Monday, May 25, 2009

Satya - To tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about satya, or truthfulness, one of the five yamas (ethical restraints) proposed by Patanjali. The concept is deceptively simply - be truthful in your words and actions. But in reality, it is an extremely difficult precept to follow.

For one thing, satya comes into direct conflict with the restraint of ahimsa, or non-harming. The use of the word ahimsa is an interesting one. Yoga does not simply ask us to be kind to others, it asks us specifically to restrain from causing harm. That is a much broader and more difficult practice. When it comes to satya, the trick is to tell the truth without causing harm to others - or to ourselves. Another challenge is that satya includes not only our words, but also our actions. We must always act in such a way that our behavior expresses our true thoughts and intentions (and don't forget ahimsa.)

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all is the fact that so many of us spend so much time being dishonest with ourselves. It's very difficult to know if your words and actions are not truthful when you are not even consciously aware of your own truth, what you really think and feel in any given situation. For many of us, the fictional stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we want have become such an integral part of the fabric of our being that we are unable to recognize the lies we tell on a daily basis. The tricky thing about truthfulness is that it refers to the absolute truth - so the embroidery and exaggeration that we may be used to using, all of the fish stories and half-truths and white lies that have become second nature to us - these too are not satya. Just because something closely resembles the truth does not make it true.

I admit it - lies perform some very important functions in my daily existence: creating my desired fictional sense of self, preventing hurt to myself and others, avoiding uncomfortable situations, etc. The thought of trying to unlearn these behaviors is pretty daunting. I'm relatively determined - but still, overwhelmed. For one thing, speaking the truth might mean that all of those lovely defense mechanisms would go away, leaving me vulnerable to those classic demons What Might Happen, and worse, What People Might Think. I'm a pretty private person (which you might not know from this blog, but blogging is not real life), and I'm also a little bit introverted by nature so the thought of speaking my truth on a daily basis is way up there with skydiving on my list of terrors. (I'm also pretty afraid of heights.) But I've done a pretty good job of doing things that terrify me, and I'm not totally ruling skydiving out of my future either. Speaking the truth to strangers is a pretty good practice.

An interesting system of speaking truthfully to others without causing harm is Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication (NVC), which I think I've mentioned here before. I've dabbled in NVC and it's one of those practices that I believe in but have trouble implementing regularly in life. For one thing, it goes against our entire ingrained culture of expected communications. The idea is basically founded on the expression of universal and specific emotions which result from universal needs. It's a very non-judgmental way of communicating the truth without blame.

The tricky thing is that when the processes of lying, exaggeration, embellishment, and unauthentic action are ingrained, how do you become mindful of the process in order to stop it? I believe that some yogis will even take a vow of silence in order to facilitate the process of awareness of the thought patterns that lead to dishonest and/or harmful speech. Unfortunately my work will not exactly allow me to do this. I'm trying to just work with awareness, but it's a long slow process. I don't exactly have or easy answers on this one.

I'm half-Japanese and have a little Japanese cultural influence, and I think this is something that causes me particular challenges in this area. So much of Japanese culture is based on creating smooth and harmonious social relationships, and communication patterns tend to be very indirect. I've noticed that if someone asks me the right questions, I'm often able to speak truthfully, but if not, I have a tendency to leave the truth implied or completely unsaid. I've been accused of expecting others to read my mind, and there's probably some truth in that. I also sometimes act the way others want or expect me to, rather than in a truthful way. I've noticed that the result can be that my needs are not met in my relationships with the other people in my life or that the relationships are not completely authentic - and sometimes things build up to a point where the truth comes out suddenly in an unpleasant and hurtful way. I don't intend to mislead anyone ever; very often I am not even aware of the truth myself.

So this all sounds really awful - but it's honest. And don't get me wrong - I'm not beating myself up over it. I think it's a pretty common experience - and great practice. Adopting the practice of satya is like unravelling an enormous knot. Something that takes patience - but which I happen to be pretty good at. We'll see if the skill transfers. Like everything else, satya comes back to mindfulness, back to the breath, to the present moment, to tapping into instinct and figuring out what the truth even is.

Like living itself, satya takes a big dose of courage. I'm giving myself a big pat on the back for even trying. Maybe one of these lifetimes, I'll get it right.

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