Telling the Truth

A photo of some canine friends on a beach in Chennai. Communication seems to be going smoothly, which leads me into today's post about all the complications of humans trying to communicate...
I'm always intrigued by the order of information in the Yoga Sutra-s. So I find if interesting that Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra-s, places how we behave toward our fellow human beings ahead of one's personal behaviors in discussing ways to decrease suffering and improve our understanding - basically, how to be a better person.

It reminds me that this text keeps reminding us that the ultimate purpose of yoga is to improve our ability to navigate the world. Not so much perfecting what happens in class, or on the mat, but in our day-to-day interactions with family, friends, bosses, strangers on the street or in the cars next to us on the expressway.

These ways of interacting with one's community are called Yama - what Mr. Desikachar, in his edition of the Sutra-s, calls "our attitudes towards our environment."

Today, I've been thinking about truth, or satya. Satya is the practice of clear, honest communication. This includes what we say to one another as well as the things we write, our actions, and even our gestures. (What parent hasn't seen that eye roll from a teenager that means - yep, I'm saying that I'm listening - but I'm really off in another, happier place in my mind where I am the one who is RIGHT!)

Being honest can be tough. But what is even trickier is communicating in a way that does not hurt the other person.

Back to that ordering principle: the first Yama is ahimsa: non-violence, as in being considerate to others, not hurting, as in the physician's mandate to "first do no harm." So, as we are working to practice truthfulness in our conversations or in an email or in a brief interaction with a stranger who pushes in front of us in line, we also want to take the time to frame the communication appropriately, with some svadhyaya - self-reflection. Will what I am about to say hurt this person? Am I speaking out because I have an axe to grind - or because I really believe that this needs to be said? What words should I use? And is this the right time for the conversation - or will the other person be embarrassed because there are too many other people around observing and listening?

In my tradition, we call satya "the truth that does not hurt." And I like this distinction, because too many self-help books are encouraging the act of speaking up - what some call "speaking my truth" - as though the action of throwing those words and feelings out into the maelstrom of human relations is the first priority.

But words can be like little bombs striking an emotional ground. Even when it's the truth, it's good to stop and consider how to say your message, when to say it, whether it will cause pain to the other person, and if that discomfort is warranted by the situation. We need not be Stepford wives, spreading bland acceptance wherever we go. Neither should we be warriors for our own perceptions.

Lately, I've been thinking about a wonderful quote from Thich Nhat Hahn from a Speaking of Faith podcast my daughter referred me to. When asked how he brings his message of compassion to so many different groups of people - Hollywood celebs, 9/11 responders, people reeling from earthquake or other tragedies - he said something like this: I try to understand the particular suffering of each person. Only by understanding another's suffering can we begin to feel compassion for them.

I've been thinking about this - I try to understand the particular suffering of each person - when someone is driving me crazy. If I can think about how he or she is struggling, I'm a little more likely to practice compassion, and then, the right kind of communication - satya.