“From an attitude of contentment or gratitude (santosha), unexcelled happiness, sweetness, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.” (santosha anuttamah sukha labhah)
~ Yoga Sutras 2.42
It’s November. Which means this is the month we’re supposed to be thankful and express gratitude for all the things in our life, right? But what about those struggles; the pain, the losses we felt this past year and continue to feel right now in this moment? Doesn’t it sometimes feel like we’re pretending to appreciate those difficulties that relentlessly seem to present themselves for our consideration? Sometimes our attempts to be grateful can fall short of addressing the truth behind our suffering. We simply try to suppress and deny suffering, or wish (or numb) it away, instead of understanding the meaning and power we assign to it.
I have the extreme and humble pleasure of supporting many mothers in our program for several years of their lives. Our hormones, joints, muscles, mental fortitude, relationships, health, financial status, and comfort ebbs and flows. When something goes wrong, we often run in to find a cause, assign blame, or fix it. And when the suffering continues or is beyond our control, we fall. Hard. And this is ironically where the freedom from suffering lies.
Only by looking at the meaning we’ve assigned to our pain can we loosen our grip. It is not so much the pain itself, but the reaction to it, that matters. You’ve all heard the buddhist phrase “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” well, this is what it means. Ask yourself, what do you perceive the limitations doing to your life? How do you feel about them? What do you think they mean? What does it perhaps quietly but insidiously tell you about your aging? Your mortality? Creating a listening space for your suffering can be a great gift, and provide illumination to the many reasons you fight or fear or resist, and can’t quite find that sweet spot of lasting gratitude.
Pema Chodron calls this “leaning in” to the pain. Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weaknesses, we can choose to wake up to our experience, soften to it, and let go of what is no longer serving us. THIS is what is meant by cultivating contentment and gratitude. The Yoga Sutras offer the practice of cultivating opposites – practicing contentment with your suffering for example, rather that wearing down the path of complaints, negative habits, and bargaining attempts. We can welcome the gentler exercise program our older body may now require, instead of wishing we were a younger version of ourselves. We can look at a potentially alarming medical diagnosis and recognize the power that reactive fear has, choosing instead to acknowledge, breathe, and invite in a gentler, less alarmist response. Loosening the grip on our resistance, noticing what it does and where it lies in our being, and changing our expectations, can bring us new and lasting happiness.
As we move into the month of giving thanks, honoring your suffering can be the greatest opportunity to achieve lasting gratitude. Once we make peace with ourselves and our experiences, we can then extend that support and appreciation to others. I’ve often said in class, “how you treat yourself on the mat is a microcosm for how you treat others in the world.”
This practice is often a big part of our weekly program. Later this month I’m offering more opportunities to dive into gratitude: our Winter YogaMoms offering where we create space every week to tune in; a new year’s day practice to usher in the year with intention and vitality; and upcoming retreats! I hope you’ll join us in one of our offerings, and bring the cultivation of gratitude closer to your reach this Fall and Winter.