The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart. ~Buddha
I used to savor that incredible feeling. Do you know it? Santosa. The sublime state of just being.
Like lying on the beach, where you have swallowed a golden sun, it floods you with calm from your center outwards. Warm waves swim beneath your skin. You are content. In the moment. In yoga we call it santosa—a happy place of stillness that is personal but connects you to others at the same time. I never thought it could run out. Or that I would lose it.
I had a yoga teacher, years ago when I lived in Vancouver. She wasn’t experienced. But she was warm, gentle, and unfailingly friendly. And when we were in those self-reflective poses, like downward dog, child’s pose, or sivasana. She would remind us of santosa—contentment. As she spoke the word, it would conjure up peace and I would just fall into it. From where I lay or stood, she would take on a Maitraya like aspect—the big burgeoning, laughing Buddha. (Check out Doreen Virtue’s Ascended Masters Oracle Cards if you want a visual.) But she looked nothing like the laughing Buddha. Small, blonde, almost sparrow like, with a sweet child’s voice. But there he was, a rotund Buddha, channeled by my yoga teacher. And I was hooked.
Santosa is part of the eight limbs of yoga, the internal disciplines (niyamas) from the Yoga-Sutra of Pantanjali, nearly 2,000 years old. Yoga was in its origin conceived as an inwards journey, a spiritual path. Arrived at by practicing the external disciplines (yamas), moral guidelines for dealing with others, with emphasis on Ahimsa non-violence . This lack of grasping, of just being, not judging or comparing, connects you to joy. Joy is a great place to be. It yields context: you in relation to you, in relation to the world. All of the puzzle pieces assemble themselves in a strange and delightful harmony.
Don’t worry, santosa is not limited to yoga. Yogis may have given it the rolling mantra-like name. Buddhism, for example, emphasizes meditation as a part of the path to enlightenment. And metta meditation—loving kindness– is a profound way to experience a state that flows from this internal contentment, shifting you into a higher consciousness. And prayer is not to be dismissed. But I also think we can access this state in our daily lives. Runners, hikers, even gardeners have described it. Some people might write it off as an endorphin rush. And while those feel good brain chemicals may be involved, it doesn’t end there. I believe practicing your passion may be a gateway. When lists, expectations, and problems are suspended, acceptance and pure love can appear. And love flows from love. So once you are connected, you can feel it in a grocery store line up. Or sitting in traffic. Well, it’s possible…
But life is not a peaceful walk in the park or a continuous yoga session. Strong emotion can snap you way off course, like a rubber band. It can at times, obliterate santosa from your vocabulary. After my mom died a few years ago, I lost the ability to find this state. Yoga didn’t do it anymore. I would lay in child’s pose with my thoughts churning. My head filled with her last days. Overwhelmed by grief and guilt. My teacher was just a well-intentioned girl, not a Buddha. I tried other things. Running made my calves strong and gave me quads of steel, but nothing else. Forget meditation. It just wasn’t happening. And prayer, well, I think my calls were going straight to voicemail.
But I’m a Taurus with a stubborn streak. Think Bull charging ahead. So, I took action. In the form of hiking. Hiking is my absolute favorite activity. The repetitive motion, the ascent, the intoxication of nature unfolding before me. We moved to Whistler for a month a year after my mom’s death. I hiked nearly every day. Sometimes with my husband and son, sometimes alone. I was always climbing a mountain, searching for that peace, that letting go. But it always eluded me. It was as though it was around each corner, if I just pressed on. And when it wasn’t there, it would be at the top. But it never was. I was always met with a beautiful view, and the hollowness of more despair. But I was determined. I kept going. Once I was even followed by an indifferent bear, but extreme fear (on my part) didn’t trigger the santosa either.
It wasn’t until almost another year later that I found it again. By accident. We had moved to Toronto. There wasn’t a mountain in sight. I was at the end of yoga teacher training. Yes, I thought a lot of yoga might be the answer. But I was tired and nursing a few injuries, listless and uninspired. After an early morning Ashtanga Primary Series class (an often grueling feat of what would seem like a thousand sun salutations, push ups, arm balances, inversions, and bendy lotus style prostrations), I collapsed in an exhausted puddle of sweat for sivasana (corpse pose). The instructor was a generous soul, a former gymnast who was humorous and encouraging.
And it was back. That elusive warm sun. The feeling of peace. And self-acceptance. And relief, sweet relief.
If You Lose Your Santosa:
- Find an activity that you love. Ideally, where you flow in the moment. Yoga and hiking are my examples. Yours may be different.
- Find warm-hearted teachers. They don’t have to be the Dalai Lama. Just people who encourage you with gentleness and compassion (btw a couple of his trademark qualities).
- Set the intention to find or rediscover santosa. There is no guaranteed formula here. But being truthful aligns you in the right direction.
- Be patient.
- The irony is, you can’t find santosa, it finds you. But follow the clues. If you are working through issues like grief, loss, or anger, keep working through them. Santosa may just be on the other side.
- Know that you are not alone. Challenges are part of the human experience. How we face adversity is what makes the santosa that much sweeter.