The primary cause of the suffering that Patañjali’s yoga seeks to end is the fundamental misunderstanding each of us has about our own true nature.

Yoga is the process of restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.
Then the observer can know its own true nature.
Otherwise, the observer identifies with the fluctuations of consciousness.

Yoga sees the mind as something fluid and plastic, able to change its form to match that which it beholds. The mind uses this mechanism to understand the world around it. By reflecting the form of its various objects of perception—and these objects can be anything capable of being perceived, such as emotions, sensations or ideas and not just physical objects—it builds up a library of experience which governs the way in which it responds to the world. The mind is so good at reflecting other forms, however, that we, the observers, sometimes forget ourselves. This happens on a regular basis in every moment of the day, every time you lose yourself in a book, a song, television or a movie, every time you forget yourself in some activity or other. In every instance, the mind has assumed the shape of that which you were consuming or undertaking so completely that your ability to be self-aware is momentarily abandoned.

This is a necessary function of the mind. Without it, we would not be able to interact so profoundly with the world around us, nor could we be creative or use our imaginations to escape and improve our lives. It does mean, however, that the functioning of the mind is constantly mediating our experience, even down to the most subtle level. This mediation ties us to some profoundly erroneous notions about our identity, notions that the yogin must overturn with keen moment-to-moment discrimination and discernment.

With every lie that we tell, we are adding another layer of complication to the gulf between our awareness and the world around us. If you tell someone a lie, you then have to maintain that lie every time you interact with that person. This means you will be expending a certain amount of mental effort, no matter how minute, to monitor the situation and your responses and not give yourself away. You may even have to modify your behavior to such an extent that it requires you to expend physical energy as well. Once you start to compound the lies your day can quickly become exhausting.

Truth In Word, Deed And Being

I would suggest that, in this light, Patañjali’s idea of truthfulness goes much further than simply not telling lies. A better word to describe it might be honesty, in the sense of there being no discrepancy between thought and action. The challenge of this observance is to be honest and truthful in all aspects of our lives. Hypocrisy becomes another layer between each of us and the world around us. A life is built out of a succession of moments, a stringing together of sensation, impressions, thoughts and responses. Our consciousness has evolved to react first and act second. It is possible to go for minutes, days, even years on automatic. We are beings capable of refined and deep self-awareness, but that sentience is not fixed in an always-on configuration, no matter how highly we would like to think of ourselves.

Many of us drift though life in a purely reactive mode, responding to stimuli, acting out of ingrained responses and fleeting whims with little organizing realization. Even the most motivated of us can suffer from this, drive and ambition merely acting as a catalyst around which all our many impulse can coalesce. When we are in this state can we genuinely claim the words we say for our own, or are they nothing more than the ingrained, learned responses of anyone from our particular economic or cultural background? The same can be asked of our deeds. Do you eat meat simply because that is what you’ve always eaten, or because you have a particular nutritional need? Do you work in a particular job because you want to, or because it is what your parents expected of you? Can you examine your life with discrimination and discernment and isolate the places where thought and deed are not in harmony? And, harder still, when you find such places can you change your circumstance to make your life more honest and truthful?

Speak The Truth But Do No Harm

Truth-telling is all very well, but it is important to remember that Patañjali’s idea of truthfulness is the second of the observances, the first and foremost being non-harming. Speaking the truth might be liberating for you, but ultimately we must be aware of those around us. Consider the impact of your words and the manner in which you deliver them. Do you absolutely have to give voice to your truthful thought, even if it will cause pain to another? If the pain would be temporary, but the ultimate goal would be to prevent the person harm, can you modify the expression of the truth to minimize the immediate anguish?

Consider also the timeliness of your words. What you say may be truthful in the moment, but will it still be true in five or ten years down the line? As a teacher of yoga I am often faced with a dilemma regarding the instruction I give my students. Will what I am saying always be true? Am I giving an instruction simply because I want the student to achieve a particular result? What if the instruction serves them now, but can potentially cause damage in the long term if it is taken as an absolute?

The things we say to others, especially when they are looking to us for advice, can have tremendous weight, sometimes more than we think. A casual, off-hand remark that has not been thought through can have unintended effects. It is not enough to put the burden of comprehension on the recipient of the remark. I have often heard the hurtful effect of an offhand remark be callously denied by the speaker saying that the recipient needs to lighten up and have a sense of humor. This is nothing more than a distancing tactic, an attempt at absolving the speaker from any consequence. As practitioners of yoga, we quickly discover that no act exists without consequence, and should behave accordingly.

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