When we are introduced to the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, namely Yama and Niyama, most of us immediately get caught up by the supposed contradiction between the first two Yamas. non-harming and truthfulness – what if our true words harm the audience? Should we tell the truth even if that hurts others or should we stick to Ahimsa by choosing a white lie?
It is important to clarify it in the beginning that Truth never hurts; truth or right knowledge is the main source of our happiness. How could it hurt to realize that we are eternal souls? How could endless joy, happiness and the realization that we are all equal and one cause suffering? But until we come to this level of understanding we have to deal with all kinds of challenges in our daily lives.
So actually if we want to find the root of this problem, we have to dig deeper and look beyond what we have believed to be true. According to Patanjali there are five varieties of thought patterns to witness which are: right knowledge (pramana), misconception (viparyaya), illusion (vikalpa), deep sleep (nidra), and memory (smritayah). Only right knowledge is the truth of the above mentioned five (and remembering of right knowledge of course). Therefore, if we have any information based on misconception that will never be Satya, even if we are convinced by our truth. And since we do not tell the truth in these situations, we might cause some harm, even though we have no intention to do so. Hence the first thing to consider before we start to speak is whether the information – what we are about to say – is valid or not. Right knowledge can derive from direct perception, from logical deduction, from a reliable person or from any other reliable source (such as the scriptures). So we should always be very critical about our presumed knowledge, and never forget that we shall not always believe what we see.
The following question often arises “So from now on, should I just tell everyone what I think of them in the name of truth? For example should I simply tell my neighbour that her shoes are horrible? Because that’s the truth!” When we catch ourselves criticizing other people’s actions or their appearance then we should stop for a short while and see whom we should be truthful with. Our opinions are obviously subjective and most certainly based on misconceptions, since they are contaminated by our emotions and by the effects of past events. So in such cases, it is important to be honest and tell the truth: confront ourselves with the fact that we have judged and criticized others. When we realize that we do not like someone or their behaviour then we should stop immediately, face the fact that we have become the victims of our bad habits again, then we should compassionately forgive ourselves and move on. And it is not the other person’s fault who has triggered our thoughts, so we do not have to say anything to them. We should be grateful for them to help us knowing ourselves a little better.
Another thought is whether we should bring others’ attention to their failures when they do not recognize them by themselves, especially when they are harmful or self-destructive. I got a really useful advice from Lakshmish during his lectures on the Yoga-sutras: when the person is not really close to you, then you should tentatively talk to them only once about your concerns, and when the person in question is your close family member or best friend, then you can warn them twice with compassion. But if they do not listen to you, then you should not mention it again, you have done all you could do, the rest is up to them.
Other main sources of the pain-causing-words are those when we have to admit our mistakes or when we have to tell that someone else caused some harm to others. So for example, should we tell when we did not do something we had been asked to? This first category is rather easy to deal with: In this case it is not the truth itself that causes pain but our deeds, which are not in accordance with the other Yamas and Niyamas. So the pain caused by confessing our mistakes is not the consequence of the truth, actually it is the backlash of the deed itself. If we cause lots of pain by admitting our actions, then the solution is not to keep them in secret, but rather to avoid any actions that might be painful for others. Naturally there will be a transition state, when we no longer perform these malefic actions, but still have to deal with the consequences of the ones we had done in the past. It is only temporary though; we have to accept it, and try to communicate with as much compassion and goodwill as possible.
What shall we then do when we haven’t done anything wrong but witnessed a crime? Should we tell it to the hurt party, for example when we know that their partner cheated on them? This is a more complex situation, so we have to consider the conditions such as time, place, the parties and the relations between them. Do not get involved in anything which is none of our business. If we do anyway, then we should always offer help, support and comfort, and try to avoid any unnecessary pain. When we see something that was intentionally hidden from us, it could be considered as involuntary stealing of knowledge, so it is in contradiction with Asteya from the Yamas. Therefore we should practice Aparigraha, and let go of the gained information by not using it against anyone.
So it is only possible to master Ahimsa in communication if we integrate all the other Yamas and Niyamas to our daily lives. Furthermore we should always check whether we really tell the truth or it is only the play of our mind and senses. Aim to make our environment purer and better by our words, even if their immediate effect is inconvenient, they should always be helpful in the long term. Always follow the truth, and one day the truth will follow you!