The yamas and niyamas constitute the first and second limbs of the ancient Indian sage, Patanjali’s, eight limbs of yoga. I said in the previous blog, Ahimsa, that people generally think of the “yamas” as social codes of conduct and the “niyamas” as personal codes.
But they are much more than that.
Swami Niranjanananda, the guru of Satyananda Yoga in India has said that the yama and niyama “are tools to improve the behaviour of the mind”. They help us to compensate for the negative, limiting, confining and destructive aspects of the mind. Frequently people try to meditate but they have not learnt to control their fears, insecurities and aggressions (Niranjanananda, 2016).
This is where our discussion of the second yama, SATYA begins.
Satya focuses on our cultivating truthfulness. Truthfulness is a fundamental virtue, essential to a healthy society and healthy life (Feuerstein). Unfortunately, our society comes close to the opposite of this – a society in which we have come to expect lack of truthfulness: for example, cheating the tax department, false advertising, the commonplace lies of politicians – and now, it seems, the banking sector. And no one is surprised, because lack of truthfulness is so commonplace.
Georg Feuerstein believed that there were several kinds of lies:
- There’s the outright lie.
- There are the little white lies – is it alright to lie to spare a person pain? I would suggest that frequently these little white lies are less to spare someone pain than to spare ourselves embarrassment and discomfort!
- There are statistical lies. As an ex-sociologist, I know that numbers can be used and manoevred to “prove” or justify almost anything.
- And of course there’s politics. Instead of championing good causes that would benefit people and the environment, politics is mostly about “impression management” – politicians say what they think we want to hear, which results in so few significant changes for the better. Politicians even lie under oath. “If our leaders are morally corrupt…the moral fibre of a country is seriously weakened” (Feuerstein).
Truthfulness is not confined to speech. It extends to integrity – that is, being truthful in thought, word and action.
I often feel that the word “guileless” is a beautiful word to express this sentiment, and one that I apply to my father. He was a man of high morals and truthfulness; he had a knack of telling the absolute truth without hurting anyone’s feelings. I don’t know how he did this, but his example lives in my mind, and I am always striving to live that way myself.
Satya, truthfulness, also means to strip away preconceptions and assumptions – abandoning what we have held to be true in order to come to a truer understanding. It means to be true to our relationships with others – are we trying to persuade people through a selective highlighting of the facts? Are we true to ourselves? Do we rationalise and justify our behaviour – our speech and actions? Conversely, are we false to ourselves, blaming ourselves untruthfully for certain outcomes?
I find that satya is hardest when I relate to myself. I often catch myself (especially in relation to technology!) berating myself with self-talk like, “Oh Vedanta, you are so stupid!” But if I am being honest, I am a very intelligent person, but technology does elude me. So talking badly to myself is one way that I transgress satya.
And as I write these words, I am wondering if I am being too honest, and lacking in humility, describing myself as “very intelligent”. I turn to a friend and ask: is this me being too honest? And she smiles to me and says, “If you’re promoting satya, then you have to tell the truth, right?”
Immeditately I feel uncomfortable – does full honesty conflict with humility? Do I dilute my truthfulness to make myself more comfortable and humble? How often does this conflict between being utterly truthful, and that Australian habit of not big-noting ourselves, arise?
Patanjali said that when a person is “firmly grounded in truthfulness, all his [and her] actions bear appropriate fruit”, (in Feuerstein). That is, what s/he does is appropriate and will therefore succeed.
So… we need to allow the quality of truthfulness to become part of who we are, thus improving the behaviour of our minds to lead to success in life.
Feuerstein, G., The Lost Teachings of Yoga, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado, USA
Niranjanananda, Sw. Yoga, April, 2016
Vimalratna, Sw. Yoga with Attitude, Practical Wellbeing, Victoria, 2006