John’s Letter ~ Spring 2017: Satya
For all the years that I have been writing these essays, I have assiduously avoided any sort of partisan political commentary. I want no part of the us versus them bog that leads only to ignorance, division, conflict, and stagnation. For the truth is that, as yoga teaches, we are all in this together. Yoga is inclusive, wholistic, and ecumenical. At the heart of yoga lies the realization that, beneath our various costumes, disguises, and identities, I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. We are connected. We are One. Until now, the closest I have come to an outright political statement was the newsletter I wrote during the run up to the Iraq War, where it was apparent to me that the country was being manipulated to support attacking Iraq. Even then I wrote primarily about the importance of paying attention to what we are being told and to develop and practice discerning awareness. More about that later.
Now, however, I feel compelled to comment on the current political mess. And it is a mess on so many levels. Since I write a yoga newsletter, not a political one, my intention is to view the situation from a classical yoga point of view. To do that I want to set the stage by pointing out some basic yoga facts.
What is yoga?
There are many definitions, but in defining yoga, I think it is useful to make a distinction between the state of yoga and the practice of yoga.
The Bhagavad Gita says yoga is “skill in action”. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as “the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” (B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation). These refer to the state of yoga, a state in which the mind stuff becomes so tranquil and clear that our true divine nature is revealed.
According to Patanjali and most yoga sages, the practice of yoga is the action we take to bring about the state of yoga. Patanjali describes a path with eight limbs (ashtanga yoga) as the practical means to attain the state of yoga.
Most people think of asanas (postures) as the foundation of yoga. It’s true that in modern times, asana has been the gateway to the practice for most people. In fact, asana is their yoga practice.
Classically, however, the cornerstones of yoga as prescribed by Patanjali are the yamas and the niyamas, the first two limbs of ashtanga yoga. The yamas are sometimes described as moral injunctions, ethical disciplines, or self-restraints; the niyamas as fixed or personal observances. There are five of each.
The first two yamas, the very first two steps on the path of classical yoga, are ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (truthfulness). B.K.S. Iyengar says that ahimsa “is more than a negative comment not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love.”
Of satya, Iyengar says, “Satya or truth is the highest rule of conduct or morality. Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Truth is God and God is Truth.’…..if the whole of life is based upon truth, then one becomes fit for union with the Infinite. Reality in its fundamental nature is love and truth and expresses itself through these two aspects.”
There are many notable quotes and definitions with respect to truth, but I chose Mr.Iyengar’s words because they speak to the essential importance of truth as it relates to reality. Without getting into what Reality as a philosophical or religious postulate is, reality as defined in The Oxford online dictionary is “the world or the state of things as they actually exist as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines fact as “something that truly exists or happens: something that has actual existence.”
In other words, facts are reality and what is real is factual. Anything that isn’t real, that is “an idealistic or notional idea”, simply isn’t fact. You can’t have a wrong fact. And you can’t have an “alternative fact”. And this brings me to the current political mess.
As was pointed out when the term “alternative fact” was first publicly used by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, political commentator Chuck Todd said that the information posited as alternative facts were actually “falsehoods”. His criticism was correct as shown by subsequent fact checking. The idea that you can say something that doesn’t comport with reality and call it a fact of any kind is simply wrong by definition.
Even more outrageous is the syntactically challenged statement made by Trump spokesperson, Scottie Nell Hughes, in a Diane Rehm Show interview in which she says that, “There’s no such things, anymore, unfortunately, of facts.” This is absurd on its face since it would mean that there is no reality, only my “facts” versus your “facts”, the sort of thing that George Orwell describes in 1984 where Big Brother says that War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. Nonsensical, down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass stuff. Not a misspeak. Not out of context.
The danger in our current political situation isn’t simply that people who are part of and represent vital institutions in our society are not telling the truth. This has been going on forever. Just in my lifetime I’ve been lied to by government officials of all parties from the president on down, by the media, big business, big religion, and on and on. Even by friends and relatives. Nearly every agency, nearly every special interest at times spins, misleads, diverts, distracts, and yes, lies.
The real danger here as I see it and the reason I think it’s important to write this is that there appears to be a concerted, intentional effort by this president, his spokespersons, and his supporters to cast doubt on everything that doesn’t fit in with their version of things (not a new tactic) by denying the existence of objective reality (new and alarming tactic). This is a brazen departure from anything I have seen in this country. Spin the facts, make things up, change the subject, but to say that facts don’t exist, that there is no objective reality is stunning in its audacity and its peril.
Peril because once the existence of reality, of an agreed upon set of facts is done away with, every conversation, every discussion, every proposal, every action becomes susceptible to unconstrained manipulation through denial or misinformation. Every uncomfortable fact can be dismissed as “fake news”, and misinformation becomes a tool for creating fear, distrust, and division. The seeds of doubt and confusion are sown. Whom can you trust? Why, the one who is telling you what you want to hear or who is bolstering your own fears and prejudices, of course. As Groucho Marx said, “Who do you believe, me or your own eyes?”
There are numerous possible antidotes for this dire situation, but beneath it all, for our own survival and well-being, we must be willing to open our own eyes fearlessly and see what is real and what is not. With so many from every corner, including ourselves, trying to color our view and sway our thoughts, it is our duty as citizens and as yoga practitioners to dig below the surface, to be open and skeptical, to be bold and cautious, to keep our eyes wide open all the time and be a true seer and a truth seeker.
For those who advise patience, acceptance, cooperation, I suggest considering the counsel of Mahatma Gandhi in his satyagraha (insistence on truth) movement during his quest for independence from the British:
“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.” – Mahatma Gandhi