Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Off the Mat -- Satya

(Another "installment" in my continuing series of dharma talks with my yoga students)

Last week I noted that ahimsa is easy to practice on our mats with respect to ourselves, but harder off the mat. This week’s yama, satya or “truth,” may be the other way around. We’re all pretty well-versed in what it means to tell the truth when we interact with others. Most of us are generally aware of when we lie to others.

But from the perspective of the yoga mat, it can be harder to see how truthfulness works.

Years ago – in fact eight years ago, at the same conference where I was first introduced to the practice of yoga – one of the conference coordinators and I were talking separately after one of the conference sessions. The conference session had raised the question of whether in all the various roles each of us fulfilled, we were living “authentically.” I remarked to the coordinator that I hadn’t any idea what she meant by that term. I related to her that I played roles, variously, of husband, lawyer, brother, leader, friend, subordinate, executive, son, and father, but that I didn’t have any sense that any of those roles was the “real” me. When I was a lawyer, I was a lawyer. When I was a son, I was a son. When I was an executive, I was an executive. Two days later, as the conference was concluding, the coordinator re-raised the same question as a topic of exploration for the conferees, in a slightly different format. We penned our thoughts in response to the question of “under what circumstances do you feel most complete and honest?” At the time, I had made a couple of canoe trips down the Green River, which runs through the desolate and desert canyonlands of eastern Utah. The overriding experience of those trips had been solitude and quiet – my companion and I had gone days without seeing other people. And so I wrote in my conference materials, “I am more at one with the river than I am in any other setting in life.”

As sometimes happens, that one statement resonated long after the conference was concluded. As I reflected on it and on the earlier conversation with the coordinator, I realized that the two questions were exploring different facets of the same issue. Even though I didn’t understand the term “authenticity” as applied to myself, and even though I didn’t have any sense of which, if any, of the roles I played was the real “me,” in fact, a part of me knew, because it understood that it had been most present and aligned in the desolation of the wilderness, facing an empty river.

There is something inside each of us that knows truth.

As to communications and interactions with others, that sense inside knows not only when I speak to someone else and convey a false impression – whether I speak actual falsehoods, or whether I simply contrive my statements so that, although truthful, they convey a misleading impression. Awareness to that situation is a practice of satya.

But that which knows truth inside of us knows truth not only in our interactions with others – it knows the truth of ourselves, as well. It perceives when we live falsely, suppressing our understanding of truth in preference for a falsehood, whether it is a falsehood that allows us to harm others, or whether it is a falsehood that allows us to cling to something we crave or avoid something we fear. Some falsehoods arise originally from our own ignorance, and re-aligning ourselves to truth is simply a matter of consciously seeing our mistakes and stepping out of the well worn rut that we developed when we didn’t know any better. Whatever the origin of the falsehood, be it ignorance, ego or the things that ego creates – pride, fear, clinging, aversion, greed – once we build it into our foundations, it takes real effort just to see it clearly, let alone to change from falsehood to truth.

Still, there is real meaning to the term “true self,” and yoga asks us to seek it.

When you move into a pose on the mat this week, notice whether you perceive some value to the question of whether you are doing so truthfully. Is the pose a structure for exploring your experience or is it a way of presenting or maintaining a front, whether to yourself or to those around you?

When you work off the mat this week, notice when and how your communications are truthful. Notice when and how they are not.

And with either of those practices, when you find a situation in which you feel you have not been fully truthful, notice the experience of that non-truth – notice what gave rise to it, notice how it feels, and to the extent you can, notice how it affects the world around you. Does it draw you closer to reality, to those around you, to your true self? Or does it create or maintain a distance from those things?