Santosha – contentment (Niyama – Patanjali II.32 and II.42)

I began by thinking of contentment as something the ‘happens to me’, arising out of circumstances, a blessing received.  So my first question “was why include it alongside the other niyamas which appear to be ‘things for me to do or aspire to be!’”.  I wondered if there was a way of considering contentment in the same light.  As a form of practice and/or a state to aspire to be. 

As a practice, it seems to me that santosha might be related to the popular culture idea of ‘the power of positive thinking’ or the cultivation of an ‘attitude of gratitude’, or the traditional encouragement to ‘look on the bright side’.  There is a wonderful Zen story that points to the impact of such attitudes on our life experience.

An old lady sat on a bench at the top of a hill looking down the valley towards a town nestled along a river below.  A traveller approached, headed towards the town.  He stopped to rest for a moment and said to the old lady “Greetings grandmother.  Tell me, what are the people like in that town in the valley?”.

The old lady looked at him for a moment and replied with a question of her own. “What were they like in the last town?”.

The traveller sighed and said “They were a miserable bunch back there.  Everyone seemed unfriendly and suspicious.  No-one would spare me the time of day.”

The old lady said to him “They’re pretty much like that down there.”

Nodding gloomily, the traveller picked up his belongings and walked on. 

Some time later a second traveller arrived from the same direction and, like the first, he paused to rest by the old lady’s bench.  “Greetings grandmother” he said.  “What are the people like in the town ahead?”. 

Again the old lady paused before answering “What were they like in the last town?”.

The second traveller smiled and said “They were a lovely bunch of people.  Everyone seemed ready to laugh and was curious about my journey.  Some folk even gave me food and pointed out the route ahead.”

“They’re pretty much like that down there”, said the old lady. 

The power line cutting across a beautiful landscape, the aircraft noise in the background as we watch a sun-rise, the irritating habits of our nearest and dearest.  It seems that we humans often tend to magnify the fault or flaw or problem,even if it exists within a very pleasing experience.  Evolutionarypsychology points to the usefulness of such a tendency in spotting danger amidst a neutral environment.

The cultivation of santosha as an ‘attitude of gratitude’ may be an important balance to what seems to be a very deep set tendency to see what’s wrong in an experience. As with any practice, what starts as unfamiliar and perhaps rather stilted, becomes, with repetition, far easier and eventually second nature.  We set a track in the sand with the first repetition and then enhance the pathway with each subsequent passage.

Perhaps, as this ‘attitude of gratitude begins to take hold, so contentment as a state of being, becomes more prevalent.  Practice and being are intimately linked and may occur consciously (if we choose to practice in a particular way) or unconsciously (as with the travellers in the story).

My next question was what does contentment mean to me? What does it feel like, why might it be a good thing to be!

I looked carefully and it seems to me that it is more ‘ease’ than ‘bliss’.  An equal balance of ‘enjoyment’ and ‘enough’.  An absence of grasping or clinging or the need for more or longer.  It seems more aligned with ‘letting go’ than ‘holding on’, to a sense of abundance.  In fact, in my experience once contentment is linked to a particular set of circumstances, then grasping and/or aversion have crept in and my contentment is weakened or even lost.

True contentment seems to be both celebratory and deeply accepting.  Moreover, if I feel a sense of ‘enough’ it seems so much easier to celebrate the success, happiness, and contentment of others.

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