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Satya: Truth & Integrity in Word, Deed & Spirit

Satya: Truth & Integrity in Word, Deed & Spirit

We continue our in-depth exploration of the ten ethical principles of Yoga, today focusing on the second yama, satya or truthfulness. As with our previous principle, ahimsa, we’ll look at satya in both the direct and more subtle ways it can be understood as well as concrete ways to which we can apply it on the mat and in our personal lives.

Understanding Truthfulness in Literal & Subtle Form

Of course, we’re all familiar with the importance of honesty and the many ways a lack of truthfulness can harm both us and those around us. We know for example when we alter the truth we create stress in our minds, if only on the level of the worry of keeping track of the fabrications and the on-going web of stories an initial falsehood usually requires.

But beyond that, the ramifications of deception obviously go far deeper. There is the stress and worry of our deception being exposed – a stress which obviously grows stronger over time as the history behind the deception builds. And of course most important of all, we know that when a deception is finally exposed – as it always ultimately is – it deeply and powerfully undermines our relationships with those around us, often irrevocably and usually with those we most deeply value and whose trust we most greatly need. For all these reasons, truthfulness is clearly one of the central values of Yoga as it is with so many faiths.

Beyond this most literal level, satya has a few additional layers to it. Along with outright falsehood, the Yogis realized even mild distortions ultimately can have an equally destructive impact – especially, again, the longer they are allowed to persist. What might begin as a mild “understating” of our feelings – particularly when it comes to deeply-held values – can eventually cause every bit as much pain and discord as a lie. Again, this is especially true with those closest to us – very much like a building with a weak foundation, the more we build a relationship around less-than-honest communication, the more what might have been intended merely as an innocent “softening” of a feeling ultimately puts the entire relationship at risk.

On top of all of this, the Yogis realized a further subtle but even more debilitating aspect of deceit, which is when we engage in falsehood, we become more likely to mistrust or doubt those around us – and observation modern psychology has confirmed. Statistically, people who engage in deceit have a much greater tendency to mistrust others – even when those people are being completely honest. Interestingly, they also have a harder time discerning honesty and dishonesty than those who are more truthful. In this sense, when we lie, we not only make our lives more stressful through the deceit itself, but also through our growing tendency to see the world around us as an unsafe and untrustworthy place. When we combine these factors, it becomes clear how draining and disturbing falsehood is, and the great importance of observing truthfulness for preserving the harmony and peace of our lives….

Honesty, Bluntness & Honoring “Greater” Truths

Of course, beyond this more direct level, the Yogis realized – just like with non-violence – we should not let a literal understanding of truthfulness lead us to use it as an excuse to hurt others. Simply put, when we engage in “brutal frankness,” we may literally be engaging in honesty in terms of the moment at hand, but in the Yogic view, if we’re doing so out of a desire to hurt or in a spirit of condescension or self-righteous “directness,” we’re not really being “true” either to our higher values or even to ourselves in what we’re doing at the moment. In this sense, the idea of satya is meant to be seen through a finer lens. For the Yogis, truthfulness means asking ourselves not only if our words are literally true but also if our words and deeds are in harmony with the “greater truths” in which we believe.

For example, if we tell a child his performance wasn’t good or we don’t like her painting, our words may literally be true, but they don’t honor our greater beliefs about the value of the child’s feelings and efforts, let alone the fact that we should appreciate and honor the esteem in which the child might hold our opinion. On the other hand, if we were to say: “You are most amazing violin player I have ever heard,” that, too, would probably not serve the child if it were not true. However, by saying something along the lines of: “I’m so proud of you,” or: “I love how much energy you bring to your painting!” while arguably a slight shift of focus, we can be true in both word and spirit. In other words, just like the ideal of ahimsa shouldn’t prevent us from taking action when required to minimize harm, so the ideal of satya shouldn’t be taken as an excuse for not considering the feelings of others or being mindful of the power of our words. Ultimately, this leads to the frequently heard summary of satya as: “Before speaking, we should ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” a simple trio of ideas that captures the primary layers of satya quite well.

Beyond Words: Exploring the Philosophical Roots of Satya

Of course, once again just like non-violence, the Yogis realized truthfulness is ultimately about not just our actions but our inner harmony – both in thought and emotion. In the Yogic view, the impact of deception actually begins long before a lie is uttered, for the simple reason that even to consider telling a lie, we must make one or more of a series of assumptions, all of which cause us pain. To even contemplate deceit, we must begin by assuming the truth can’t or won’t be accepted by those around us, or that expressing it will keep us from getting what we think we need – whether in terms of physical circumstances or in how others treat us, such as through respect or affection. The Yogis realized each of these assumptions are based on misperceptions or misunderstandings that, if unexamined, lead us to suffer whether we act on them or not.

To begin, obviously this very thought presumes a hostile, unpleasant world – a harsh one to occupy, whatever the results of our deception. It also presumes that we must engage in subterfuge to have our needs met or, far worse, to be loved or accepted. In this sense, satya ultimately encourages us to remember that, whether we act on this way of thinking or not, when we make these false assumptions we are setting the stage in our minds for inner tension and disharmony. When we put this together, we can see that the idea of satya goes far deeper than mere insistence on being truthful, rather it involves looking at the assumptions that might lead us to distort or dissemble and in turn ask ourselves if this is how we truly want to view ourselves or our world. Ultimately, in this deeper form, satya invites us not only to shift our deeds and words but to redirect our thoughts and the resultant feelings in a more constructive, harmonious direction….

Satya On the Mat & In Our Lives

To finish with a brief look at some of the practical applications of satya, again we can begin with our most common Yogic practice, our practice of asana. We all know when we are less than honest with ourselves about our physical limitations or about why we are engaged in our practice, for example thinking more about how we appear to others than how our bodies feel, it’s easy to overextend and hurt ourselves on the mat. By taking the time to be lovingly truthful with ourselves – not only about any challenges we may be facing but also about our energy, our focus, and even our goals – we can assure a practice that is not only more healthful but also will serve us more deeply in our daily lives.

Another application of satya on the mat has to do with our “inner dialogue,” making sure we are using words that are not only true but also kind and constructive. Often our “self-talk” during asana can be critical – an approach that does not always serve. By watching our inner dialogue the same way we would strive to be mindful of our speech toward those around us, we can dramatically enhance our practice while also setting a positive process in motion for the rest of our day…

Of course, each of these applies equally in all our relationships. With our partner, our family, our co-workers and friends, satya gives us a powerful reminder to stay mindful not only of our words but also the spirit behind them throughout our day. Through staying in touch with satya, we can learn to check in and ask: “Am I being honest – not just literally but in terms of how I want to honor the spirit of this person and this relationship? Am I being kind and constructive or could I perhaps be more thoughtful in my approach?”

Even more importantly, the idea of “self-honesty” mentioned above regarding our asana practice can also be a powerful reminder in all areas of our lives. Through awareness of satya, we can learn – again, in relationships, with family, at work, and especially with ourselves – to pause periodically and ask: “Am I being honest and truthful about my deepest feelings and beliefs? Do I feel that I am interacting with others in a way that is in alignment with my greater values and beliefs and in turn supporting them in doing the same?” In this way, satya can ultimately help us live a life of greater integrity and to enjoy the peace this naturally brings, a peace that serves not only us but also everyone around us.