Santosha, unmet needs, and how desire lights our way through the darkness

Santosha, unmet needs, and how desire lights our way through the darkness

Usually the end of summer and beginning of autumn is a time of contentment. We look back on all the fun we had during the expansiveness of summer, not only that but the earth is bursting with harvest goodies – apples tumbling from trees, the plants are dripping with vegetables full of the juiciness and sunny warmth of the hot(-ter.. Scotland..) summer months.
This year though has been a little different, with all its challenges. As the leaves are starting to turn and the early mornings dusted with frosty dew, we turn inwards for the cooler season not really sure what we have to show for the year so far. We look around feeling a little anticlimactic, and where is contentment to be found now?

We have spent the year so far learning how to live with grief – mourning our old lifestyles. We have reshaped ourselves to our old pal “new normal” – and part of that involves settling for things looking a little different to how we expected. 

As for me personally, even as things have opened up I am still on a bit of a baby-lockdown as we navigate sleep and feeding schedules – while studios are opening, I can’t go out to practise, let alone go out for dinner or really hang out for longer than a couple of hours without interruption.
Not to moan! I have a very good reason to leave my old life behind for a while. But all this has got me thinking about contentment-practice, ie: SANTOSHA.

Santosha is a joyfulness practice

(and therefore, a mindfulness practice)

Whenever things are hard, I always try to look at what I do have – and it is really a lot! A roof over my head, running water, loved ones, health and strength – and so much more. Falling in love with what is right in front of you is the classic santosha practice, choosing to find joy wherever your gaze falls. When things are hard (and even when they’re not) sometimes we fail to see the riches at our feet. In the face of disappointment, grief, hardship – those things occupy the full frame of our attention. 

But in the interest of mitigating suffering we can elbow in some room for gratitude to shine in around the edges. And especially if the situation is really bad, this takes mindfulness and subtle attention, to get satisfaction from the small things – late summer sunlight cutting through the air like a knife,  the soft warmth of the skin of the person next to you, the texture of the breath moving through the body.


santoṣād anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ
From contentment, the highest happiness is attained.
Yoga Sutra
II.42

Just because we are looking to small pleasures, don’t take this to be giving up or seeking some second rate comfort, this is a powerful practice that opens our eyes to the beauty of the Real World, as opposed to an imagined conceptual ideal. When we don’t acknowledge what we have got, we will always be looking outside of us for peace. 

Cycles of addiction

In the Age of Amazon, practising Santosha is a radical act and a feat of iron will. Advertising has never been so pervasive, so personalised, so calculating. At the push of a button you can basically order anything you want and have it delivered even the same day. The loop of desire and consumption has never been so tight, and the acquiring of stuff never so meaningless.
It’s so easy to think this way, when we live in a culture so attuned to the scarcity mindset. What we have is never enough, the objects we own, the likes and followers we chase, even if you’re trying to go against the capitalist grain, it’s so easy to apply the same thinking to our spiritual and wellbeing practices – striving to get stronger or more flexible, eating the cleanest, most organic diet, even striving to be more mindful today than the day before. The pressure to run after more and more comes from everywhere, our whole society depends on it – even when our health and our lives are at stake. 

In the face of this, santosha is difficult. We are ever more susceptible to manipulation by advertising, social pressure, and just feelings of inadequacy, and I believe the problem lies in the fact that we are never taught – or maybe we are forced to unlearn – how to understand what our real physical emotional and spiritual needs are. Sit down, be quiet, don’t eat so much, keep working, fight the tiredness.

There’s a Zen saying, “when hungry, eat, when tired, sleep.” My four month old daughter certainly knows when she wants to eat or sleep (the problem for us is working out which one it is from her clamorous yelps..!). As for me though, my sleeping and eating requirements get postponed and sometimes forgotten, while I run around meeting others’ needs and completing other tasks and errands.
Often the result of these sidelined needs is a grumpy and tearful Ema at the end of the week who can barely string a sentence together. Try as I might to cajole myself into contentment or peace, without the basic survival requirements being met, I will never fully manage to achieve this. 

Just because we ignore our needs, however, doesn’t mean that the body will let them go. Unmet needs tend to mutate and grow, and when we don’t acknowledge something that is truly lacking, we will go off on misguided and misdirected compulsive behaviour. This is the source of addiction – certainly no body actually needs alcohol or narcotics – there is something else missing that these substances are replacing. Can we ask ourselves what the sugar rush, caffeine hit, or social-media induced dopamine surge is masking? 

How can we know what we truly want and need? 

After years of believing that self-discipline and denying desire was so virtuous, I discovered quite recently that actually cutting to the chase and understanding your true wants and needs actually is a lot less self-indulgent than giving in to compulsive desires. Extreme abstemiousness is not worthy – as we can see, our needs don’t go away if we ignore them, they just turn into something else, something uglier and less controllable. 

But we are out of the habit of listening to our bodies, to the deepest yearnings of our hearts. If we don’t know what we want, it’s easy for companies and other people to tell us what we should desire.

How can we claim back control over our craving, over our compulsive behaviours?

The answer is as ever simple, although not easy – to listen. 

In Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna, what is it that compels a person to commit evil, “even against their will, as if pushed by a force”, and Krisha responds – 

“O Arjuna, the knowledge even of the wise ones is obscured
By this eternal enemy,
Having the form of desire,
Which is as insatiable fire.”

Desire is a fire and if we let it burn, unruly, it will consume us – but if harnessed, can be a powerful tool – a torch in the darkness. Desire is the enemy of peace, but it can be conquered. My teacher James Boag explains that the best way to overcome an enemy is to make it into a friend. If we turn to our desire with attentiveness and compassion, it will guide us to where we need to be. 

Often when we shine the light of awareness onto our own compulsive behaviours, the ugliest top layer will dissolve away to reveal something quite surprising. 

Why do we want what we want? Is that really what we want? Maybe it is – but why is that?
Since desire is such a powerful force, an insatiable fire, simply pushing it down will not quash it, it must be treated with respect. When it guides us to what we really need, we can then address our basic, deepest needs – sleep, water, sunlight, love – and be free from the mutated zombie babies of our truest desires and requirements. This freedom is where santosha lies. 

I have learned this the past few weeks and months living with my little lady. Sometimes frustration arises and I get overwhelmed by emotion, and find myself acting out. But then when I remember to turn inwards and listen in to my awkward outbursts, I learn something about the vital importance of self-care and seeing to my own needs.  What a much better carer and parent I am then. 

Santosha, like everything else in yoga, is a mindfulness practice.  It isn’t about talking yourself into believing you already have enough, it’s about being in touch with your inner voice in order to live and act in an aligned way, being honest about what you need, making sure those needs are met – and resting in wholeness. 

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