Santosha: Contemplations on Contentment and the Fullness of the Present Moment

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By Tasha Friedman

We are all seeking happiness — it is our nature to do so.

Yet, this search often seems to bring even more suffering, as we run after one desire or ambition after another, never stopping to rest in the present moment.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lists santosha, contentment, as one of the five niyamas or attitudes to be cultivated along the yogic path. Acceptance of things as they are, this sense of wholeness and fulfillment within oneself, is not merely a pleasant side effect of the practice but a fundamental element.

Contentment in the Present Moment

The first (and only) step towards true happiness is to let go of imagination and exist as you are in the present moment.

Contentment is only in the present moment. Nothing in the future will ever make you happy because you will never be in the future. It has always been now and always will be.

All your problems and goals belong to the future, a hypothetical mind-creation that rarely aligns with lived reality.

You might think you have a problem right now, but the very problem-ness is merely a conceptual overlay on a living experience. A “problem” means that something should be different than it is or that something might happen that you don’t want.

In the present moment, even if the situation is objectively terrible, there is still no problem because things simply are as they are. There is no “should,” no “might be” or “must be.”

As for goals and ambitions, those projections of happiness into the future, these are little more than imagination, though they can exert tremendous influence on our lives.

Because we trust the mind, we generally overestimate our ability to predict the future. In reality, this capacity is very limited, even for the most educated and insightful people. If you need a demonstration, think back to this time last year and how you felt the year would unfold.

How many of your plans and predictions came true? And if they did, was it in the way you imagined? Did it bring the experience you thought it would?

The Fulfillment of Desire

Although we might live in a constant state of wanting, achieving our desires rarely brings the satisfaction we expect.

Ramana Maharshi explained that while acquiring the object of desire can bring temporary joy, it is not the object in itself which does so. Rather, it is that the mind, released from its striving toward an external object, briefly subsides and turns back towards the Self. However, this is only a temporary respite before the cycle of craving and externalization starts all over.

Again, don’t take this as a theory, but look at the testimony of your own life. Consider all the times you wanted something so badly that your whole life seemed to revolve around getting it. If it was intense enough, you could feel like your life was on hold until you acquired the object of your desire.

There are two possible outcomes: either you get the thing, or you don’t.

If you don’t — and very often we don’t, no matter how much we want it and how hard we work to get it — you feel disappointment and suffering. Your mind might torture you with how you should have gotten it, what you should have done differently, and how things should be.

Sooner or later, that also fades, and life continues.

But maybe you do get it. Briefly, satisfaction! Then the mind moves on to wanting something else, dragging you along for the ride.

Or, you get what you thought you wanted, but it turns out very differently from what you hoped. Sometimes our wishes coming true can be the worst thing for us.

In any case, sooner or later, the echoes fade, and life continues.

The one constant, beyond that ebb and flow of achievement and disappointment, is that life continues, one moment at a time.

What good is there in postponing your happiness until you pass some imaginary goalpost?

That very flow of life contains all that you were looking for and all that you could want, right here and now. Life itself is happening now. It only happens now.

And what are you really searching for, in all those plans and desires, other than for life itself?

“Happiness” is just a word to describe feeling alive — not going through the motions of life but truly, deeply, intensely alive, straight from that joyful core of your being.

Liberation from the Ego’s Insatiable Hunger

In The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, Chögyam Trungpa wrote, “Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.”

We often hear enlightenment talked about as some magical, exotic thing, something other than the mundane progression of ordinary human life. It’s Self-realization, bliss, and freedom — projected outwards like a prize that we can win if only we work hard enough and fix ourselves in just the right way.

The ego wants to get something special and be something special, for there to be some great secret, some meaning, some excitement beyond the quiet unfolding of reality. But there’s no gold star at the end of the game, no hidden reward or validation of the type the ego furtively hungers for.

The ego can feel that it is incomplete, and it tries to make itself complete by absorbing more and more into itself. It wants to swallow the world. It will chew through everything in your life and spit out the bones if you let it, and still not find satisfaction.

The “disappointment,” from the ego perspective, is realizing that it is the nature of the ego to be incomplete and no object will ever bring the fulfillment it craves.

Yet ironically, this despair leads the way to true fulfillment. Having let go of the ego and its domain, realizing that no answers lie there, a new vista suddenly opens up before your eyes. That wholeness was within you all along, and even the incompleteness of the ego is a part of it, seamlessly integrated into the greater reality.

The Prayers of Prahlada Maharaja

To conclude, a part of the story of Narasimha and Prahlada can shed light on the devotional nature of santosha.

In Vaishnava mythology, the prince Prahlada was wholly devoted to Vishnu. But his father, the demon Hiranyakashipu, hated Vishnu and all forms of spirituality. He threatened Prahlada to try and force him to renounce his faith, and even tried several times to murder him, but the boy was protected by Vishnu each time, until finally, the Lord appeared in the form of Narasimha (half man, half lion) to destroy Hiranyakashipu.

After Narasimha has rescued his young devotee, he offers to grant him a boon. At first, Prahlada refuses, but the divine avatar insists.

Prahlada asks first for him to elevate the soul of his murderous father.

Narasimha replies that Prahlada’s act of taking refuge in the Supreme had purified his family’s karma for 21 generations, so Hiranyakashipu was already redeemed.

Prahlada then asked, “Give me a pure heart.”

Narasimha responded, “Your heart is already pure! Ask for something else.”

After that, Prahlada’s final request: “May I never be separated from you or ask anything from you.”

Narasimha granted this boon to him, and not only to him but to anyone who authentically seeks truth through devotion.

This is an expression of trust and surrender in a very immediate way: to ask nothing from life, expect nothing, need nothing — because you are already complete.

What could you want beyond infinity? For a devotee with a heart as humble as grass, love for God is the Infinite in itself. That longing is all you could need and all you could want. So sweet and so intoxicating, it melts away any other desire.

Completely selfless, it wants only to give, to lay itself at the feet of the great mystery and ask nothing in return.

As St. Teresa of Avila wrote in a beautiful poem, “The one who holds to God lacks nothing. God alone is enough.”

When you stop making demands on life, imposing your ego’s conditions on reality, the beauty of existence unfurls before your eyes, in every moment and in the most mundane circumstances. You no longer feel the need to be special or to collect special experiences, adventures, or excitement.

Infinity is here and now, the pulse of life itself in the present moment, as the loving silence that holds all things just as they are.

Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

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