Satya and the Art of Conversation

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As I tried to gather my thoughts about what I wanted to write about in this post, I came across this segment from a 2012 NY Times article, “The Flight from Conversation”, by Sherry Turkle, that encapsulated what I was thinking:

“FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.”

And we use conversation with others to learn to converse with ourselves. So our flight from conversation can mean diminished chances to learn skills of self-reflection. These days, social media continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust.”

Turkle is a psychologist, professor at MIT, and also the author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.” What I love about her comments is the specific connection she draws between social interaction and self-awareness.

During the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about our voices and how we use them. From oral to written communication, from personal to professional experiences, I’m becoming more aware of what I see as the two main hazards of living in the communication age:

1. The oversaturation of instantly gratifying ways to spread less than meaningful information about ourselves

2. The tendency to avoid communicating directly and honestly in face-to-face situations. Anyone who hasn’t been hiding in a cave the past 15 years has certainly fallen into both paths of communication.

In an article for the Atlantic about his students’ lack of conversational competence, teacher and writer Pete Barnell says, “But in our zealous rush to meet 21st-century demands—emailing assignments, customizing projects for tablets and laptops, and allowing students to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)—we aren’t asking students to think and communicate in real time.”

It’s the “real time” idea that reminds me of the yoga practice, and in particular, the role that satya, or truthfulness, plays in our conversations and interactions with others.

What is fascinating to me about satya, the second of the yamas of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, is that it is a much more vague and fluid idea than just saying, “Don’t lie.” Black and white notions of honesty rarely give credit to the complexity of human emotions and situational factors at hand. Practicing satya is more than meaning what you say and saying what you mean; it’s the task of reading complex, interpersonal situations in real time and being able to say (or not say) the words that support the integrity of those moments. Cumulatively over a lifetime, someone who practices satya would be able to string together a series of moments indicating that he or she had, hopefully, lived an honest and true life instead of a dishonest and false one.

Returning to Turkle’s idea of patience, satya is something that requires practice. In finding our true and honest voice, I think we have to be a little discerning about what we say, to whom, and why. Do 1,000 of your closest Facebook friends need to know what you ate for breakfast or that you hate the annoying man next you on the subway because he felt it was necessary to eat what appeared to be Thanksgiving dinner out of a takeout container? Conversely, is there a real relationship in your life that is suffering because you can’t find the words to say what is necessary? When you’re interacting with someone are you really engaging with them, or are you hiding behind headphones/phantom text messages on your phone/mental distractions, etc? It’s amazing how actually looking people in the eyes can change your communication patterns.

For our teachers out there, I think we can practice this same skill by really looking at our students and giving them the verbal cues they actually need to hear. Perhaps this means letting go of an awesome energetic cue you really wanted to try that they actually aren’t ready for. Maybe this means pushing yourself to talk about new ideas or some aspect of the yoga practice that has been confusing or uncomfortable to you. Maybe it means editing and watching instead of talking so much.

I think that both tendencies of our age, saying too much or saying too little, both stem from fear: fear of being alone, fear of missing out, fear of being vulnerable, fear of disappointing the people in our lives, fear of being disliked. In finding courage to work through our fears, it is important to recognize that our sense of self, our ability to self-reflect and be advocates for our own needs, is crucial to living a truthful life that doesn’t cause harm to others. Honesty isn’t about airing out all our dirty laundry for the whole world to hear. It’s about being true to ourselves in a way that cultivates kindness and as much non-harm as possible towards others.

And this is where the yoga practice comes in. When we give ourselves the time and space to go inward in the way that yoga demands, we might then be able to reach outward to others with a more compassionate, honest, and discerning voice. Because we understand the patience required to understand our own thoughts, perhaps we can become more intuitive and adept conversationalists when listening and responding to others. This process is reciprocal and multi-layered: self-reflection helps us relate to others; relating to others helps us understand ourselves.

As teachers and students of yoga, I think we represent a unique population of people who pays equal amount of attention to the voice in our heads and the voice we express to others. My encouragement would be to let satya guide both.

- Katherine Moore

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