I’ll start this post with a disclosure. I’ve been putting off writing about satya (truthfulness) for several years. It’s not because I don’t think it’s an important subject. It’s actually because I feel that it’s critically important and I want to make sure I represent it with the gravity and respect it deserves, within the bounds of a shortish blog post. Practicing satya seems to be more important than ever in these days of widespread disinformation—and the way it has harmed our national conversation. In this post, I will discuss satya as both an intention and as a practice.
Satya is the second of yoga’s yamas (moral precepts) in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. Satya challenges us to practice impeccable honesty in our thoughts, words and deeds. The Buddha placed truthfulness at the foundation of his five precepts (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, wise use of sexuality, and refraining from intoxicants that cloud the mind). Truthfulness is also a step along the Eightfold Path.
Truthfulness as a Foundation
When I was a teenager, there were three commercial TV stations, and one public station. Everyone got their news and information from these stations and from our daily newspapers. Journalistic standards required the use of multiple sources and multiple layers of fact checking. In the age of the internet free-for-all, while journalistic standards still apply to most major media outlets, the dividing line between journalism and opinion has become quite hazy.
Many people are not trained to know how to discern between truth and opinion, or between truth and fiction. This has resulted in media consumers retreating into their corners, confusing opinion with fact, and promoting unfounded conspiracy theories that demonize the “other.” We no longer share a common foundation of agreed-upon truth.
Like any structure, a relationship’s strength relies on the integrity of its foundation. I fear that as a culture, we’ve lost this foundation. The result has been a chaos of divisiveness and demonization.
This can happen in interpersonal relationships as well. Our personal relationships can be a laboratory for practicing impeccable truthfulness. Most importantly, this includes our relationship with ourselves.
Shades of Satya
Practicing satya in our lives is not as easy as it might sound. The practice, of course, includes refraining from obvious untruthfulness, such as making up stories out of whole cloth. Satya also includes not committing lies of omission, truth shading or exaggeration. There are times when we may shade the truth or omit pertinent details in order to elevate our image or to protect us from judgment. Everyone I know, including myself, has experimented with shading the truth in one way or another. We need not judge ourselves for these lapses. In some ways, they’re part of learning how to be more truthful.
Practicing truthfulness simplifies our lives and leads to greater equanimity. Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Have you ever told a lie and then had to make up a bunch of other stories to support it? And then, you have to remember what you told which person? Telling lies or shading the truth complicates our lives. It often leads to our being caught for telling stories, which, in turn erodes others’ trust in us. It’s much, much simpler to just tell the truth.
Lapses in satya can be subtle, and even unintentional. This is because we don’t always recognize the filters of perception that we layer over the truth. We may stand by a particular opinion piece simply because it bolsters our views. Or in the case of an early romance, we may ignore an unflattering truth simply because we don’t want to see it. We may think we’re seeing a situation clearly, but in fact, the perceptions we use to define ourselves and our world may be acting as filters.
Satya and Mindfulness Practice
This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness practice gives us the skills to see through our filters—our deeply held beliefs and perceptions. Observing the habits of our own minds helps us identify our mental patterns and preferences. When we understand what filters are keeping us from seeing a situation clearly, we can begin to see through them. This helps us make wiser choices.
This work can be humbling. It can shatter our ideas of who we are. Sometimes the patterns we’ve chosen to nourish are not flattering. But it is always worthwhile to uncover them. First, seeing where we are prone to falter helps us generate empathy for the failings of others. Second, if we want to live a life of integrity, we have to understand the mechanisms that keep us from clear seeing. Living a life of integrity and truthfulness leads to greater ease.
How to Practice Satya on the Yoga Mat
We can use our yoga practice and teaching as a laboratory for exploring satya. Here are a few suggestions:
- Do you find yourself pushing beyond your body’s limits when you’re in a class out of fear that your normal poses are not “good” enough? Do you avoid using yoga props such as Yoga Blocks or Yoga Straps in class when you might be inclined to use them at home? If so, notice your motivation, and tune into whatever mental state might be accompanying it. For example, is anxiety, competitiveness or envy present? These mental states can function as filters. How would it be to practice the yoga that’s truest for your body in this moment, rather than trying to meet some expectation of what a “perfect” pose looks like?
- As a teacher, honesty with our students is crucial. This means admitting you don’t know the answer to a question if you truly don’t know it. Of course, you can research the student’s question and report back later if you’ve come up with an answer. You can also explore the question along with your student by asking them pertinent questions about why they’re asking, what they’re feeling, etc. Even after 40-plus years of practice, I’m well aware that I know only a fraction of what there is to know about yoga. Admitting that you don’t know is an opportunity to learn more.
Satya Is a Lifelong Practice
As with any practice, we may falter in our commitment to satya from time to time. Notice when you feel tempted to shade the truth. And give yourself a pat on the back when you refrain from doing it. As you practice and become more skilled at knowing and speaking the truth, you’ll uncover more subtle manifestations of it. Sometimes, you may need to refrain from speaking until you know for sure what your truth is—without filters. This is all part of the process, one that will enrich your relationships and lead to a life of simplicity and ease.