Friday, September 4, 2015

Santosha - cultivating happiness

संतोषातनुत्तमस्सुखलाभः ॥४२॥

From contentment, the highest happiness is achieved.

The term santosha (संतोष) is a compound noun in Sanskrit, derived from 'sam' (सं) and 'tosha' (तोष), and literally means contentment and satisfaction. The 'sam' part translates to 'completely' and 'entirely', and the 'tosha' part to 'contentment', 'being comfortable', but it can also mean 'acceptance'. Rather than simply describing a temporary state of satisfaction, the second niyama santosha is about the attitude that will lead to lasting contentment, namely an unconditional acceptance of any situation as it presents itself. Thereby, santosha relates back to the concept of avidya in that unhappiness is the product of not seeing things - and oneself - as they are at any given moment in time, but instead being tense and troubled by expectations, desire, and fear.

Unconditional appreciation of our selves as we are navigating the present requires that we neither compare ourselves, our actions, and our possessions to those of others, nor that we compare them to anything that we have experienced in a similar situation in the past. Santosha is not dependent on the external circumstances, and therefore completely within our power to experience. It is teaching us to find fulfillment within ourselves instead of projecting a concept of happiness onto our career, social standing, material wealth, youth, or health. Our mind is socially conditioned to constantly compare ourselves to others, an exercise in which we will always find that we are lacking, thereby fueling jealousy and ambitions. As a result, we rarely appreciate the riches of who we are and what we have at any given point in time. In a way, we are always chasing a dream instead of living the dream. Santosha reminds us to appreciate who we are, what we do and have, as opposed to feeding a longing to be someone else, to do something else, to wanting to be, to experience, and to own what we don't have.

The practice of santosha is not easy, because of the negativity bias inherent in our human perception. Things of a more negative nature - such as unpleasant thoughts, emotions, tense social interactions, traumatic events - all have a greater effect on our psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things. In modern times, this is amplified by the growth paradigm. The present status quo is never good enough, any achievement needs to be exceeded in an ever faster evolving spiral of increasing demand (and supply). Whatever is perfectly fine today, will be found lacking tomorrow, a message driven to us daily by the dynamics of our economy, career, and education. Today, most of us also live in a world of overstimulation, with an information and communication overload sending us on an addictive rollercoaster of emotions from excitement to exhaustion and frustration.

Yoga offers multiple tools and paths to help us staying centered within a state of santosha. One is Karma Yoga -  the yoga of action - which teaches us to simply concentrate fully on the task at hand, to perform to our best capabilities but with an attitude of indifference towards reaping the fruits of our actions. Bhakti Yoga - the yoga of devotion - teaches us to approach any tasks with compassion, thereby finding fulfillment and gratitude in our very actions. Jnana Yoga - the yoga of knowledge - teaches us to welcome the present moment with all its challenges and demands as the very essence of experiencing life, providing us with rich opportunities to learn and grow.

Santosha is not about changing the course of the world and our life, but rather how we relate to it. While we have realistically very limited control of the circumstances in which we live, we have the capacity to master our experience of it, our feelings. The idea of contentment is to operate within the constraints of the world as presented to us at any given point in time, and to make the best out of it. Santosha is not to be confused with indifference. The art of santosha involves positive thinking, an affirmative approach to the changes we want to see in us and society. Santosha is teaching us about the importance of appreciating every moment in our life, irrespective if it is pleasant or challenging. Ultimately our perception and emotions can always be traced back to ourselves, to how we relate to external factors as opposed to being dictated by the external environment. As such, santosha empowers us to enter and remain in a state of contentment anywhere and at anytime.

In conclusion, santosha is a non-comparative, non-competitive approach to life. Life is complete and you can either flow with the stream of experiences or struggle against it. Every moment is complete, and discontent arises from the illusion that it could be any different. Like with any yoga practice, santosha will not only lead to contentment, but ultimately to a more tranquil, receptive, and present state of mind.

Santosha is contentment in any situation

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