Beyond Asana / Read-Along / Yoga Philosophy

Read-Along: Yoga for a World Out of Balance (Chapter 6)

Yoga for a World Out of Balance, by Michael Stone

Chapter 6: Satyayogaforaworldoutofbalance

Summary

Michael Stone begins Chapter 6 by stating, “Satya, as a term and practice, is the most straightforward of the yamas.” Unfortunately, the author’s subsequent discussion of satya is anything but straightforward. The chapter meanders quite a bit, and much of what Stone says is frustratingly vague and abstract. Of course, a philosophical discussion will naturally involve a lot of abstract ideas, but there’s no reason why this cannot involve a good degree of precision and clarity, too.

On balance, I think Chapter 6 is still a worthwhile read, since it does contain several valuable nuggets of insight and wisdom. Instead of providing a comprehensive summary, though, I will simply highlight a few of the more compelling ideas that appear in this chapter.

First, and perhaps most importantly, satya — often translated as “honesty” — is not just truthfulness in speech. From the perspective of Yama, satya/honesty concerns not just what we say; it is a way of being. That is, satya applies to all of our actions in speech, body, and mind.

So satya is not just yoga’s version of the Biblical commandment “thou shalt not lie.” Satya is broader in scope, and, potentially, more far-reaching. A person who lives according to satya will not only strive to speak truthfully, but he will also strive to be honest with himself about his motivations, his desires, his fears, as well as the intended and unintended effects of his actions. Above all, he will be honest about suffering in the world, and how his life choices may contribute to, and perhaps even benefit from, this suffering.

Second, satya is closely related to personal authenticity. That is, a person who lives in accordance with satya will also learn to live authentically. This entails living in a manner that involves honesty about what is, as opposed to a life driven by delusions about what could have been, should have been, and ought to be. For example, a person who exaggerates his accomplishments in life in order to win the respect of others lives an existence that is built on fictions. And fictions have a way of building upon themselves, sometimes even culminating in a personal crisis, where we say to ourselves, “How did my life get to be like this? I don’t even know who I am anymore!”

Finally, Stone emphasizes the importance of satya for securing peace in this world. Yes, this is a lofty claim, but it’s not entirely crazy. He states that honesty – in the sense of satya – can result in openness and communication. This is the first step towards understanding, which, in turn, is the first step towards peace. Conflicts arise when we are not honest with ourselves about the impact of our actions and the selfish motives behind our desires. When we recognize the suffering of others as real and legitimate, and when we recognize their suffering as our own, then we can begin to find peace.

Undergirding the entire discussion in Chapter 6 is the same basic notion that runs throughout the rest of the book. For Stone, the fundamental truth of the universe is the fact of our interconnectedness. Satya — like all five principles of Yama, and like all eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga – manifests this fundamental truth. But why is it so important to realize this fundamental truth? Well, when you no longer think of yourself as a rigid “I” that stands in opposition to other objects and beings, then you longer navigate the world in terms of what’s good or bad for “me”. Instead, you occupy a more objective position, and your moral choices and actions will shift accordingly.

Commentary

As I stated at the outset, I was somewhat disappointed with this chapter. The author presents a loosely connected series of inchoate ideas, rather than constructing philosophical arguments, or even something like a philosophical narrative. Some of Stone’s ideas are actually quite intriguing, which makes this chapter all the more frustrating to read. I wish he had identified just one or two important themes or propositions, and then set about to dissect and discuss them in a more systematic way. Instead, he relies far too much on platitudes, quotations from famous people, and sweeping generalizations.

Setting these criticisms aside, though, there’s still something to be said for Stone’s optimism and faith in satya. If we adopt the broader definition of satya that he offers — i.e., honesty as it applies to speech, body, and mind — then it’s hard to disagree that the practice of satya can only lead to both inner and outer peace. When we treat ourselves and others with honesty, we inevitably make choices that reflect the good of all, not only ourselves. Of course, this only works if we actually care about the suffering of others. And this extra step requires us to think not only about other people differently; it requires us to think of ourselves differently.

Here’s an example. Consider Frank, a grumpy person with “road rage” who zips in and out of traffic, cutting people off and generally trying to get around everyone who he views as being in his way. In his mind, the people in the world are obstacles, and they impede his ability to do what he wants. This causes him tremendous aggravation and even anger. But this entire way of being is the result of two errors of perception. First, Frank sees “I” as having primary importance in the world. That is, he thinks and acts egoistically. (Note: “egoistic” and “egotistical” are not the same thing.) Second, he fails to see the interests and desires of others as being in any way relevant to him. Rather, he sees other people’s interests as barriers to the realization of his own interests.

So how might satya lead Frank to chill out and quiet his aggressive driving? Well, if he is honest with himself, he must acknowledge that every other person on the road is also trying to get someplace. Each person has a goal or a destination, which is not more or less important than Frank’s. If Frank realizes this, and truly accepts it, then he will begin to react differently to traffic. No longer is traffic an annoyance that’s impeding his progress. Sure, the traffic may still be frustrating, but it will certainly be less so once Frank realizes that everyone collectively is enduring the same thing, and that his experience of traffic is not special. In other words, satya offers a pathway from a mentality of “every man for himself,” to a more communitarian mentality of “we’re all in this together.”

Personally, I have a strong affinity for this approach to ethics. Instead of laying out a list of behavioral rules that a person must follow, yoga presents us with ethical principles that are primarily ways of being as well as modes of perception. When we see things differently, we naturally change the way we behave. Ethical conduct, then, is no longer a matter of restricting or suppressing our immoral desires or impulses. Rather, when we live according to the principles of Yama, we embody a way of being that fundamentally alters our desires and impulses. So, for example, it’s not that I don’t lie because lying is bad. When I practice satya, lying loses its attraction, because I feel deeply that it does violence to me as well as others.

Despite my grumblings about Chapter 6, there’s obviously quite a lot to take from it. Stone doesn’t exactly present his ideas in the most organized or well-developed fashion, but he does manage to close the chapter with a refreshingly clear distillation of satya into a single idea: “Honesty…means recognizing the fact that what you do and what happens to you are the same thing, that cause and effect are one, not two.”

 

2 thoughts on “Read-Along: Yoga for a World Out of Balance (Chapter 6)

  1. Satya, living an honest and less “me” centric life has parallels in many great ethical philosophies. For example, the “golden rule” of treating others as you would wish to be treated would give us the same result in the example of Frank in your analysis.

  2. Pingback: Read-Along: Yoga for a World Out of Balance – Chapter 7: Asteya | Get Fit Bookmark

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