How to find unconditional happiness during good and bad times? Samtosa, one of the niyamas, can be a powerful ally

Originally published in Yoga Connection Magazine (pages 18-19)

I used to wonder what the source of perpetually happy people was and where on earth did they store what was there in this place? I can understand when all is going well in someone’s life that of course, all you can do is smile. But how about when things are going not so well, and maybe pretty bad, how can people muster up the ability to be and stay positive? Believe it or not, there are folks out there who do just this – stay positive even when the chips are down and even way down. The chips could be that they lost their job, lost their home, family members, or are experiencing a chronic illness be it physical, mental, or emotional or a combination; the kicker may be when a person is experiencing a terminal illness where the end of the physical road as we know it is near. This past summer, I have watched those I know experience many of these things and have been dramatically impacted and most of us experienced the horror and sadness around the shooting in Centennial either first-hand or through watching and waiting as the story unfolded just south of us. How can one find positivity from these experiences? The world may never look the same after something shifts how we see the world. A powerful concept that can be used to help us stay centered and maybe even happy is contentment, or in yoga, samtosa.

What makes contentment in this context so powerful is that it is not based upon a passive idea. Contentment as a practice is one that is actively pursued because the ancient yogis and us today know that life is not always the bowl of cherries, sometimes we get a dud, and every once in awhile, they can be quite big. The practice encourages us to actively consider the positive in all things including all beings and situations1 and that in turn affects what we think about, how see something, what we do, how we do it, etc. The most important thing to consider in all this is that as we actively practice, we move closer to a shift in our state of being, where this practice of contentment brings us to the states of strong happiness or serenity. Sutra II.42 can translate as “Contentment brings supreme happiness”; therefore, inherent in this sutra is that through active practice, we have the possibility of finding happiness, and not of the fleeting nature, but one that is centered and calm perhaps even leading to a serene calm. A wise happiness that can stay near even through the bad times because it is not attached to situations or things that are changing in nature, perhaps signaling spiritual growth towards unending joy and centeredness as things shift good or bad around us.

Mantra japa is a form of meditation practice where a practitioner chants a phrase (mantra) repetitively. This can be done silently or out loud depending upon the individual and the effect desired. This practice can have a profound effect on the mind shifting it towards a desired state such as contentment.  If done silently, as this piece will guide you through, it would be similar to saying a prayer as you move along a rosary where every time one repeats the prayer, it becomes that much more ingrained in our minds, and if said repeatedly, especially in multiple practice sessions, this can produce a deep sense of focus on the meaning creating the possibility to permeate our lives beyond the actual practice.

One mantra that can be effective when cultivating samtosa is, “Om aham anandam” translated as, “I am unconditional joy or bliss”. Repeating this chant can transform us psycho-emotionally moving us towards a place that is unchanging and full of joy. When chanting this mantra aloud, there is a lilting sound and quality to the words rendering it a beautiful sound so you can envision this beauty while repeating the mantra silently.

Practice

Sit comfortably either on a meditation cushion or blanket giving your spine ample space to lengthen from both ends.

Have a small piece of paper with both the chant and the translation written out. Om aham anandam – I am unconditional joy or bliss. Focus on the words and meaning. Sometimes I just choose one of the words, joy or bliss, to focus my attention on.

Start to bring your focus inward starting with your attention on the backs of your eyelids, down your spine and into the bottom of your pelvis. At each point, you may linger briefly with your attention noticing any characteristics of these places without staying too long – you are starting to hone the tracking of your mind from the external to the internal at this point.

Bring your focus up your head feeling a spacious quality in the center. Do this for about one-two minutes retraining your focus back to this spacious center of your head if your mind wanders from this point.

Start to quietly repeat the mantra, “Om aham anadam.” You may want to start with a shorter amount of repeats, but try to repeat at least five-ten times. As you progress with this practice, you could even stay on your cushion for 10-20 minutes becoming more immersed in the phrase and the deeper meanings of these words. This can be even more powerful if chanted throughout an asana practice before meditation.

Do not be concerned if you cannot always link the meaning with the phrase you are repeating; this is not always necessary for this practice to work. With repetition of the practice, the meaning will become clear and more second nature allowing the practice to touch even deeper for a more profound shifting effect.

Once you have finished repeating the mantra for a sitting, you may sit in silence, allowing the words and meaning to permeate layers of cognition and sense. This amount of time will be up to the individual how long is the right amount of time but do try and have a pause before bringing your attention back towards the external.

Slowly bring your attention from the center of your head down your spine, into the bottom of your pelvis, and then down into the soles of your feet feeling the sense of groundedness.

Bring attention to the backs of the eyelids, open your eyes, and if appropriate, send gratitude towards your lives and all the situations we have encountered and will encounter.

I was reminded of samtosa by being with a friend’s terminally-ill dog recently. While lying with him as he labored with breathing, the bones of his ribcage profusely evident with each breath, he seemed at peace, with each gaze filled with either excitement for me being there or relaxation as we lay together and he rested. I could still see the same dog in his eyes and behavior who before was physically well and happy and now still seemingly mentally well and happy as his body slipped away. What an amazing gift to experience – I will remember this always as I know my body will slip away someday, and surely as other things will shift and potentially fall away. We can always move towards this place of unchanging joy.