Santosha - Contentment, or Acceptance. Written by Chantel Marais
Santosha is the second Niyama of the Eight Limb Path as set out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is derived from the Sanskrit words sam - translated as ‘completely’, and tosha - translated as ‘contentment’ or ‘acceptance’. The Niyamas are the second limb of the Eight Limb Path and they give us guidelines on how to relate to ourselves - inner observances.
What is total acceptance?
Our modern lives can be very challenging and stressful. Financial concerns, relationship challenges, family and professional responsibilities. We are constantly trying to make something happen in order overcome the challenges, address the concerns or meet our obligations. We look at the now and all we see is that it needs to be changed.
But fighting against the now continually can wear us out, leading to depression when we realise that we aren’t winning and addictions when we try to run away from the pain that we are experiencing. We need to realise that we are fighting a battle which cannot be won. It is impossible to change this now, it is as it is no matter how unfair or challenging that may be. Even when our actions achieve the change we are looking for, the outcome is usually short term. How long are we able to maintain our happiness, before the now is challenging us again. The only meaningful course of action is to accept everything that the now contains, as it is, fully.
There is a story about an ancient mythical Tibetan civilisation. The story describes the civilisation as an utopia and talks about Shambhala Warriors. These warriors represent the highest achievement of humanity. They are not warriors of war, but warriors of the heart. These warriors defend against nothing and accept everything. They do not try to block out anything - no matter how difficult. Allowing everything in and embracing it all is the path to wholeness.
What isn’t acceptance?
Acceptance can also be used as a justification for stagnation. If there are difficulties in our paths we should accept them and not attempt to change or move away. We should be content in bad relationships, jobs that are not right for us, etc. This is not true acceptance, because acceptance empowers us. Contentment is not an excuse not to take action, rather it is the state of mind from which to take the appropriate action.
What is contentment?
If non-acceptance brings stress and anxiety, what does acceptance bring? Sukha and dukha are two Sanskrit words used to describe opposing states of mind. Sukha is usually translated as “ease" or “joyfulness", while dukha is translated mostly as “suffering”. When we look at the direct translations however, sukha means “good space” while dukha means “bad space”. Contentment helps us cultivate inner ease - good space - in our lives, which simultaneously reduces our suffering. Like with most spiritual teachings, true understanding is only possible through experience. Words cannot fully describe what needs to be done, or what the journey truly feels like. Contentment is a word that most people recognise, but have felt so fleetingly that it is not possible to understand that it can be a default state of being. The contentment that most feel and understand is satisfaction which comes from relieving a desire and that satisfaction fades as quickly as a drop of water falling onto the thirsty desert. Imagine if you didn’t need to change anything, do anything, feel anything in order to feel “satisfied”, that everything was absolutely perfect as it is. No stress, no anxiety, no fear, no pain, that is contentment.
Contentment is more than just about accepting our outer world. It is also how we regulate and respond to our inner landscape. In the book, The Science of Mindfulness (listen on Audible), Siegel explains how simply noticing our thoughts or feelings without judging them as good or bad gives us a sense of freedom. Pushing things out of our awareness takes effort and causes stress to keep it suppressed. When we stop suppressing our “negative” thoughts or feelings and refrain from forcing our thoughts and emotions to be “positive” we can take refuge in the present moment. In the beginning, opening ourselves up to everything like this can feel very overwhelming - especially to those who have experienced trauma. Fortunately, there are many techniques that we can practice to help us deal with the intensity. Meditation is one such powerful method. It can help shift the attention from a world about “me” to a world not about “me” and cultivate deep feelings of compassion and healthy self-love.
Modern mindfulness therapies like ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) encourage us to practice acceptance to deal with a variety of mental health issues. We experience much sadness solely from allowing our minds to follow a narrative that stems from traumatic experiences. These stories pull us away from the now. What we are experiencing is an inaccurate replay of something which has happened in the past or the overdramatised imagining of something which might happen in the future. When we choose not to follow the narrative that accompanies our thoughts and emotions, they become less threatening and we are able to maintain a sense of contentment with much more ease. You can read more about this therapy in the book, The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris. It is also one of the core principles of ancient spiritual teachings like Buddhism.
Action from a place of acceptance.
Some people don’t like the notion of acceptance. They may argue that practising acceptance is similar to giving up or excusing unjust behaviour. How can we, they may say, look at the world around us and just accept all its atrocities? Shouldn’t we speak up and make a difference instead of just accepting the flow of life? Working towards creating a better world for all is after all part of the yogic path. Acceptance, however, doesn’t stop us from taking action in any given situation to affect change, rather Santosha expects us to act from a place of calm tranquillity. Responding to our circumstances and acting within the constraints which are inherent, rather than reacting to life like a punch drunk boxer, swinging at every shadow while gritting our teeth to the constant pain. How does a calm tranquil pond respond to a pebble being dropped into it? Appropriately!
When we stop fighting we become content - not complacent which is a very different and disempowered state. The lesson here is that we can use everything as fuel for awakening and enlightenment. There is a Zen quote that states “The boundary of what we can accept in ourselves is the boundary of our freedom.” We contain the universe - all good and bad is within all of us.
There is a famous Christian prayer, which is called the serenity prayer, which goes:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.”
With a subtle reworking - The Tranquillity Prayer:
“Grant me the tranquillity to accept things as they are.
The wisdom to know what I can and should change.
And the courage and resolve to change them.”
May you find the wisdom and strength to accept all aspects of your life as it is unfolding in front of you. There is magic there, try not to let the challenges that everyday life confronts you with, obscure it from your vision. Accept, and be content and free from suffering.
Chantel Marais - Owner and Teacher at Maitri Yoga and Laurence McCann.