How To Achieve Contentment

Perfect happiness is attained through contentment – Yoga Sutras chapter ii; 42

Samtosha is the capacity to feel fulfilled with the life that one has and at peace with the stage of growth we are in currently. Put another way Samtosha is the ability to feel glad with whatever fate may bring. Samtosha (sometimes spelled Santosha) is one of the yoga niyamas and is the most challenging yogic observance for me.

For more on the niyamas and how they fit into the world of yoga click here.

I’d always dismissed the pursuit of happiness as a particularly perverted optimistic American aim indoctrinated by our Declaration of Independence. I considered the single minded pursuit of happiness selfish. Suffering ennobled. Suffering conferred status (suffering long work hours especially in DC). Suffering created artists. And a perfect happiness? Hard to conceive never mind achieve.

Contentment is where desire and opportunity meet without tension or conflict. How do they converge? First, you have to be honest with yourself about your wishes to recognize those desires suppressed and those needlessly elevated. Once you’ve evaluated what you deeply want, you can either refashion your desires to meet the opportunities available or search for new opportunities to meet entrenched desires. The common thread through this union of desire and opportunity is perspective. So this approach may strike you as mental gymnastics – simply shifting a point of view to promote happiness. And you’d be right. The niyamas are yoga for the mind.

Of course, much in life sucks and sucks absolutely. This exercise is not to belittle real frustrations, injustices and unfairness. Nor do I mean to suggest this shift is facile. Yoga is hard but, in my opinion obviously, worthwhile.

Michel de Montaigne wrote,

We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only one kind, what would he have to say? He must know how to use them together and blend them. And so we must do with good and evil, which are onsubstantial with our life. Our existence is impossible without this mixture, and one element is no less necessary for it than the other. To try and kick against natural necessity is to imitate the folly of Ctesiphon, who undertook a kicking match with his mule.

– Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Donald M. Frame (Stamford: Stanford University Press, 1943) p. 835.

How do I avoid a kicking match with a mule? A fight sure to be lost?

Another yoga sutra aids me in the transformation of my outlook:

Tranquility of thought comes through the cultivation of friendship, compassion, joy and impartiality in spheres of pleasure or pain, virtue or vice.

– Yoga Sutras chapter i, 33

How does this really happen?

  • Cultivate a friendliness and joyfulness to your friends, family and strangers. A practice of joy creates joy.
  • Nurture deep empathy for those whose suffering is worse than our own. No one owns suffering to the exclusion of others.
  • Celebrate the fortune of others, truly and without qualification. Avoid recriminations based in envy or disdain.
  • Acknowledge others and their feelings, thoughts and needs. Act with integrity in light of that recognition.
  • Rejoice in the approval and admiration of those who love you. Show them your appreciation.
  • Release regrets. Liberate ill will. Delete old painful stories. Be impartial to those who harm you.
  • Detach from blame and fault. Towards others and towards ourselves.

What does espousing these attitudes (brahmavihara) do? In her translation of the sutras, Barbara Stoler Miller suggests that this cultivation requires

a radical change in [one’s] perceived relationship with other creatures on earth. These practices work to demolish the boundaries between oneself and others, and to break through the barriers that lock people into egoism. (page 39)

The premise and promise of these yoga sutras is that by relinquishing myself from the center, by giving up my hold on suffering, by yielding to reality, by reaching out to others. In those efforts, I will find peace. Where these unite, harmony and balance occurs in the mind and happiness ensues in the heart.

Yoga can help you be noble, artistic, esteemed as well as happy.