One of the niyamas, or observances, in the yoga sutras is Santosha, or contentment. This has always been an tricky concept for me. It has often felt dangerously close to passivity. I have seen the idea be used as a way to keep people in their place, to keep them from realizing their full potential. And I personally don’t want to simply accept the injustices of the world, I would rather strive to create a better paradigm. It’s also really easy from my comfortable and blessed life in Seattle to embrace contentment. But what are those living in abject poverty around the world supposed to do with this concept? What practical use does it have?
So, how does one resolve this concept into something we can put to use in our daily lives? My view on contentment changed when a teacher of mine helped me to understand contentment not as being static and unchanging, but as an acceptance of your current reality, which is also never static. When viewed this way, and when tempered with non-greed, contentment can actually become a powerful agent of change. It can be used as a way of empowerment, of recognizing that you have what you need right now. It may take a while and a hell of a lot of effort, but you can only begin with where you are. You don’t need to rail against reality in frustration, you can step back and examine the tools at your disposal and get to work.
Santosha to me also contains a fair bit of gratitude. Gratitude can be used in several ways. You can tell yourself that gratitude means never having anything more than you currently have, or you can be grateful for having the tools that you do have. Ironically (and this is where the practical application of the idea comes about), when you try and force things to change without acceptance and even gratitude for the current reality, we run into obstacle after obstacle as reality and what we want reality to be butt heads. But when you start by cultivating contentment for the universe being the way it is, we can enact change.
There is a taoist story about a master butcher that I think illustrates this point. In the story the master butcher is able to slice up meat without dulling his blade and without any apparent effort, (effortless effort, or wu wei) where others are working up a sweat and going through many different blades. He does this he says, by working with and acknowledging the spaces that are there, by working with what exists, not against it. By accepting reality instead of fighting, opposing, or arguing with it he masters it.
Instead of just being a value we should aspire to, contentment can also be seen as a practical tool we can use to bring about change and avoid unnecessary suffering along the way.