Continuing our exploration of the yamas–the “restraints” of the 8 limbs of yoga–we come to satya, truth-telling or restraint from lying (here, I’d like to give a shout-out to my former soccer teammate of the same name). In the quest to quiet the volatile thought waves in the mind, we can ease some of that volatility by simply speaking the truth.

But sometimes the truth hurts and in practicing satya, we must also practice ahimsa. We need to tell the truth without causing harm. My teachers in India suggested that we can balance satya and ahimsa by telling “white lies.” For example, if someone you love is on their way to a job interview and they are wearing something that isn’t particularly flattering, instead of saying “you look ridiculous [or “fat” or “ugly” or “awful” or other harming word],” we could say, “you look really great in this other outfit. Perhaps you should wear it instead? It’s important to look your best.” You have still communicated to your loved one that their attire just isn’t working for them, but without issuing an insult.

Emily Dickinson, the Eccentric Recluse, conveys this sentiment much better than I do:

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–

Success in circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind–“

(c. 1868)

This poem is so rich–there’s much to say about it. I want to highlight two points. First, Dickinson underscores the idea of telling the truth gently, “with explanation kind” (think of our aforementioned loved one in the unflattering outfit). Second–and perhaps more interestingly–Dickinson suggests that the Truth lies in the process, in context (or, successfully telling the truth exists when we tell it “in circuit”). To me, this is could be read as an indictment of absolute truth and/or as a celebration of the role context plays in creating meaning (think Derrida).

I think about satya and ahimsa when it comes to our emotions, especially anger. Our emotions feel true. When we’re sad or devastated, that grief feels truer than anything else at that moment. Same with anger or euphoria–nothing feels truer in those moments of intense emotion than the feelings themselves. But feelings are, on the one hand an extension of our mind and our ego, and, on the other hand, merely a pools of energy collecting in certain areas of our body.

I’m a big fan of my feelings, so this is hard for me. Wade past the feelings (without ignoring or repressing them) to get to the truth. Maybe the truth isn’t that you’re sad or you’re angry, maybe the truth is that something happened and you responded from a place of pain. I don’t think the truth blames or makes excuses. It just is.

As long as I’m quoting 19th century American writers, I’ll include a fitting quote from (my all-time favorite) Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits will help you with unexpected furtherance” (Divinity School Address).

I could end there. And really I should. But I just want to add that when we speak the truth in our lives–when we come from the heart of the matter–there’s always support. Perhaps the support doesn’t always appear in way we expect to, but it’s there. So speak up, speak out, and speak often.


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