santoṣād anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ
santoṣāt anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ
“From contentment, incomparable attainment of happiness.”
The second niyama is santoṣa–contentment. It can be understood to come, like saumanasya (cheerfulness), from the first niyama, which is śauca, cleanliness. The health, vitality, and sensitivity that śauca brings do themselves give us a feeling of contentment. Yet in this sūtra, contentment is not described as a consequence. Like the other niyamas, contentment is an action.
Generally, as a product of my society, I have viewed contentment as a result of action, as an object to be won. Enshrined in our Declaration of Independence is the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” and I am sure that has influenced me. Matthew Remski remarks that the American standard of living is based on “incessant appeals to our dissatisfaction” (Threads of Yoga, p.112). Our dissatisfaction drives the engine of our economy. I am so accustomed to it as part of life that I hardly know there is an alternative.
Patañjali challenges us to live in a different way. He tells us to practice contentment.
Santoṣa derives from the prefix sam-, “with or all,” and the verbal root tuṣ, “to be satisfied.” Tuṣ is a pretty verb: tuṣyāmi, “I am satisfied”; tuṣyati,“he/she is satisfied.” What leads me to be satisfied? What prevents me from feeling satisfied–even when circumstances are good, when I have much to be thankful for?
One summer when my daughter was in high school, she worked on a permaculture farm run by a family. Her employer, a man named Nick, gave her a list of tasks to do. When she had finished them, she went back to him and asked what’s next. Now, he said, you sit down and absorb what you have done. I always do that, he said.
Do I sometimes not feel satisfied because I have not let myself absorb what I have done? Or enjoy what is happening? Do I feel the water on my skin when I do the dishes? (See Thich Nhat Hanh quote on washing the dishes, II.40.) Do I taste my food when I eat? Do I notice the weather, the seasons, the sky? Do I let myself experience the fullness that is in each moment? The awakened senses can lead us to be in our lives more.
Many spiritual traditions direct us to find contentment within. At the source of our self, within our self, we are told, we find our self. The Bhagavad Gītā expresses this beautifully in the following verse:
yatra caivātmanā ‘tmānam
where, and indeed, by the self, the self
paśyann ātmani tuṣyati
beholding–in the self, she is satisfied (VI.20)
The word for self–ātman–appears three times. “By means of the self, seeing the self, in the self, she [the practitioner] is satisfied.” To be in the self is to be satisfied.
This satisfaction means, to me, that I am attuned to my everyday self and with my everyday life. It means that I keep things simple. Can I be glad in the body I have, with its idiosyncrasies, strengths, and limitations? Can I be glad, even, in the peculiarities of my temperament? How much do feelings of not being good enough, even more so than not having enough, disturb the contentment that might come if I let it?
Rohit Mehta says the real meaning of santoṣa is “psychological self-containment.” It is a state, he says, in which we are not dependent on external happenings, but find instead a happiness that is incorruptible. I like Mehta’s definition, and it leads me to wonder if the independence that comes of establishing the self in one’s self, that comes of practicing santoṣa, isn’t itself significant.
Indeed, there is much to not be satisfied by in the state of our country. The world is in a climate crisis. Men and women and children seeking refuge at the U.S. border are detained and held in inhumane conditions. I believe it is my obligation to not look away, to be a witness, and to respond as best I can. I don’t always know what I can do, and I often feel deficient, but it does seem to me that the “incorruptible happiness” of santoṣa can strengthen my purpose. This moment in history calls for engagement. May the niyamas support me in that.
“I have no power of miracle other than the attainment of quiet happiness, I have no tact except the exercise of gentleness.” — Oracle of Sumiyoshi, Shinto prayer (thanks to Mark Nepo)
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii
“You know how electricity is produced: water flows like a waterfall onto turbines which rotate under the action of the water to generate the current. So also, when we are performing āsanas, we make the blood fall on every one of our cells like water onto a turbine, to release the hidden energy of our body and bring new light to the cells. When that light comes, we experience santoṣa–contentment–which is the second principle of niyama.”–B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, p. 50
“Contentment comes from mental well-being (saumanasya) that moves us to consider the positive in all beings and situations. Often our frustrations come from regrets, agitation, suffering, or comparing ourselves with others. Focusing on what others have–or don’t have, for that matter–instead of nourishing gratitude, leads to everlasting discontent. Contentment is a dynamic and constructive attitude that brings us to look at things in a new way. It calms the mind, bringing a flowering of subtle joy and inner serenity that are independent of all outside influences and perishable things. It is essential for self-confidence, for succeeding in our personal endeavors, and for relationships, education, teaching, and therapy.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, p. 126
“So long as man thinks his happiness lies outside, in external happenings, he is destined to remain unhappy, for he can have no control over the external factors. To be psychologically self-contained is to find happiness within.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 178
• Do you practice contentment? How?
• Is adrenaline a fuel for you? Anxiety? Worry? Is there a way that contentment itself could be dynamic?
• Do you experience a link between self-confidence and contentment? (Do you compare yourself to others?) What supports, for you, feelings of satisfaction, abundance?
masculine noun, 5th case singular, “from”
contentment (from sam-,”with or all,” + tuṣ, “to be satisfied”)
|masculine adjective, 1st case singular
having no superior, highest, unsurpassed (from an-, “not,” + ud, “up, high”)
neuter noun in compound
happiness (from su, “good,” + kha, “axle hole, space”)
masculine noun, 1st case singular
obtainment, gain (from labh, “to obtain”)