A number of years ago I had a conversation with a cherished friend and co-worker who is no longer in this body. I was explaining to her the yoga practice of samtosha (contentment), which is one of the five niyamas that make up the second limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. My friend said it felt like a great revelation to think of contentment as a practice. She had thought of it as a state you were either lucky enough to have — or not.
Many states or characteristics or attitudes that we tend to think of as only being innate characteristics or good fortune can be cultivated.
Wearing an exhortation on a t-shirt might not necessarily be my style, but I do agree kindness is worthy of cultivation when it does not happen spontaneously.
Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.
When I was eight or nine, a teacher asked everyone in my class to say what they wanted to be when they grew up. The other children named the various jobs or professions that appealed to them at the time. I responded that I wanted to be independently wealthy. At that age, I was expressing something I already knew from family issues. Though I did not have the words for it or a clear understanding, what I was saying was not just false precocity. I knew at a basic level what is taught in yoga: I would need enough material support (ardha) to follow my heart in love (kama) and work (dharma); then my life could be free (moksha).
When I was 22 and visiting my friend Dan, he asked me what I really wanted to do with my life. We had just graduated from college. Dan was working for a sculptor who was a professor in the art department; I had just moved back to New York, had just gotten over a failed attempt to serve as an office manager for an off-off Broadway theater, was in a place of deep emotional and financial struggle, and was trying to determine what work and corresponding further education I wanted. “I want to be content,” I said. “That’s too passive,” he replied. “No, that’s not what I mean,” I tried to explain. “For me being content being satisfied and engaged with my work and life, but still working hard and having goals. It’s not just hanging out.” I had all sorts of things that I found interesting and possibilities for a life path, but I didn’t have one specific career or life plan that I was certain would be more fulfilling than any of the others. They just would have satisfied me in different ways. Because of the dilemma of too many choices, I wanted to be able happy with whatever choice I made, even if it seemed like a compromise. I was conscious that once I picked, because of the inherent limitations of time and space, that I would either have to be content with my choice or be unhappy. I have since learned to think of contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of the path of yoga expounded by Patanjali, as a practice rather than a goal (and it is a very important and continuing practice for me). Contentment is not an end, as I had thought when I was 22; it is just one part of the path to a goal of living liberated (jivanmukti), experiencing self as spirit in all that one does.
On a recent telephone seminar, Paul Muller-Ortega, my meditation and philosophy teacher, in the midst of a broad dialogue regarding various studies and practices, spoke a little of ecstatic serenity. Memories of the discussions I had had long ago about what I wanted welled up in the forefront of my thoughts. In thinking about what is my intention now, especially with regard to my practice (sadhana), I witnessed my previously stated intentions as just stages on the path to this discovery. As soon as I heard Paul say the phrase, I thought, “that’s what I want; I want to be ecstatically serene.” I seek to be always in some part of my conscious being still and peaceful, while simultaneously being passionately engaged in what life brings to me and I bring to life.
I am subbing Fusion Flow tonight up at Willow Street. Natalie, for whom – am subbing, has been teaching the yamas and niyamas this session. She asked me to cover “samtosha” tonight.
In contemplating this principle of practice again (it is high on my contemplation list), I thought of the what was drafted by the “Founding Fathers.” We are not guaranteed the right to happiness, but the right and freedom to pursue it.
That leaves open the question of what is happiness and whether and how to pursue it. It contains, I think, a hidden agreement that to keep the right open to all that happiness cannot be realized by the acquisition of external power and things that will prevent others from having the same freedom.
When I get caught up in our current societal vision of what we are supposed to have or be, a reminder that “samtosha” — contentment — doesn’t just happen, but is a practice, always regrounds me. I choose to come back to a space of gratitude, and my my whole self eases. I return to a place that serves me and enhances my own freedom to find happiness, while bringing me to a place that is aligned with that freedom growing for what and whom I touch.
Last night, at his workshop at Willow Street Yoga, Todd Norian discussed the niyama samtosha — contentment. “Perfect,” I thought, because I had been contemplating the practice of samtosha all day. When I had sat to meditate in the morning yesterday, it was hard for me to stay with my mantra or any sense of peacefulness, light, or delight. Thoughts of the horrendous repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance kept arising. Time to get back to the foundations of practicing! As I began walking to work (past the Capitol), I brought myself back to the practice of samtosha, which I find one of the most useful practices for me.
Samtosha is the second of the niyamas set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are ethical precepts for living and for practicing. In Patanjali’s eight-limbed, dualistic path of raja yoga, they precede the practices of asana (the physical postures), pranayama (breathing), and the various stages of meditation, which culminate in samadhi (equinimity or bliss). When I am struggling with what I witness in the outside world, I always come back to the practice of samtosha. Some people may be naturally lighter-hearted than others, but contentment is indeed a practice, and it is a foundational practice.
When I practice contentment, I remember to be grateful for all that I have. When I fully practice contentment, instead of becoming bleak and cynical (it is easy enough for me), I not only feel more naturally cheerful, but find I have have more strength to continue acting in accordance with my beliefs, even when I am confused, alarmed, outraged, and disgusted by what is going on outside. When practicing contentment, I try to find my own light, I seek the love and company of friends, I join with like-minded persons to be moved to work for change, even if I do not trust it will make any visible change to anyone other than me.
FYI, Todd Norian will be at Willow Street Yoga Center all weekend. If you are local and reading this in time, try to come for some of the weekend. He is wonderful.