Giving Thanks

In Yoga Sutra II.42, Patanjali writes of Santosha, i.e. contentment, that “By contentment, supreme joy is gained.” Swami Satchidananda illuminates this further: “Here we should understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction. Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn’t matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike.” In light of Thanksgiving and the coming holidays, I’ve been giving this Sutra much thought. How does contentment begin? How does it grow, so that it is our state of being, rather than the much more common state of grasping and craving for more? How can we learn to be content with our life as it is?

Gratitude, I believe, is a sure path to contentment. During this special time of year, we are called to be grateful, to give thanks, for all the blessings, the gifts, of life. And yet, it is very difficult to cultivate genuine feelings of thanks when we are wondering how to make our holiday table more full; when we are shopping endlessly for gifts to check off of our long list; when we are filling our days with another party and another event and another shopping day, etc, etc, etc, until we are emotionally and physically too exhausted to remember to just be grateful and content with things as they already are.

Gratitude and contentment are practices just like everything else we cultivate in our yoga practice. In fact, the Sutra on Santosha is in the section of the Yoga Sutras entitled, “Portion on Practice.” This is not something that most of us arrive at without some measure of work and patience. Our society is constantly barraging us with messages that feed discontent, that tell us we are not enough, our life not enough. A dear friend reminded me today that life wants to be a circle: it can be witnessed in the rings of a tree or a seashell, the turning of the seasons, the cyclical patterns of our life and our choices. Discontentment, I believe, is a choice, one that is keeps us turning in the same circle year after year, never progressing or learning how to find santosha, contentment, without turning to outside things.

We are charged to move out of this circle into one that is new. As yoga students, this may begin on the mat, by allowing ourselves true contentment with whatever our practice gives to us, and us to it, during any given moment. Our mats are so often another place of striving, yet if we can set an intention for true gratitude for whatever it is that we discover or experience, then perhaps the mat can be the first place we begin to break this circle of striving and discontent.

Try sitting in a comfortable seated position. Bring your awareness to your heart and envision a bright light in the middle of your chest. See this light as unchanging, always brightly glowing within you. Now, as you breathe in, hear the word Santosha and as you breathe out, focus on the light. Try doing this practice for 10 minutes each day for the rest of this month. Perhaps it will give you just enough freedom from the striving and the craving to begin to feel true contentment, if for but a moment. The more we feel it, the greater the feeling becomes, until it becomes the circle we are living within.

Another way to practice gratitude and to learn contentment is by giving to others. We show our gratitude for life each time we extend ourselves outward. Make a meal for someone you love or for your sick neighbor or friend; donate your time to teach someone a new skill; visit a local yoga studio and bring some food or clothing for their holiday drive; or reach out to the new yoga student in your class, allowing them the gift of inclusion.

There are many ways to generate this feeling of gratitude. As you give thanks this week and throughout the holiday season, pause to really take in and experience what it means to be grateful, to let your cup runneth over, and to be content with the package of you. Judith Lasater writes, “To practice yoga is to open up to our physical, mental, and emotional difficulties and limitations, whether that is a tight hamstring or a wounded psyche. What we call our difficulties are often just the thoughts we have about our situation. Today remember that your difficulties are just chances to let go, so do it.” Each day is a new opportunity to practice contentment. Begin by letting go, by spiraling out of the circle of discontent and allowing yourself a fresh place of gratitude from which to see your life.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all. With love.