Yogi Assignment: Satya, Truthfulness
Satya, truthfulness, is the second of the yamas, the moral and ethical guidelines for yogic living. While the basic principles of truth, honesty and candor are easy to agree upon in an abstract sense, the reality is that adhering to a high standard of truthfulness is not easy for anyone. Nearly 100% of human beings admit to outright lying. Many more lie or at least withhold or deny the truth when they are triggered or feel defensive and fragile. Whether big or small we all tell a series of lies, half truths or omissions throughout the day. We lie to ourselves about things we would rather not face. We lie to others about how we’re feeling, how our business is doing or any other number of things. We lie publicly to save face rather than admit our mistakes and just sit with the discomfort.
The whole promise of yoga rests on the notion that yoga is a path that diverges from the average. It isn’t easy, but all the hard work that is spent on the mat in challenging asanas only begins to mean something when it translates into substantive life change. The commitment of satya is one example that sets the bar for the yogi quite high. Being established in satya means speaking the truth and being impeccable with your word. The commitment not to lie brings the stated boon of having all your words fulfill their intent. Think about how many times you’ve written out a list of intentions only to have the opposite happen. Well, according to yoga philosophy once you are established in the practice of truthfulness then your word will never return void. Instead, your word will act as a covenant that will accomplish what it sets out to. That’s pretty powerful, if only we can learn to adhere to satya in all situations.
But, truth does not exist in a vacuum and there are many levels of moral relativity that often cloud our judgement about it. For example, we can speak the truth without love or kindness. In doing so, we weaponize the truth for personal vindication instead of maximizing the impact of truth as liberation. Sometimes when people say that they are going to “share their truth” what is really happening is that they are going on a personal emotional rant without boundaries. Sharing the “truth” may in fact be quite different than just vomiting up your emotions at all times. Sometimes truth requires genuine self-reflection and time to pause, feel and process both the inner and the outer reality in any situation. The truth can be often be hidden or at least not easily recognized, so sometimes ample research must be done before truth-telling happens in earnest.
You may be thinking that you are an above-average truth-teller. And truly, you may very well be. Yet, there are many different levels of truthfulness. One that often gets overlooked is the impact that “honest” withholding has on truthfulness. It is possible to be technically honest while withholding valuable information. This is also not entirely truthful and would not uphold the moral commitment which underlies satya. It is not the letter of the yogic principles that matter but the spirit. If you show up at a yoga class and share with your teacher that you’re feeling low energy but omit the essential detail that you went out partying the night before that is not being entirely truthful. Your withholding may have a detrimental on the quality of instruction that you receive in class that day. Withholding the truth while being technically honest creates boundaries between people that are as powerful as lies. Not only do we withhold essential facts but sometimes we also without our emotions. This only digs us deeper into a feeling of isolation and loneliness. When someone asks if you anything is wrong and you reply with a technical honest answer, but withhold your emotional reality then you’re not following satya.
I understand why we do it. I do it too. Sometimes being totally honest about everything that you feel at all times is just too much. When you’re checking out at your local coffee shop and the barista asks how you’re doing it doesn’t always feel right to say that you’re having a crappy day. Or when your partner has done something that hurts your feelings it is sometimes less scary just not to say anything than share your hurt. But I’ve found that connection happens we take a chance and when our intention to share is rooted in connection and love. Every honest share from the heart is valuable. Take the example of the barista—if it’s a coffee bar that you frequent regularly you might be surprised at the level of compassionate response to an honest share. It could open up a new level of intimacy in what may otherwise be a mundane interaction. It is staggeringly overwhelming to me how much emotions, both positive and negative there is in the world and how little of it is shared openly and honestly. When you walk through a busy city and a swarm of people surrounds you it’s hard to imagine that each person has a depth of feelings, experiences and emotions that are as palpable and real as yours! Imagine a world where we trusted ourselves and each other enough to be radically honest with everyone we interacted with! I’m not sure how practical that would be, but maybe we could try it for a day and see what happens.
Being truthful with others starts with ourselves. Honesty requires a level of self-awareness that we don’t always have. We can only be honest with another human being to the degree that we are being honest with ourselves. If you’re not even aware that you’re stressed out or fatigued you won’t be able to share that with someone when they ask how you’re feeling. Perception and awareness starts within. Some people are adept at pointing out the issues of other people but totally blind to their own. But, as the common logic from the 12 step program says, if you spot it, then you’ve got it. I learned long ago that what I see in the world around me is actually a reflection of the world within me. All the insecurities, weakness and struggle I see in other people are really just my own stuff mirrored back. When I’m not able to process and resolve my own issues I end up projecting them outward. It’s not to say that everyone else has all their stuff figured out and that I’m the only one with issues. It’s more likely that if I get triggered by someone else’s selfishness or narcissism it’s because I haven’t fully resolved that within myself. Navigating the sharing of emotion truths it’s murky territory.
Perhaps it’s useful to consider that there are different levels of truth. For example, there are unarguable facts (although these days it seems that even things that were once considered facts are called into question based on the level of our emotional feeling about them). Usually unarguable facts are simple statements without emotional stories attached to them. Stating what time the sun rises or sets is a simple fact and a good illustration about an unarguable fact. But there is also emotional truth. On this level, there are subjective experiences of reality that leave different people with different feelings, reactions, stories and memories. Emotional truth can be stated objectively without attachment or identification to it as well. An example of that would be to simply state, “sadness is present” and let it be what it is.
So much of what we can the “truth” is in fact a story that we have told ourselves about unarguable facts. While our emotional reality has validity, it is not absolute truth. Emotions are volatile and change like the weather. Plus, every human being is entitled to their own unique emotional response to any situation. In the face of a fact there may a wide variety of emotional affect. Emotional truth is like a weather report, but isn’t meant to contain the moral proclamation of salvation or damnation. If our grace was determined by how we all felt about each other we would be going down a scary emotional rollercoaster. Danger happens when emotional truth is elevated to a high status and given absolute standing in the moral universe. If I’m teaching a yoga class and a student arrives late every day for a week that’s a fact. Another fact may be that I feel angry and sad when they continue arrive late. All this is simple enough and quite clear. However, once my mind starts to assign meaning and make assumptions about the moral character of the student based on their repetitive tardiness then I am not longer in the realm of satya. There may be a million reasons why the student is late. Perhaps they have young kids and cannot adhere to a strict schedule. Perhaps they care for an aging parent. Perhaps they work two jobs and have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Perhaps they’re just lazy. Perhaps they only come to yoga class to appease their partner. I won’t know unless I uphold my commitment to satya and share the “truth” with the student. If I believe my own thoughts and assumptions about the facts and elevate my emotional response to the level of absolute truth I’ll soon have a disagreement with the student. But if instead, I can share the truth about the facts (the student is late and I have an emotional response that arises then they’re late), I may open the door to further learning, intimacy and connection. If I withhold my emotions they may build up to judgements and stories that might impact my behavior. The student may then make their own assumptions and stories about my behaviors, perhaps drawing the conclusion that I’m mean or that I don’t like them.
All this confusion can be solved by a commitment to satya as a lifelong journey. Truthfulness in action requires so many levels of awareness. Starting with self-awareness and the ability to feel your own emotions, satya begins with being honest with yourself. Then, satya applies to the external world in the clear delineation between reality and the story that we tell about reality. Committing to satya means being willing to be wrong about reality sometimes. Satya doesn’t exist in a bubble. If you believe that you have a right to your emotional truth then you have to make space for other people’s emotional truth as well. Whether that’s their emotional response to various actions or whether it’s their reposting of simple facts, if you’re truly committed to satya you will listen to the lived experience of others, especially when those people offer a challenge to your worldview. Finally, satya includes a loving commitment to deliver the truth with a kind, open and receptive heart. Truth is not a sword aimed to harm, nor is it personal. It simply is. Truth needs no grand defense or heroic actions to save it. Speaking the truth frees energy and opens the door to heartfelt dialogue and connection. Truth, when grounded in love, can set you and everyone free.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Satya, Truthfulness.
1. Start with yourself—Be totally honest with your emotional response to various situations throughout the day. Register your emotions but do your best to refrain from judgements. If you judge, note that too but be careful not to equate your judgements with absolute truth. Finally, try and perceive the unarguable facts in every situation. See if you are able to find the line between your emotions, your story and neutral reality.
2. Speak with truth for 24 hours—As a test run, commit to answer every question asked to you within 24 hours honestly and openly. Be vulnerable, undefended and honest. Let candor be the guiding light. Then asses how your day when and whether or not truthfulness opened any doors of intimacy or released energy. If you’re not yet ready to speak the truth to others then write it down in a journal for yourself.
3. Clean up non-truthfulness—Take a moral inventory of your non-truthfulness, withholding or outright lies. Whether to yourself or someone else, make good on satya and tell the truth. This may mean owning up to an action that you’re not proud of or taking responsibility for a mistake. It may mean admitting to yourself that the lies you’re telling yourself about a situation or a person aren’t true. Take action based on truthfulness and you will find a solid ground for moving forward. This might not be easy but just take it one day at a time. Most importantly, forgive yourself for any acts of non-truthfulness.