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What don't you want for Christmas?

Most Americans, myself included, have been raised to have desires and fulfill them. This, according to Buddhist philosophy, is a recipe for misery. How long do you stay satisfied once a desire is fulfilled? A few minutes? Hours? How long does it take before another desire inevitably creeps in? Whether the desire leads to fulfillment or frustration, living for our desires always loops us back into perpetual dissatisfaction, enslaving us to our wanting, craving minds. The Yoga Sutras (among other sacred texts) offer a way out of this endless cycle of suffering.

It’s called ‘Santosha,’ translated as contentment or gratitude. I’m exploring Santosha as a new paradigm for my life. One way I practice is by first noticing a desire when it arises. Then rather than giving in to the desire immediately, I sit still for five minutes or more and consciously practice contentment. I direct my awareness to the simple act of breathing that sustains my life, and pay attention to the pleasurable sensations in my body as I simply sit doing nothing in particular. (Patrick McDonnell wrote a great children’s book called The Gift of Nothing depicting this idea with a charming story and illustrations, fun for adults too!)

If you want to read more about this simple and life-changing practice, I’m reprinting below an excerpt from a series I wrote for www.yogacitynyc.com  on Santosha, which is one of five yogic ‘Niyamas,’ or observances. I wish you contentment and freedom from wanting this holiday season.

Santosha, or freedom from wanting

Of all the niyamas,  to me santosha is the one that just feels good. Sutra 2.42 tells us that “from contentment, the highest happiness is gained.” Cultivating gratitude, practicing contentment… I picture myself like a cat curled up on a sunny windowsill, just lapping up all the sweetness of this juicy life.

But what about when life doesn’t paint this idyllic picture? From serious conditions like illness or violence to minor annoyances like delayed subways and bad hair days, I am challenged to practice gratitude even when things are not going ‘my way.’

To help remind me that santosha is meant to be a continual practice of unconditional gratitude, I posted a little reminder above my desk: Until you can make friends with the present moment, you’re not really living. Seated breathing practices and simple mindfulness exercises have helped me tremendously to embrace santosha, and not just when things are going ‘well.’ Everyday annoyances like missing a train by the skin of my teeth become an opportunity for practice: can I slow my breathing down and practice contentment, even in this mucky tunnel?

In Edwin Bryant’s commentary on the Sutras, he explains that santosha is about finding the greatest happiness “from the cessation of desire.” When I let go of my designs and surrender to what is, my life shifts into the present moment. My computer crashes; the four hours I spend trying to get back online could be full of irritation and impatience for results, or I could choose a more sattvic (harmonious) approach to the situation. Each press of my finger on the keyboard could be a reminder that here I am, alive in this miraculous and mysterious existence. When I practice santosha, joy arises from within, completely independently of my external situation, which is always changing.

Santosha doesn’t mean I don’t work to change what feels unacceptable. My life partner will hear about it when he leaves tomato sauce stains on the countertops. I still work to protest war and violence. Contentment doesn’t mean just sitting back and lackadaisically watching the world go by. But armed with this gentle yet vital practice, I am able to approach each day with more compassion, more relaxation, and thankfulness just for the opportunity to be here and experience it all – the pleasurable events as well as the drudgery. It’s all an opportunity to grow, and to let go of the idea that I can control or put any conditions on reality.


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