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The Truth Behind Santosha: Understanding “Necessary Desire”

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If you have been following this series on “Beyond Ashtanga Yoga” you will know that we are in the process of exploring the 5 Niyama’s or processes of self improvement, which increase accessibility to the next 6 parts of the eightfold, or Ashtanga, process. Here again are all five:

Yoga Sutras: 2.32

“Sauca-santosa-tapah-svadhyayesvara-pranidhanani niyamah.

“Cleanliness, satisfaction, austerity, Vedic study; and isvara‑pranidhana, surrender to the Supreme Lord – these five are niyama.”


They analyse whether a desire is unnecessary and can be ignored, or whether fulfilment of such is necessary and should be fulfilled.  The desire to urinate is, in general, an indication of an actual need.  The desire to eat ice cream, in general, is not.  Having identified the status of the desire, they follow up on this analysis by fulfilling only the necessary desires, remaining satisfied with those, and ignoring unnecessary desires.

The yogi is able do this by development of a faculty higher than the mind, known as buddhi. This term does not have an equivalent in English and is therefore translated as intelligence. However this intelligence or buddhi is not what is popularly known as the IQ, rather it is a subtle facility, that the self, I, can use to direct my mind and body.  A person may be very intelligent in the sense we usually understand it, they may have a mind that can remember a multitude of facts and be able to calculate like a computer, but buddhi/intelligence is related to the ability to control the impulses of the mind.

The student who pulls their mind away from their latest crush, or the impulse to check Facebook, or the state of the waves, to focus on their study is utilising the power of the buddhi, this subtle intelligence. The diabetic who controls their intake of certain foods to minimise blood sugar spikes and falls is using both their mind and their buddhi.  The mind holds the database of what foods are good and bad, and an able mind allows the person to understand the workings of blood sugar, insulin and digestion of foods, but the ability to actually follow up on that knowledge by acting appropriately, and not eating what will be unhealthy, is facilitated by the buddhi.

In practicing santosha the yogi accepts the way things are, in the sense of material circumstances. Clearly the endeavour to practice yoga is an attempt at changing things on a very deep and basic level. But in terms of material acquisitions they accept what comes to them without unnecessary endeavour. This has a side effect of leaving more time for yoga practices. But the main purpose is to have a calm mind, which is conducive to meditation.

Some people who have never heard of yoga none the less practice santosha. These are the people who are happy living simply with whatever situation they already have and who do not strive overly for anything more.  In this society such simplicity of mind is looked down upon.  Ambition is glorified.  Being driven is glorified.  Greed is glorified.  And such attitudes of mind cause a never-ending struggle to achieve more and more things, a struggle which does not lead to ultimate satisfaction. Indeed this driven state is the very thing that causes one to feel “I can’t get no satisfaction.  I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I can’t get no….”

Instead of developing this striving for satisfaction through the senses and mind, the yogi is taught to control the mind and its material desires. If this is not done, if unnecessary desires are focussed on and followed they simply increase in number and strength. This means a dissatisfied mind.  Just as one can state, “1 + 1 = 2” or “2 = 1 + 1”, one can say “A dissatisfied mind is full of cravings and desires” and “A mind full of cravings and desires is dissatisfied.” They are the same thing.

A person with such a mind, full of burning desire, either surrenders to those desires, being thus led around as easily as a bull with a ring in his nose, or they are constantly internally agitated, fighting those desires.  They dance around in a boxing ring, with the mind as their opponent, fighting or negotiating over the different suggestions and demands made by the mind. Such suggestions may arise from memory of past enjoyment, from hearing others talk about and advertise such enjoyment, and directly from the senses themselves, which are described in the Bhagavad-Gita as sitting places for such desires.

Let’s say you’ve decided to give up sugar. I do this regularly!! If Ashtanga yoga were the only process of self realisation, I might as well slit my wrists now, metaphorically speaking.  So, I decide “No, I won’t have any ice cream!” My mind tells me “But there just happens to be your favourite, vanilla, high quality style there in the freezer right now.”  Now, let me point out, a classic Ashtangi would have neither a freezer, nor ice cream in it, but just to give you a picture of the way we fight and negotiate with the mind, I’m giving you one tournament I’m intimately familiar with.

My mind continues this argument, “Yes I know you were going to take it to the yard party on Saturday. It’s not your fault it was rained out.  So there’s that ice cream.  And I’m going to bug you about until you have it. You might as well have it now, and then I’ll stop bugging you.”  The mind is an out and out liar. No plans on stopping the bugging program. If it’s not controlled by the higher facility of the buddhi, or subtle intelligence, it will bug you ‘til you die.


The Satisfaction Attitude

And one good tool in the toolbox is Santosh, having an attitude of being satisfied and content whatever the circumstances. It is not a matter of trying to satisfy mind by giving it whatever it wants – that way madness lies! The desires of the mind are insatiable, never-ending, constantly changing, and conflicting with each other.  I may experience desire for a fashionably slim good looking body and the status and power that go with that.  But I also experience desire for luxurious food in quantities that run counter to that first desire. So instead of trying for the impossible, to satisfy the material desires of the mind and body, the yogi must learn to step back from such desires, and from the mind which brings up such desires. She must realise that I am not my desires, nor need I be the slave of them.

Practice of Santosh, or this ability to be satisfied with what one already has, is a great skill for anyone. Epictetus, a Greek philosopher raised as a slave in the first century AD has been quoted as saying, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”  Even Sheryl Crow says, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

We need to also clarify what we mean by desire.  Santosh is related to material desires. The atma, the living entity, always experiences desire, but there is a spiritual counterpart.  The Buddhist idea of desire less-ness is not an actual possibility.  The question is, “What should one desire?”  Even spiritualists have desire. The Buddhist, the yogi, the saint, they all have desire.  They desire, at the least, to become free from material desire that agitates the mind and ultimately causes misery. But there are higher desires that are blissful in experience, and in result, unlike material desires that agitate and burn, and if followed unrestrainedly lead eventually to misery and bitterness.

Let’s illustrate that with a banal example: If I follow the desires of my tongue unrestrainedly it leads to ill health.  Or let’s say you desire a tree change, acreage in the country and you get it.  But as time goes on you must lose it… You can no longer manage the upkeep, and must move to a managed apartment in Greenacres Rest Home… or you die…  This is the big picture.

So the Ashtangi also has desire. They desire to transcend the miseries of material desires, which is a negative desire, a desire for pain to be removed, but more importantly, their positive desire is to achieve the final goal of yoga, blissful union with the Supreme, in a loving personal connection.  Not only does the yogi wish to give up material desires due to the unhappiness such desires cause, but because, to achieve the goal of yoga, union with the Supreme, in which state one experiences supreme satisfaction, one must give up all other desires.

This is why Santosh is important in the process of Ashtanga yoga, and indeed in all yoga practices. On the material level remain satisfied with that which comes easily. Don’t strive for more than the bare necessities. Don’t waste your inherent ability to desire. Ultimate success in yoga can be achieved when all desire, all hope, all focus is gathered and harnessed in this gargantuan endeavour.  A great first step is to be satisfied with what one has, in terms of material goodies, and with what comes of its own accord, rather than hankering for what one lacks.

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