grateful for whatever we have – it’s impossible to be discontent when we’re grateful.
When we develop santosha in our lives, we still move, change and are active in our lives, but from a place of contentment. As an activist, I find that when I deeply practise santosha, I am able to find a strength in me that isn’t based on outrage or anger, but on the faith that my grandmother had, that “all things work together for good.”
This shows me, that as always, the yamas and niyamas are leading me towards happiness and peace of mind.
1. Georg Feuerstein, The lost teachings of yoga, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.
2. Woods: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santosha
6. Emma Newlyn: https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/santosha-contentment#
7. Sw Vimalratna, Yoga with Attitude, Practical Wellbeing, Victoria, 2006, p. 100