Like many of the Sanskrit terms of yoga, the word for contentment has a sound that embodies its meaning. Santosha. It is like the calming sound of ocean, resting between sand and air. This also is its position among the practices, roughly in the middle. It offers a kind of breathing place, a respite from the austerities that surround it.
The practice of contentment reminds me not to worry if I sometimes slip away from the principle of being purely myself, to accept my imperfections even as I wrestle with them. This entails a kind of detachment from my own struggles. If I have a terrier-like disposition (as my wife will attest), santosha reminds to treat the terrier as my favorite pet. I am the guy at the smart end of the leash, taking his beloved and yappy dog on a walk through a remarkable landscape.
While I find it the most comforting principle, I also think that santosha has the greatest potential for being misused. It is enticing to use the pursuit of contentment as an excuse to avoid confronting difficulties – that late project at work, the difficult conversation I need to have with my son. In the face of difficulties, santosha seems to offer a handy get-out-of-jail-free card. “Don’t bother me; I am practicing contentment!”
As a practical matter this usually isn’t the wisest choice. Difficulties don’t go away because we avoid them; in fact some get worse. Pursuing contentment in this way can actually hurt us in the long run, violating the overarching first practice of non-harming.
This leads to a set of perplexing questions. Can I truly remain content while confronting difficulties? What if the difficulties trouble me, waking up intense or difficult feelings? I haven’t yet found a way to be content and anxious at the same time, for example, or content and full of rage. For me, there are times when my feelings overwhelm my sense of who I am. At these times there seem to be terriers at both ends of my leash.
At my early stage in working with these principles, I think that there are times when contentment can only be perceived in retrospect. Looking back on the moments when I felt consumed by harmful emotions, I perceive a deeper part of me that the emotions did not carry away. My own work in this regard, I believe, is to discover how to hold this perception even as the waves of emotion are storming
On the commuter boat
This night even the moon
can’t sleep on the harbor.
The waves are too busy fighting
to give back any light.
I try to still myself, but
this portal has my reflection
drifting past the bluff, between
the blank sky and restless waves.
I think it must be utterly still
between the stars. No wind,
no water churning, only
the miracle of nothing-there.
And I believe it is quiet
inside, down beneath
the stressful turn and spit of waves.
There too, the light is not visible;
a tender anemone lies
lovingly cupped in the cleft of a rock;
a warm spring in the water’s floor,
lips forever pursed, whistles
so low you can always almost hear
crystals of life pluming
toward clear air.