It’s all Good
We spend much of our lives making judgements: “These things and experiences are good, and these are bad.” Then we resist the “bad” things and try to capture and hold on to the “good things.” Ironically, none of this can bring us lasting happiness or serenity, because we can’t control the external, and the nature of things is to change. Enter the Niyama “Santosha.” Niyamas are observances set out in the Yoga Sutras, and Santosha is about contentment in the moment, the true path to lasting happiness and serenity.
Our concept of “good” and “bad” is not objective truth and is fortunately one of the things that is within our control! We can approach each circumstance with openness and curiosity as we explore this sacred world. We let go of thinking we must have our way to be happy, and trust in the universe. We can be content with all circumstances, so there is nothing to seek, nothing to acquire, nothing to reject. In fact, if we “seek” contentment, we will not find it, because we are by definition not content with the moment. By learning to be content with whatever is in our moment-- our boredom, our sadness, our depression, or disappointment or loss-- we will begin to find serenity. Eckhart Tolle points out that discontentment is the illusion that there can be something else in the moment. There isn’t and there can't be. The moment is complete.
When you are on a journey, it is certainly helpful to know where you are going or at least the general direction in which you are moving. But don’t forget: the only thing that is ultimately real about your journey is the step that you are taking at this moment. If your destination, or the steps you are going to take in the future, take up so much of your attention that they become more important to you than the step you are taking now, then you completely miss the journey's inner purpose, which has nothing to do with “where” you are going or “what” you are doing, but everything to do with “how”. (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now). A good example of this is exercising with the goal of losing weight and to sculpt your body into your desired form. For many this goal can take over the entire activity, and often leads to frustration or giving up when we don’t get the result we seek. An alternative is to move your body for the joy of movement, for how it makes you feel. Exertion can be challenging and take your breath away, but at the same time it can be life-affirming and help you move outside your comfort zone with a sense of safety and strength. Tapping into the experience, rather than the goal of weight loss, can help you be more successful and keep you in the moment. “Your outer journey may contain a million steps: your inner journey only has one: The step you are taking right now.” (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now)
Physical appearance is a source of discontent for many of us in our human bodies. We can go a long way towards contentment if we reject the media’s messages about how our bodies should be, and begin to accept the body we have. We can make the best out of where our body is today, and institute practices to keep it healthy and thriving for tomorrow. I highly recommend you watch a short video on Youtube, which is part of a series by Amy Poehler called “Ask Amy.” Her episode entitled “Bodies” contains poignant and simple advice for anyone with body image issues… aka everyone. https://youtu.be/iOWqSPJZtmA She suggests that when you’re being hard on yourself-- when you have negative feelings about your body-- to try practicing gratitude. Find something you like about yourself (your strong teeth or strong legs) and focus your energy on that. She reminds us that nobody in this world is perfect, and assures us that we will find love. As her grandma always said “There is a lid for every pot.”
No amount of money or acquisitions will make you happy. Contrary to the messages our culture sends us, contentment is not found in financial wealth. And financial wealth is relative. If your desires are less than the money you make, you’re rich. If your desires exceed your income, you’re poor. Socrates said “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” Joy and gratitude can be felt regardless of gain or loss. Contentment comes from inside, not outside. Advertisers create in us a desire for the next great thing that will bring us happiness and contentment. Looking outside for fulfillment will always disappoint us and keep contentment just out of our reach.
There is a Chinese proverb that says “People in the west are always getting ready to live.” When we are little, we can’t wait to get big. When we are in school, we can’t wait to graduate. When we live at home, we can’t wait to move out. We can’t wait for vacations. We can’t wait for retirement. We become habitual “waiters.” We engage in small-scale waiting, like waiting in traffic or to get off work. And we engage in large-scale waiting, like waiting for love, success, money or enlightenment. In the Power of Now, Eckart Tolle points out that it is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting. He suggests that the next time someone says “Sorry to have kept you waiting”, you can reply, “That’s all right, I wasn’t waiting. I was just standing here enjoying myself.”
You might ask yourself how you can find contentment in the moment when all these people who are beyond your control keep causing you frustration or pain! You can start by taking responsibility for your own feelings. This is not as harsh as it sounds. What at first glance feels like a burden or another responsibility, actually liberates us. The truth is, no one “makes” us feel anything. Contemplate how often you feel upset, hurt, left out, not appreciated or put-upon. When we give the power of our emotional state to something or someone outside ourselves, we make ourselves helpless. When we take responsibility for our own feelings and realize our peace is not dependent on outside influences, we regain our power. We can see things more clearly and think of more creative solutions.
There is a Japanese proverb “The noise does not disturb you, you disturb the noise.” It’s hard to imagine a loud noise not being disturbing, but simply annoyances like loud noises are an excellent place to start practicing contentment. The next time there is construction near your home or a car alarm going off, use it as an opportunity to disconnect from your annoyance and attempt to find peace in the chaos. One time, I was immediately riled-up when I sat down in a very noisy restaurant with my extended family and friends. The whole point was to be able to communicate, and for some of the older family members, noisy surroundings could be challenging. I thought the evening was ruined and felt bad because I had chosen the restaurant. However, I remembered this teaching and decided to practice finding peace in the chaos-- I accepted my external circumstances and took a couple of deep breaths. I don’t know if the noise of the room eventually decreased, or if we all just found ways to cope, but somehow my annoyance dissipated and we had a lovely time and managed to communicate perfectly well.
This instruction to find peace amidst disturbances does not mean we should endure unnecessary suffering. It does not mean that we greet life with passive acceptance or resignation, and it does not mean we shouldn’t make future plans. Rather, it means making our plans, and healthy decisions, based on full awareness and acceptance of our present reality.
One of my favorite poems, by one of my favorite poets, perfectly suits this topic of Santosha. Mary Oliver encourages us to embrace all aspects of life, so that we may live fully.
When Death Comes - Mary Oliver
“When Death comes like the hungry bear in autumn;
When Death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
When Death comes like the measles-pox;
When Death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
And I look upon time as no more than an idea,
And I consider eternity as another possibility,
And I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,
And each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending as all music does, toward silence,
And each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing, and frightened or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
If, like me, you’re feeling inspired, focus on letting go of “seeking” and “avoidance” and set the intention to find contentment in the moment, whatever it holds. Fall in love with your life, and take the world into your arms.
* (For further reading, check out The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice, Amy Poehler’s “Ask Amy” entitled “Bodies.” Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)