Love Everyone and Tell the Truth: Satya, Ahimsa, and Living in Authenticity
Yoga isn’t only what you do on the mat. Once you step onto this path, it encompasses your entire life. The search for truth becomes the central axis around which everything else revolves, the stable point to which everything refers.
In a way, this makes your life much simpler! Before, maybe you had many purposes, and many different things seemed important. Now, there’s only one thing that does.
But the question remains of how that singular purpose expresses itself in your day-to-day experience, as unconscious patterns are still strong and don’t go away just by wishing. Wanting to act from love at all times, you might still find yourself manifesting impulses in stark contrast to the harmony and beauty to which you aspire.
Longing to be true to yourself as you are, to accept everything about yourself no matter how difficult or disharmonious, while at the same time yearning to transform yourself into a beacon of pure divine Love… Are these aspirations pulling us in two contradictory directions, or do they somehow flow together?
From Ahimsa to Ishvarapranidhana (And Back Again)
Living your daily life in alignment with spirituality doesn’t have to be complicated. St. Augustine said, “Love and do what you want,” which sounds like dangerous advice until you realize that when you love, you only act to support other beings and yourself, not to cause harm.
Augustine’s statement is like a very simple, concise version of the yamas and niyamas, though perhaps a little too concise for most people to live by. Patanjali might have felt this would be the case, as in the Yoga Sutras he provides a set of ten guidelines for harmonious life: five yamas (restrictions, or what to avoid) and five niyamas (qualities to cultivate).
The yamas and niyamas all circle back into each other. More than interconnected, they are all different names for the same thing.
We start with ahimsa (non-violence). First, do no harm. After weaving through nearly every imaginable aspect of human behavior, we finally arrive at Ishvarapranidhana, surrender to God, or the Self.
But what happens when you live in that devotion and recognition of God in everything? Ahimsa. Inevitably, irresistibly, a desire to protect and care for all forms of life arises. Such love and reverence for all creation that you would not break a single blade of grass if you could avoid it; the same care that Ramana Maharshi extended to all the beings in and around his ashram, including the ants, flowers, and trees.
Practicing ahimsa wholeheartedly also leads directly to Ishvarapranidhana. By caring for other beings, honoring the life within them, you start to see them as they truly are: divine manifestations. This wonder of finding God in everything, and thus also within yourself, is the essence of Ishvarapranidhana.
Each yama and niyama leans on and points to all of the others. It is part of the beauty of these teachings that they are so deeply and mysteriously interwoven, yet each one offers a unique lens. Though Patanjali presents them quite succinctly, with only one or two sutras dedicated to each, they can be constantly revisited and provoke new insights as your understanding deepens.
Living by the Yamas and Niyamas
Patanjali’s recommendations are not based on religious or cultural mores but on what behaviors create the best conditions for Self-realization. Therefore, rather than a set of rules to be followed—black and white, either/or scenarios—they function as a map, as guideposts along the path, and as paths in themselves.
As your perspective expands, so does their significance. They start to seep into every aspect of life, every hidden corner, with finer and finer nuance.
At first encounter, they might appear deceptively easy to live by: Don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal. Ok, we got it, let’s move on to the next thing!
But in reality, embodying the yamas and niyamas in daily life, in your every action, is practice for a lifetime, an ongoing process of discovery and refinement.
And of course, with closer examination, gray areas appear within them: overlap, ambiguities, and even apparent contradictions.
First, Do No Harm: Satya and Ahimsa
Perhaps the most glaring appearance of conflict arises in the complex relationship between ahimsa and satya (truthfulness). It’s easy to think of potential situations, and doubtless in your own experience as well, when telling the truth can cause harm to yourself or another being.
When in doubt, ahimsa takes precedence: so teaches the yogic tradition, and the wisdom of this becomes obvious if you consider extreme examples. If you were living in Germany in 1942 and the police came knocking on your door to ask where your Jewish neighbors were, would you come clean and tell them that yes, the whole family was hidden under your floorboards?
In more everyday cases, it might not be so clear where the line is or where the path of least harm lies.
Sometimes telling the truth will hurt someone else, but keeping it inside will hurt you.
Sometimes we lie to keep the peace. Is this compassion, or are we just afraid to rock the boat?
Sometimes a person needs to hear a difficult truth that might hurt them but ultimately help them grow. Is it your job to tell them? Who are you to decide?
If you have become used to living with a lie, the alternative becomes scary. You might justify it in that telling the truth would disturb other people or cause too many problems for yourself, and maybe that’s the case at this moment, but never write it off as a done deal. There’s always the option of taking the other path, to let the truth fly free and everything else fall into place around it.
None of us can foresee the results of our actions, and we shouldn’t pretend to. We don’t know what ripple effect our words might have on someone’s life. We can only act in the present moment. And actually, you will find that if you are very quiet and present, listening to the voice of the Heart, these mental dilemmas drop away and the right action becomes clear.
Love Everyone? Or Tell the Truth?
Satya can mean being truthful with others, but it can also refer to an inner honesty or authenticity, a way of living in integrity with the essence that doesn’t deny any aspect of your expression.
These contemplations on yama and niyama were sparked by a story told by Ram Dass during one of his old lectures, in which he recounts some frustrating advice that he received from his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. His story illustrates both the confusion that can come from trying to apply profound spiritual teachings to an imperfect human life and the transcendence that this striving can reveal.
Ram Dass tells how he used to go to Neem Karoli Baba every day, and every day his teacher would tell him one of two things before abruptly sending him away. First, the teacher told him, “Ram Dass, love everyone.” The next day: “Ram Dass, tell the truth.” And it would alternate like that, day to day, with no other instructions.
After a while, Ram Dass noticed that while he was always trying to love everyone, or at least to act like he loved everyone, if he was honest with himself, this was not the case. In truth, he actively disliked all of his fellows in the sangha! As he stopped hiding these feelings of envy and resentment, they rapidly intensified, until finally exploding in an outburst of anger with little provocation during a gathering with Neem Karoli Baba and the other students.
Build Your House on a Foundation of Truth
Here we land on the question of authenticity. What do we do when our behavior, our lived experience, doesn’t measure up to the ideals we are striving for?
As spiritual practitioners, most of us are also trying to be better people. We try to be kinder, more generous, and more honest, maybe in part because we’ve been told these are good things to do, but also because we intuit that acting this way towards others is more aligned with our True Nature.
Wanting to be kind and loving isn’t something specific to yogis. It’s inherent in humans and many other creatures on this planet simply because kindness and love are a direct reflection of our essence. The more we are in contact with that underlying reality, the stronger the intuition to act in harmony becomes.
So you feel this, you know this, you want to be like this. But five minutes after getting up from meditation, you see that one person doing that one thing that drives you up the wall, and your best intentions go out the window. You’re not there yet.
To become a bodhisattva, as the Tibetan Buddhist tradition teaches, you must practice acting like a bodhisattva. Up to a certain point, you can train yourself by sheer repetition to be more generous or gentle or however you want to be, emulating the behavior of enlightened masters or inspiring beings in your own life.
Yet, at the same time, you must be honest about yourself as you are now. Otherwise, you are building your house on a foundation of sand. You can paint nice colors over the cracks in the walls, but that won’t stop them from crumbling.
Sooner or later, you have to see where the patterns are coming from and understand what this reactivity and fundamental ignorance really is if you want to go beyond it.
Authenticity to Your True Self
Start from where you are; there’s no other option. And realize first that however you are, this is okay. There’s nothing wrong with you and nothing to fix. It’s only a matter of cultivating tendencies that are more harmonious and more supportive for your awakening, so we can already take the judgment out of it.
St. Augustine could have said, “Be authentic and do what you want,” and it would lead to the same end, as long as you are clear on who or what is being authentic.
Sometimes I’ve heard people in spiritual circles excuse their harmful behavior by saying, “I’m just being true to myself.” But in these cases, what self?
There is no stability in the realm of the personality: no emotion, judgment, desire, impulse, or belief will last for your entire life. Most of them are not consistent with each other; some, not even within themselves. Will you spend your life running after every one of them?
This isn’t authenticity; it’s being a leaf in the wind.
In the personal dimension, there really is no self to which you can be true. If you look for stability in that which is impermanent, you will never find it.
Look for truth in that which is true, in what has no causes outside of itself. Look for yourself in yourself, not in your attributes.
Love Everyone and Tell the Truth
We left our dear Ram Dass angry and frustrated in front of his guru and the whole group of devotees. At this point, Neem Karoli Baba called him to sit together and asked what the matter was. In tears, Ram Dass confessed, “I hate all of them, and I hate myself.”
Neem Karoli Baba said, “I told you to love everyone.”
“But you told me to tell the truth, and the truth is I don’t love everyone.”
Without missing a beat, Neem Karoli Baba replied, “Ram Dass, love everyone and tell the truth.”
To the personality, this might be contradictory advice. But to the Heart, it is the same impulse.
The truth of the Heart, the absolute truth that overrides and underlies all relative “truths,” is Love. When the Heart speaks, it is love. And when love speaks, what it says is true, no matter what the words are.
From the perspective of the Heart, it is impossible for ahimsa and satya to be in conflict. Any truthful speech is loving, kind, and supportive of other beings—an expression of pure ahimsa. And any speech or action that comes from this desire to support and protect living beings, from a recognition of the sacredness of all life, is true in respect to the most profound Truth.
St. Paul also spoke to this union of satya and ahimsa:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. […]
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
“Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13)
Tell the truth: let your whole being—body, speech, and mind—proclaim that one Reality of the Heart. Let your life itself be a testament to that Truth. With no need for words, your presence and your every movement speak Love to all.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.