My teacher’s teacher’s teacher was the great Krishnamacharya. As a young man my teacher was lucky to sit with this master yogi and he tells me that Krishnamacharya said: “When you speak, speak about what’s true. Speak about God.”
This is a profound statement. Think about it. It begins when you speak, meaning, every time, every time you open your mouth to say something…speak about what’s true. Truthfulness is the second yama. And the yama-s are a great vow. The great vow that infuses every part of our yoga practice—asking that we strive to live in right relationship with the world.
In sanskrit, the word for truth is satya. Yoga Sutra 2.36 says: satya-pratiṣthāyāṁ kriyā-phala-āśrayatvam. When one is established in truthfulness, actions begin to bear fruit.
The meaning of this somewhat magical-feeling sutra, is that everything someone says—someone who’s established in truthfulness—becomes true. It bears fruit.
Of course, I imagine that someone established in truthfulness—someone who follows Krishnamacharya’s ideal of only speaking about what’s true—isn’t actually a big talker. I imagine this person, established in truth, is pretty quiet. But when they open their mouth to speak, everyone around them gets quiet and listens. Because they trust they’re going to hear something useful. Something true. Something that will bear fruit.
The root of satya, sat, means that which exists, that which is. Satya implies an understanding of what’s real. In order to establish ourselves in satya, in truthfulness, we must work to peel back all the layers of conditioning and habit that keep us from seeing what is. Because, let’s be honest with ourselves, our vision—our worldview, our sense of self—is often cloudy. We understand everything through the filters of our mind. We take in sensory data and we interpret it. We perceive and we cognize. We build new stories based on old stories. I’m reminded here of the scripture from 1 Corinthians: We see through a glass, darkly.
We don’t see ourselves and the world in which we live clearly. We see everything through the filters of our mind—the filters of our conditioning. A fundamental teaching of yoga is that we spend most of our time ignorant of our true nature. Yoga Sutra 1.4 says: “Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.”
Himalayan master Pandit Rajmani, in his commentary on satya, wrote that “our mind responds to the intention of our core being [purusha], provided our mind is pristine and pure.” In other words, if we want to establish ourselves in truthfulness, we must work to clear our minds. He also said that “[wisdom] prajna dawns when the mind is free from afflictions and the mental tendencies arising from them.” He’s of course referring here to the Klesha-s. The seeds of suffering, which begin with avidyā, or ignorance. Avidyā is a fundamental misunderstanding of reality. It’s misidentification. Remember Yoga Sutra 1.4: “Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.” In other words, the truth of our being is hidden from us, covered over by our various thoughts of want and worry. Instead of seeing our essential nature, we take ourselves to be the activity of the mind. And from this ignorance we build a false sense of self-identity. And then we get lost in the ever changing reality of attachment and aversion—like and dislike, pleasure and pain. All of which lead us to fear.
Of course, when we’re living in the fog of avidyā, we don’t recognize our ignorance. We think we know what’s real. We think our moods and likes and dislikes represent some lasting truth about who we are. In the context of daily life, we give the egoistic personality—and it’s desires and anxieties—a great deal of power. We imbue it with a sense of self-righteous truth. But, the good news here, is that we’re not stuck. We can move beyond the status quo of habit. We can commit to being with, facing, and dealing with what’s real. It’s not easy. But it’s possible. As I already shared, Pandit Rajmani wrote that “[wisdom] prajna dawns when the mind is free from afflictions and the mental tendencies arising from them.” He completes this thought by saying: “In this state, truth alone exists.” “[Wisdom] prajna dawns when the mind is free from afflictions and the mental tendencies arising from them. In this state, truth alone exists.”
The truth of who we are isn’t something that needs to be fabricated or forced. It already is. Our work, as it so often is with the practice of yoga, is the work of clearing away. Of clearing the fog of ignorance so that we can see clearly—so that we can establish ourselves in satya. In truthfulness. As the fog of avidyā clears, we’re able to catch glimpses of our essential nature. Which brings me back to Krishnamacharya’s words: “When you speak, speak about what’s true. Speak about God.”
What can be said about the mystery we often refer to as God? And how is this Mystery related to the truth of who we are?
These are huge, living questions. I certainly can’t answer them for you. And maybe you struggle to answer them for yourself. Part of life as a spiritual seeker is figuring out how to live in the tension of unanswerable questions. And yet, even in the face of the unanswerable, as spiritual seekers we search after Truth. We put forth effort to establish ourselves in truthfulness.
Because without some sense of Truth—of integrity—we can easily lose ourselves in the fog of ignorance. An afflicted mind leads to untrue speech and harmful action. It’s important that we investigate how we talk to ourselves inside our own minds. That we investigate what words we choose to say to the people in our families and communities. We must remember that our relationships—if they are to be meaningful and transformative—require intimacy and vulnerability, both of which require truth.
I’d like to end with a poem by William Stafford. One I’ve carried around with me for over a decade. One that I think speaks to the reality of our interconnectedness and to the importance of establishing ourselves in satya—in truthfulness. It’s called:
A Ritual to Read to Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep