I think about my three-year old daughter when I think about satya, or truthfulness. It’s an old joke that children have few, if any, filters, and those moments of blunt, clear-spoken clarity are often repeated through the years as part of the family lore. “Remember when little Hilda said…?” Laughter bursts out, usually accompanied by some head-shaking and murmuring about how painfully honest children are. Time, socialization, and the slow creep of “manners” often start to blur that truth-speaking. We learn about “little white lies.” Sometimes we learn that truth-telling has more painful consequences than lying, and we start to protect ourselves with half-truths or non-truths. Our ability to speak, let alone perceive, the truth becomes tattered, misused, or misunderstood.
There’s a Curious George episode where Curious George washes windows. Mr. Glass, the owner of the building, hands George his bucket and squeegee, and sends him off on his job with the precautionary words, “Now, George, whatever you do, don’t look into the windows and don’t interact with the people.” George, being the curious little monkey he is, forgets that instruction almost immediately. In one very dark room a man sits reading his books. He exclaims, “It’s so much brighter in here!”, after George cleans the windows. George then reaches into the room and cleans the fellow’s glasses, which are very, very dirty. The man exclaims again, “I haven’t seen this clearly in years!”
It’s like that with truth. The accumulation of years and habits darken our perceptions. And that tenuous relationship with truthfulness affects all our relationships – with our loved ones, with strangers or colleagues, with ourselves. We boast. We self-aggrandize. We self-deprecate. We self-hate. We convince ourselves of a thousand little things that feel “true” but are really distortions. And it’s not until someone or something starts to wipe our “glasses” clear that we realize just how grimy they’ve gotten.
For some of us, it’s a child or a loved one that reveals our blurred perceptions. For others, it’s the time on our yoga mats or our meditation pillows where we come face-to-face with those voices in our heads that craft our fictions. If we’re lucky, when we encounter our half-truths, we greet it with curiosity, acknowledge it without judgment, and begin to change our relationships to it. This is a gentle and loving way of practicing satya. Sometimes it is not so gentle. Hence, satya comes after ahimsa. We learn the art of truthfulness by joining it to non-violence.
“In most ways, the practice of satya is about restraint: about slowing down, filtering, carefully considering our words so that when we choose them, they are in harmony with the first yama, ahimsa.” – Judith Hanson Lasater
Learning satya as an adult may involve unlearning personal habits and cultural pressures to speak or act a certain kind of way. It involves a very difficult balancing act: we cannot revert to the harsh honesty of a toddler but neither can we nestle into fiction’s soft comfort. The line in the middle is the way of the yogi. It might require that we take time before we speak. That we slow down and carefully choose our words so they don’t hurt their recipient, as Judith Hanson Lasater urges. It involves learning how to act rather than react. It’s tremendously difficult for some of us, myself included.
I admire my daughter, and I seriously consider her my little guruji. I’ve grimaced at her bluntness and I’ve cautioned her to restrain from saying something that might hurt another person’s feelings. (Mostly it’s about whether she wants to play with them.) But I love her radical transparency and her open communication. This trait is one that I want her to keep. I want her to learn how to join it to compassion so that she can speak truthfully and lovingly, but I don’t want her to extinguish it or hide it. I especially hope that she never feels compelled to cast a fiction about herself, one that makes her feel less valuable or perfect than she is.
That I wish these things for her requires that I create them for myself. I must model loving truthfulness. I must create the environment in which loving truthfulness is given the light, space, and time to emerge and bloom. More than this, I need to unlearn my own habits around half-truths and determine that all of my interactions – with myself, with my hunny, with my children, with my students, or with that stranger who’s being a real jerk – speak truth in loving ways. It’s time to reinspect and clean my glasses.