Ramona M. Wis
“By contentment, supreme joy is gained”
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.42
Writing about gratitude and contentment as we near Thanksgiving is not particularly original. Yet, this year, it may be more challenging than ever to be grateful or content when so much of our lives has been upended.
At the outset, let me say that I realize some of you reading this post have experienced deep loss and grief during this pandemic era and nothing I write here is meant to gloss over that. But I hope that something here may speak to you in a healing way—if not for now, then later, when you may have more time and emotional room for your conducting life. For all of us, this season may be a surprising opportunity to reframe our thinking about gratitude and contentment, both for our work and our broader awareness.
We often use the words gratitude and contentment interchangeably, though at closer look, they are distinct. Gratitude is a practice that requires us to pause and see that in any situation, we can be grateful for something.
If your choir is not meeting right now, you can be grateful for the extra time to take better care of yourself, to recalibrate professionally, or focus on your family’s needs. If you are meeting virtually, you can be grateful for singers who are committing to a different way of “doing choir.” If 30% of your ensemble dropped out due to Zoom fatigue or doubt, you can be grateful it wasn’t more than that.
Have you found new ways of operating that will enhance your teaching and leading when we fully return to in-person rehearsals and large audiences? Maybe some new singers or collaborators have come into your life, people you might not have otherwise met or worked with; and maybe you got to know your singers better because of all the individualized instruction you are doing. All things to be grateful for.
Gratitude is always available if we pause long enough and seek a different perspective on “what is.” If we start with small thanks, soon a gentle flow of gratitude is released and our emotional state and our breathing and our sense of “being OK” improve. Being grateful is being aware of good in the midst of not-good; even in our current world, we can find reasons to be grateful.
So how does gratitude differ from contentment?
Gratitude is often dependent on what lies outside us, while contentment or Santosha resides deep within.
Santosha is a Sanskrit word which translates as “completely satisfied or content.” Gratitude is embedded in our understanding and practice of Santosha, but true contentment requires us to go beyond our circumstances, accomplishments, or material resources (even if they are all good things); to be freed of the opinions of the outer world or the shifting emotions of our inner world. Gratitude that is qualified (“I am really grateful, but . . .”) leaves us craving or wanting more or feeling somehow incomplete. So while we can be grateful, we can still be discontent.
Contentment means knowing we are more than our current situation or the sum total of our stuff (even our “mind-stuff”). Contentment emanates from a clear sense of Dharma or mission, a connection to a higher power, an acceptance that all is impermanent, and an inner awareness that there is an authentic “I” underneath the layers the world has put upon us, but also desperately needs.
Patanjali’s sutra—that by contentment we experience supreme joy—seems like a tall order, especially now. But as conductor-teacher-leaders, we know moments of contentment, don’t we? Those human interactions with our singers that trigger a glimpse of compassionate insight. The slow-motion experiences when the music we hear or create, even in those virtual videos, soars past correct rhythms or well-tuned chords to an elsewhere unimagined. What began as work and then, gratitude becomes, at least for a time, deep contentment. Needing nothing more than that moment. No craving, no comparing, no judging. In that moment, we are content, and we know supreme joy.
As we begin this winter season, can we start with gratitude—finding ways to be grateful for something—and let it take us to our inner core where unshakable joy resides. Let’s remember who we are and recommit (yes, after some needed rest) to our mission and to those we are privileged to lead. Let’s be open to a higher source that brings us stability and insight and unequaled strength. And let’s remember the music is still, always, with us.
Then, even for a moment, we can know supreme joy.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
Check out this short gratitude meditation: