Contentment – Santosha

joy womanMany of us think of yoga as a set of physical poses that we hold, to develop strength and flexibility, but in fact asanas (or the physical poses) are just one of the eight limbs of yoga.  The first two limbs are the Yamas and Niyamas, which are basically an ethical code or set of principles for living a yogic life off the mat.

One of my favourite Niyamas is “Santosha”.  Santosha can be translated as contentment, or a sense of peace with one’s self and one’s situation. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that cultivating Santosha will lead to personal joy.  Personal joy seems to be something that we all want, but often seems out of reach.  We think that maybe we will be joyful when we build that extension, get that promotion, perfect our headstand or find a lifelong partner, rather than exploring how we can be joyful right now with what we have and all its imperfections.

Yoga provides a set of tools for exploring how to be joyful in the moment.  The asanas provide a laboratory where we can explore our own physical sensations, breathing and habits of mind as we move into unusual or challenging positions.  Meditation gives us the opportunity to notice what happens in our bodies and minds when we sit in stillness.  Both bring us into the present by focusing us on our moment to moment experience.

My experience of yoga is that the longer I practice, the more I feel at ease and at peace in my life, and sometimes I come away from my yoga practice with a joyful smile of my face that lasts all morning, no matter what my chores. It is easier to find contentment in the present moment than when the mind is flitting all over the place.  since it means I have let go of worries about the future or upsetting interpretations of past events.

Santosha relates closely to a practice I have carried out at several points in my life, that of keeping a gratitude diary.  Taking time to appreciate the good things in my life helps me to feel more cheerful and positive.  Practising gratitude actually rewires the brain so that positive thoughts come more easily to us (this is because those brain pathways are already established).  Gratitude becomes a habit.

It is interesting to contrast gratitude with attachment.   The Yoga Sutras invite us to let go of our attachments to things, relationships or goals.  In 1.15, Patanjali seems to be saying that when we can let go of our attachments to things in the material world, and to thoughts and feelings, then we can settle into a state of non-reaction (or maybe that reaching this level of non-reaction will allow us to let go of our attachments).

1.15 “As for non-reaction, one can recognise that it has been fully achieved when no attachment arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.” (translated by Chip Hartranft)

1.15 “With constant remembrance of the self, Vairagya, all yearnings fade.” (translated by Nischla Joy Devi)

This seems very perceptive and useful to me.  So much suffering in the world is caused by attachments.  Some of those attachments may be to material things – a new car, a bigger house, a higher salary, job security, fashion purchases – whilst others may be to people or relationships.  If I am craving a new dress but I cannot afford it this month, I will suffer because I was attached to the idea of the dress. If I am craving recognition from my friend for the way I have helped her, I will suffer if I do not receive this recognition. Through meditation I may be able to witness these attachments forming in my mind and realise that they are just mental activities that I can observe, so they loosen their grip on me.

But if I feel grateful for the material possessions I have, my family, my friends, my job or my achievements, does that mean I am actually cultivating the very attachments that Patanjali says I should avoid?  This could be the case, but I think it is possible to cultivate gratitude without strengthening attachments.

Gratitude seems to be to be a positive state of appreciation, whereas attachment becomes negative when I fear losing the object of my attachment.  Santosha seems to be about cultivating that positive appreciation for my life whilst not feeding the fear I might have of losing things, whether they are physical possessions, relationships or emotional states.  An example of this is a work project where I find myself enjoying working with my colleagues or getting into a creative flow with the tasks, rather than being solely focused on the end result.

Yoga supports that by helping me to witness my attachments rather than be consumed by them.  Practising on the mat, I might notice and witness my attachment to  perfecting an arm balance, and rather than getting caught up in frustration that I cannot do it, I just witness the story I am telling myself and let it go.

Santosha seems to be a particularly important Niyama, since many of the other Yamas and Niyamas naturally fall out of this state of peaceful contentment.  If I feel contented with my situation and at peace, I am likely to experience Aparigraha (non-grasping, awareness of abundance) since I know I do not need more material possessions, success or affirmation from others to experience contentment.  If I am in a peaceful state of contentment, I am also more likely to experience Ahimsa (non-violence, compassion for all), since I feel a sense of inner and outer peace and I do not need to take anything away from anyone by force.  So, it also relates to Asteya (non-stealing or generosity).

An interesting challenge is to get the right balance between Tapas, or intense practice to ignite the purifying flame, and Santosha, or contentment.  It requires some will to practice every day and to put effort into asana and meditation with a spiritual goal in mind, and yet we also need to cultivate acceptance of where we currently are in our lives and with our practice.  Wisdom comes from knowing where to apply some effort and where to accept things as they are – this is what I am trying to cultivate in my life!  I am disciplined in doing my practice every day, but I accept that the practice is different each day and sometimes it produces more positive emotions or achievements than others.  I seem to be less attached to some of the achievements (difficult asanas, a particular energetic state or a focused stillness) than I used to be.  Ironically, being less attached to achieving a joyful state actually seems to increase the probability of this being the result of my practice!

 

 

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Snow Days – What Can They Teach Us?

 

In Britain, we have a strange custom known as “snow days”.  Since we have snow so rarely, we are entirely unprepared.  Once every few years, we have enough snow to make the roads treacherous, the trains unreliable and for the schools to close (since the teachers can’t get to work).  The snow rarely lasts more than a coupe of days, but while it does, it dominates the national conversation and throws everything into chaos.  We do not have four wheel drive, snow chains in our cars or grit on every steep hill.  There are not enough snow ploughs to clear every road and railway line.  Offices are quiet and people go out to play instead.

This year, my son had snow on his birthday for the first time, and it brought the unexpected gift of two days off school.  He, his brother, and their friends, took the their sledges to the nearest steep hill and spent happy mornings racing down the hill before coming home wet and cold for hot chocolate.  It was the best birthday present of all.

Meanwhile, I had two days of important back-to-back meetings planned, and a rare opportunity for a a Christmas meal with my colleagues from around Wales, which I was really looking forward too.  I was determined not to give up on my plans.  My car was buried in snow, and there is a steep hill at the end of our road, so I opted to take the train.  I arrived at the station to find no trains were running, since a tree was down over the line.  Fortunately the train from the opposite direction turned around, and I got to my first meeting.  My colleague was not so lucky – she did not arrive until mid-afternoon.  After the meeting, I headed to the station for my onward journey, stepping with care since the pavements were so icy.  The delayed afternoon trains were still showing as not arrived, which did not fill me with confidence.  With much reluctance, I gave up on my social event, and felt lucky to make it home.  The closest I got to my meal was a running commentary of everyone’s journeys on Whats App.

The next day, I Skyped into my meeting – a lesson learnt.

So, what do snow days have to teach us?

  • Non-attachment – on a snow day, it doesn’t pay to be too attached to your plans.  You need to be willing to let go of them gracefully.
  • Compassion and connection – people say hello to each other and help each other out.  People check on their neighbours, they talk to each other about transport delays, they help each other clear the snow from the pavements, they smile in the street.  Everyone seems friendlier.
  • See the world with fresh eyes – everything looks different in the snow.  You can take time to see how things are right now in the present moment, rather than carry out your journey on auto-pilot.
  • Remember how to play – build a snow man, go sledging, have a snowball fight!
  • Think flexibly – is there another way of connecting to people?  Do you really need to travel? Could you try working from home?
  • Enjoy some welcome rest – if you end up staying home because the kids are off school or you cannot get to work, make the most of the time by snuggling up and getting cosy.  This is a time of year when we could usually use a bit of extra time to relax and refresh ourselves.
  • Gratitude! Having to do without a few things can help us appreciate what we do have – all those days when we have access to good transport, electricity, warmth, childcare, simple routines.

Are We All Oversharing?

Facebook, Social Media, Phone, Android

I was recently sitting with a group of yoga teachers, lovely people who I generally have a lot of time for.  However, on this particular occasion, I had that rather uncomfortable feeling that you get when you really don’t agree with the heated opinions being voiced, but can’t quite find the words to speak up.

The topic of their vitriol?  People who share their emotional angst on Facebook.

“People just share far too much on Facebook.  Really personal stuff about how depressed they feel.  It’s just attention seeking,” one said.

“I barely know this person, and she is sharing posts about how much she misses her dead sister.  I don’t feel comfortable with it,” said another.  “I’ve never met her sister.”

“I know.   And it annoys me when this woman posted about how much she appreciated her wonderful husband on his birthday.  I mean, she could have just told him to his face.  It’s just showing off,” said a third.

Now, I am not a yoga teacher, so I didn’t feel very qualified to comment on whether sharing your thoughts and feelings on Facebook is yogic or not, but I didn’t feel comfortable.

On reflection, surely if we are working towards kindly acceptance of all our emotional states, then being able to name them is important, even when they are grief, loneliness or existential angst.  Appreciation and gratitude are also attitudes worth cultivating. Naming these emotions in public is a strong way of acknowledging them.

Facebook can sometimes feel a bit like Smugbook – all those perfect holiday snaps and nights out – so personally I find it a relief when people allow their less than perfect lives to be seen in public.  It helps me feel that I am not alone with my domestic chaos or my quiet night in.

If a friend of mine shares that they are lonely or grieving, I give them a few moments of kind thoughts and post a message to let them know they are not alone.  I might give them a ring or make a point of chatting to them in the office next time I see them if that seems appropriate.  It can make the connection between us stronger.

I’ve noticed that it tends to be my male friends who are more likely to share feelings on social media.  One friends recently posted that he felt inexplicably lonely, even in a crowd of friends, whilst another posted that he missed his recently deceased father.  Men are often criticised for not being emotionally literate, so surely this sharing is a great step forward in redefining masculinity.

Female friends seem more likely to share the frustrations of parenthood or juggling home and work life.  The laundry that fell in the mud, the child behaving like a brat, the baby that won’t sleep, the babysitter that didn’t turn up or the cake that just didn’t rise. Letting a less than perfect life be seen in public builds intimacy.

A bit of appreciation for the long-suffering husbands/wives and mothers/fathers who support us through this quagmire reminds us all to appreciate those around us.  And doesn’t everyone like to be acknowledged in public for the great things we do?  Even if those great things are not ending world poverty or inventing a solar powered aeroplane, but simply being a supportive partner or parent.

So, now I have finally gathered my thoughts, here are my replies to those yoga teachers.

  1. If you really don’t care that someone is grieving for their sister, there is a simple solution – don’t be friends with them on Facebook.  You are obviously not friends in real life, even if she thinks otherwise.
  2. It’s good to be appreciative of all those who help and support you, and appreciating people in public is a lovely gift.
  3. If you need support, it’s fine to ask for it.  Nothing wrong with that.  Your real friends will be happy to send you kind messages when you need them, and make time for you.
  4. Sharing your real life with its emotional ups and downs helps all of us to know that we are not alone, that no life is as perfect as it may look from the outside.
  5. If you want to share person information about your life, think about who your friends are, and your privacy settings.  Make sure you are sharing with the people who really do care about you.

 

 

 

Gratitude and Attachment

Anyone who has been working in the public sector over the last five years will be familiar with those difficult periods of adjusting to budget cuts, dealing with job losses and restructuring. At these times, our resilience is tested. Can we still find it in ourselves to come to work with a positive mindset, support our teams and colleagues, get on with business as usual and plan for the future, even though we don’t know if we will be part of that future?

To support myself in maintaining a positive frame of mind I decided to keep a gratitude diary. I have done this before, and it is surprisingly powerful. Cognitive behavioural therapists tell us that the triad of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are intricately linked. If we change a thought, we also change our emotions and physical reactions.  Getting caught up in negative thoughts or having a good moaning session will produce corresponding negative emotions. Contrary to popular belief, punching a pillow will make us feel more angry. And introducing more positive thoughts will produce more positive emotions and physical sensations. That’s how a gratitude diary works.

This time, I thought I would try a work focused gratitude diary.  I focused on my job exactly as it is right now, not how it was a year ago or how it might be next year. There are many good things about my workplace, which are easily forgotten. So here goes:

  • Lovely colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and also really nice, funny people
  • Great people to manage; they are creative, autonomous and care about the quality of their work (and they are really lovely people)
  • A boss who asks for my opinion and listens
  • The chance to make a difference to people’s lives
  • Great leave and flexitime
  • Decent pay
  • Autonomy – no one micromanages me
  • The opportunity to go to CPD events or spend time researching ideas
  • A decent computer with two screens
  • The chance to get to know some talented and inspirational external trainers

When I started thinking about it, it was not that hard to come up with ten items. But a lot of these things I usually take for granted.  Herzburg would call many of these (particularly the leave, flexitime, computer, pay and colleagues) hygiene factors. By this he means, if they are not present, we focus on them and become demotivated. But when they are present, we soon take them for granted.  They don’t motivate us in a positive way or create job satisfaction.

Doing a daily gratitude diary can help to bring these hygiene factors back into our thoughts, help us to have more positive thoughts, with corresponding emotions and physical feelings, and break up mild depression or work blues. Yogis aim to cultivate “santosha” or contentment, and this is a practical way of doing so.

However, the Buddhist teachings warn us about the dangers of attachment. Attachment to the things we value is a cause of suffering, because then we fear loosing them. If I feel attached to my computer with two screens, and then find someone else using it, I might feel little bit annoyed. If I feel attached to my work colleagues, and they decide to move on, I will mourn their passing. If I feel attached to getting praise or recognition, I will suffer when I don’t get it. Attachment to status, money or power may cause someone to move away from roles in which they would have been more creatively fulfilled.

So, if gratitude is a good thing, and attachment is a bad thing, how do we square that? What is the difference? Gratitude is a warm, thankful feeling, an appreciation of things as they are in the present moment without any expectations that they will endure, whereas attachment is a more needy feeling, a feeling that we cannot be whole without something else to complete us. Gratitude can be a general sense if thankfulness and contentment, a sense of having plenty, while attachment is always for something specific and is rooted in the fear of not having enough. Attachment can trap us, whereas simple gratitude does not.

However, I wonder if spending too much time focusing on gratitude might lead us to stay too long in jobs that really we should just move on from. We could could too zen to make a move!  I suspect that is probably not likely to happen. Being in a positive and open frame of mind has been shown to improve the chances of a person coming across a “lucky break” and it is certainly easier to do a job interview when you feel positive about your current job. Loosening the bonds of attachment can help us find the courage for change.

So, to maintain wellbeing in work, develop the gratitude, but beware attachment!