Santosha - Contentment, Inner Satisfaction

Daniel White
April 20, 2023
Santosha - Contentment, Inner Satisfaction
संतोषादनुत्तमसुखलाभः ॥ २.४२ ॥

saṃtoṣādanuttamasukhalābhaḥ || 2.42 ||

From contentment, unsurpassed happiness is experienced.

Santosha is the second of the five niyamas, and literally means “contentment”. To practise santosha means to be content with whatever is given to us, with whatever may be happening, be it pleasant or unpleasant to the mind and senses. Santosha means “satisfaction” or “fulfilment”. This word ‘fulfilment’ really does it justice, with this sense of resting in fullness, in wholeness, completeness, devoid from any lacking. Santosha is to realise that every moment is always complete, nothing is ever lacking. Rather, it is the mind’s habit of comparison that generates a feeling of lacking. The Buddha often referred to this reactive habit of mind. He said “I can not help you with the first arrow (what the world gives you), I can only help you deal with the second arrow (the suffering that we impose from our reaction to the first arrow). In this way, he taught that we will take knocks from life, that is inevitable. The first arrow will come. But what we can change is how we react to the first arrow, being the second arrow. He taught that the second arrow is really the killer. The first one is not that bad, and it also passes quickly. The second arrow is what leaves the deepest impression. For example, we might feel indigestion in the tummy, some discomfort. That is the first arrow and it is not really serious. Then, the mind judges and compares the situation, saying “Oh no, it's so bad, the sensations are so painful, I am in agony, why did this happen, I wish it was gone, like the other day when I felt good”. Here we stick in the second arrow, our reaction to the first arrow, and we suffer the combined weight of both. The Buddha taught how to stop the second arrow, by cultivating a balanced, equanimous mind that is neither repulsed by unpleasant sensations nor attracted to pleasant sensations, a mind that does not react one way or the other to what the world throws at us. Even on his deathbed, he was still smiling and blessing devotees who flocked by his side. The pain of the first arrow is much less than the pain that we self-generate through our reaction to it.

Here is where santosha comes in, the ability to rest in contentment with the present situation, pleasant or painful, not superimposing any judgement about what is going on.  Rather, accepting the first arrow, observing and embracing what has come with a smile, and with the mantra “this too shall pass”. All sensations arise, stay for sometime and pass away. Even soul stirring happiness arises, stays for some time and then passes away. The real nature of joy and sorrow is one and the same, both are fleeting, impermanent emotions. Santosha means to rest above the emotions, in a peaceful state of abiding in the present moment, enjoying all sensations of the world with a mild entertainment, not allowing our inner essence to be stirred by anything external. To really do this, we must be able to rest in a place that is internally sheltered far from the surface, far from the outside world. We must rest in our inner essence, the deepest recess of self, the haven of eternality in the heart. 

Santosha comes from the full awareness that the higher power (whatever we may call it) is really in control of everything, and we are just an instrument of this higher will. The seed of santosha is the realisation that all is the divine will, and that our own individual self-will power does not exist. Sometimes this is hard to fathom, because it really seems like multiple choices existed, and that we made a decision and then executed that decision. This is not really how it went however. Those “choices” never really existed, and we never really “made” a decision. There were never two paths open for us to walk on. There is always only ever one path for us, and we are always walking on that one path. Even you can never stray from your path, no matter how hard you try, you are always, invariably, innately on your path. Your path is the fact that you exist, regardless of what is going on, one step forward, two steps back, it makes no difference, you are always on your path. The mind, in its need for security, makes a trick that there are many choices. The mind projects ahead into the future and imagines open paths, fabricates choice, to keep it feeling safe, secure and in control. The ego needs the illusion of choice, to keep it feeling like it exists. It is not willing to accept that it does not have any control, and that we are simply flowing down the river of life, at the mercy of the course of the river, absolutely, unequivocally destined for emancipation in the ocean. It was already laid out, dictated by our previous karma, our samskaras, by our destiny so to say. In reality, if something comes to fruition, if something happens at all, it is because it is God’s will. 

Everything that happens, everything that is happening, is meant for us. None of it was our doing, it was never our decision, it is our destiny, it is our path. For example, the ego may project: “Ahh! This friday night I can go to the movies with this friend or I can visit the other friend”. “Hmm, I need to make a decision, which one shall I choose”. This entire line of logic is flawed right from the beginning. We never had a choice. The river will flow to one and not the other, or perhaps neither. Nothing we may possibly think now will change the course of the river. Ok, I know what you are thinking now; “I don't have a crystal ball, how am I meant to see which one the river is flowing towards? Well, you actually can see into the future. Although it comes with practice, it is not that difficult. 

Firstly, you must be in tune with yourself, and not be blinded by shame or fear. You must be fearless, and ask yourself deep down, what is the right thing to do. If you ask yourself sincerely, and if you are truly not afraid of your heart's response, it will guide you. You will feel in your heart what is the right thing to do. It will come like a warm wave of guidance. Be careful though, because the inner guide is not always concerned with your comfort. Often our growth lies outside of our comfort zone. The right thing to do is often the challenging thing, and that is why it is oftentimes the right thing, because it results in our growth. Usually it is fear that blocks this guidance, because we are afraid of being served the challenge. It takes a certain maturity, a certain willingness to change, it takes an allegiance to shreyas rather than preyas to be able to listen to the guru in the heart. 

We are talking about this because of santosha, which means contentment, which is born from the right knowledge that we are never in control of what is happening, and that this fact, when fully realised and assimilated, ultimately leads to perfect satisfaction in every moment. Resting in the knowledge that everything is our own destiny, the river is flowing and come what may, we can allow pleasant to come and go, we can allow pain to come and go all the same. Never again do we need to scrutinise the present moment for things that are lacking, it is all there, always complete, it is our lesson, in every moment, born out of God’s greatest compassion for our healing, for our reconciliation of all disparity into unity. 

The main cause of unhappiness is the list of desires we are craving for. When the mind is in the state of craving, we are unhappy. This is the definition of suffering according to Buddhism - craving is suffering, freedom from craving is liberation. One way of understanding santosha is simply the state free of craving and desire. When we are hankering after something, we are not content in the present moment. In fact, we are not even aware of the present moment, we are focused entirely on the object of the desire, as if it were the end of the world. In this state, we are not in appreciation of life, we are not in reverence, in awe of the wonderous surroundings. We are not aware of the gift of existence. We are completely trapped and blocked by the craving. Our mind is contracted and obsessed by an idea, not even something real. Santosh is to abide in the state of non-craving. This does not necessarily mean being without desires, but it means not engaging with them, not investing in them. We can still have desires and be content with them. Let’s say the desire for chocolate arises. We can observe the desire, embrace it, accept it, and be with it. We do not need to rush to fulfil it, for this disturbs the dharma of reality. We can be content with the desire, much in the same way we can be content with a splinter in our finger. We accept that this is the reality of this moment, and we do not need to run away from it, or change it. We can be with it, we can be in it. 

Santosha means to be happy with whatever is happening, seeing that everything is always for the best. This is the biggest shift that can happen to us, to realise that everything that happens is happening for the same reason; to make us stronger, to make us purer, so that ultimately, we realise that we are made of pure love and nothing else; our substance is entirely consistent with the substance of God; "God Art the Ocean, Thou Art a single drop of water”.  

As human beings, living in this modern, fast-paced, capitalistic society, our minds have been conditioned to believe that we must be discontent, we must strive to better our circumstances, we must work to constantly improve. Be discontent and work for change, this has been the motto for our entire life. This is not all bad, and in fact, we must work to make things better, but we must do so with the awareness that it is God’s will, it is God that wants this change to occur, not because it was bad and needs to become better, but because nature wants this change to occur. Nature is the process of change, and she will always express herself through the process of change. So why not aid in change for the better, for bringing more balance and harmony into our lives. This is good, but do not let discontentment be the source of your action. If you are always waiting until you feel discontent before you do anything about it, you are falling into a trap, and you are reinforcing a vicious psychological behavioural mechanism. Basically, you are training yourself to react out of aversion, rather than acting out of love and positivity. This is not good. We want all of our actions to come from the spirit of service to God, from love, from good-will, not from discontentment. If you act out of discontentment, you are acting with ignorance, malice and negativity in your heart, and so the result will also be like that. Rather, if we act from love, from service, as a sacrifice, the result will be positive, pure and beautiful. 

Santosha is a subtle art. Always be content, especially when you realise that change will occur. But never think you are improving anything. Who are we to deem what is good or bad, better or worse. Change is simply change, and we can be content before it occurred, and content after it occurred. Nothing really has changed within us, except the fact that we have allowed God to express Himself through us, ultimately and always working towards harmony in everything. Do not allow discontentment to fester in your hearts. Always be happy, even if it is unpleasant to the mind. No that this too shall pass, the unpleasant things, and the pleasant things all the same. Santosha means learning to appreciate both. When things may be unpleasant, santosha means to relax and focus on the other smaller things that are nice, that are pleasant, rather than fixating on what is unpleasant and making it bigger and stronger than it needs to be. And on the other side, when something pleasant comes, santosha means to recognise that it will not last, and thus to appreciate, honour and share it to the fullest extent, rather than clinging to it, or keeping it all for ourselves. Santosha is contentment, to be happy with whatever comes, to know that it is all for our own self-growth, it is all good, it is all a lesson, and it is all the will of the divine. 

Santosha is to be happy that we are experiencing this life, and to celebrate this life by noticing the beauty in the small things around us, in every moment. To practise santosha means to be present in every moment, to really be right here, right now, not straying into abstract realms of past or future. Be here, with what is, not with what you want there to be. Be present with what actually is, right in front of you, and all around you, and you will feel, you will see that nothing is lacking, ever. Nothing is ever lacking, the present moment is always complete, it is always whole. We will only feel discontent when the mind interferes, and begins to judge, compare or analyse the situation, playing games like “ah this weather is not as nice as the other day” or “that mud on the floor is dirty and distburning”. Santosha is to realise that nothing really disturbs us from the outside. Rather, our own judgement of something disturbs us. For example, let’s say I am in a silent meditation retreat and the person sitting next to me breathes very loudly. The mind will automatically judge that they are the source of my uncomfort, because of them. But actually, we are only disturbed because we judge their breathing as negative, as bothersome, as bad, as an obstacle to meditation. Basically, we create an obstacle, we label it as an “obstacle”, and then we react and become disturbed. 

It is our own judgement that disturbs our inner peace. To practice santosha is to realise this, and thus, not let any judgement arise and disturb our self-peace. Just let something be, just let it be, don't judge or react to it. OK, they breathe loudly, it is like that, for a reason; God, nature is trying to show me something, nature is presenting me an opportunity to purify some prejudice that still lies inside. The best way to practise this, and to transcend these prejudices, is to actively, consciously practise compassion towards others. So for example, I would practise compassion towards the person with the heavy breathe, knowing that it is actually not helpful for meditation to breathe like that, and that it is not conducive to health and self-peace to breathe like that, and thus, feel compassion for this person and their genuine, real obstacles that they face. But do not take their obstacles and make them your obstacles.

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