Understanding Niyamas: Santosha
Imagine a neighborhood. The sun has set and the moon is bright, and everyone has fallen idly asleep. It’s peaceful, quiet, and so very still. Then imagine a huge train. Like, a really big, obnoxiously long train. There’s graffiti smothered over every inch of the dirty boxcars, shrill whistling floods your ears, the rattly engine shakes the entire ground, and this giant heap of inconvenient distraction is trail blazing through your neighborhood at full force.
And, of course, it wakes you up. You’re beyond bothered. You march into the crisp outside air and you stop that demon of a train mid-track. You complain to the conductor about the inopportune timing and demand he turn the train around immediately and go back to where he came from. Of course, he needs to continue on this way, he yells at you over the incessant horn and the ever thickening polluted air.
You insist he leaves. He insists you let him carry on. You bicker back and forth until you’ve been up all night due to this conflict of interest and have ultimately gotten nowhere. In fact, thanks to your resistance, the train has now been in your neighborhood much longer than it ever needed to be, and you’ve lost an entire night’s sleep.
Or, here’s another scenario. …it wakes you up. You’re beyond bothered and you decide the only option is to let it totally consume your every cell. You identify with the noise problem so much so that you run out to the train and jump on the caboose. You let it drive you out of the neighborhood. It takes you across state borders and suddenly you realize you are completely exhausted, lost, and totally sidetracked… and it’s still hellishly loud.
Meanwhile, your neighborhood back home is now relishing the quiet, still, train-less air.
Both of these are pretty ludicrous things to do, right? Well, it’s kind of what we do in our lives.
These two situations are basically us saying "No" to what is arising. When we resist the things that need to pass through us, we’re only allowing them to get stuck in our bodies, minds, and hearts. Restriction comes in. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety layer our experiences and wreak havoc. So we don’t want to push the train back where it came from and we don’t want to let it carry us away, either. We want to be able to sit back, and observe the train that’s passing through. We want to welcome it into our neighborhood, radically accept it without judgement, and know that it will leave in due time, and we will still be in tact.
Santosha is the second Niyama. The Yoga Sutra 2.42 says santosha is the unsurpassed joy experienced when one is free from worldly desires and aversions.
When we break the word santosha down into it’s two parts, sam meaning entirely, wholly, completely, and tosha meaning satisfaction, acceptance, contentment, we see that santosha means the ability to find complete, absolute contentment with ourselves and the situations we face. It is the natural state of being that arises when we become the infinite observer, rather than self-identifying with the temporarily observed.
I’d like to make something very clear: Absolute contentment doesn’t mean you need to feel like everything is all rainbows and butterflies all the time. It doesn’t mean there’s no dark side to life, and it definitely does not mean we should turn away from the shadow in order to keep smiling. In fact, if anything, santosha is a willingness to see that darkness, to sit in it, face it, and still be grounded in peace.
And on the flip side, santosha doesn't mean hopeless defeat. If we're at a dead-end job that we hate, it doesn't mean we decide to stay and wallow in our own misery because we're practicing "radical acceptance" of where we are in life. Instead we come to terms with the fact we dislike our current situation, and then take actionable steps to build a better life for ourselves.
In other words, when you're happy, feel happiness. When you’re sad, feel sadness. Both are part of a healthy human life. Neither define who you are. And santosha exists either way; it’s beyond the ruckus, beneath the ripples. It's the quiet, still air that exists before, during, and after the train comes through the neighborhood.
When we can tap into that space within ourselves of non-duality, and simple, pure presence, we can experience the human life fully, but without being dragged down or driven by our problems. We live without becoming attached to our feelings. Instead, our inner wisdom drives us, and we know that all is temporary. It's all good, because this too shall pass. That is santosha, absolute contentment.
But it takes practice. And it may take a long time to get there. We can start by just saying Yes to all the things the Universe has put in front of us. When we say Yes to life circumstances, we loosen our hold on the world. We can relax into the flow easier, knowing that we don’t have control over most things anyway, so we might as well observe the seasons with gratitude, compassion, and curiosity. From this attitude, total contentment becomes an unshakable, automatic reaction toward life.
For love, with love.