Maybe we need to align our words
We focus an awful lot on aligning our asana, but as my dear friend and mentor Chrissy Carter says, "If you're being an asshole, the yoga's not working." So what about the need to align our practice of speaking? I believe strongly in the concept of living your yoga. To me this practice is so much more than physical exercise, it is, in fact, a lifestyle of kindness and curiosity. It is the container in which we are able to study and know ourselves truly so that we can then turn out into our communities near and far and meet others with the same compassionate openness and, really, willingness to see and understand them fully. I mean, kind of like, how to live in the world and be nice person, and not in a bullshitty way.
One thing that drives me absolutely nuts, is when people come to class and spend an hour practicing "mindfulness" and then shove their props back on the shelf haphazardly and then float out of the studio like their shit don't stink. Honestly, sometimes I think to myself, "Wow, so an entire hour of self-awareness made zero impact on the way this person interacts with the world." And then I catch myself for being judgey and think, "its ok. That wasn't a judgement it was just an observation." But, my point is that the practice of yoga is a lifestyle, although there is a physical component, that element is a method by which we get in touch with ourselves, not just sculpt our physique. Not only does our practice offer us the opportunity to align our actions with our values, but also to align our words in how we speak to ourselves and how we speak to/with others.
This whole thought process all started a few days ago...
I was in a conversation with someone and it became the type of situation where you say to yourself, “ok. Well, that just got said.” And you don’t really know how to respond so you stand around awkwardly for a few looooooong and silent moments and then by some act of universal grace the conversation ends and you’re free from the awkwardness.
So that happened. And as I drove to Long Island for the weekend I started to mull over her words — trying to parse out what she possibly could have meant by what she said to me. The bottom line was that she didn’t really like my style of teaching, that she came to my class because it was convenient, but went to classes that she liked more on the weekends. I mean, (not in so many words) she basically was saying that I wasn’t good enough for her. And while I know rationally that was not this her intention and I know that I teach good and safe asana, it still hurt (my ego).
This got me thinking about the misalignment between what someone says, what their intention is in speaking, and how it lands with the person to whom the words are being spoken. I started to think about the idea of Right Speech and where that falls in our yoga practice or simply just in our practice of being thoughtful and kind individuals.
“Right Speech” is one of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path in the Buddhist tradition and, additionally, is one of the precepts for living an ethical life.
In our yoga practice when studying yogic philosophy we discover the eight limbs of yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyhara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi, of which asana (poses) plays only a small part.
The first limb is called the Yamas, which, like the precepts, outline practices or ethical guidelines that we seek to engage in for a content and purposeful life. The five Yamas are non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, refraining from over indulgence, and non-greed. Right Speech may most easily compare with Satya, or truthfulness, however, Right Speech may demand a little more attention than the cut and dry actions of being honest.
This might be particularly true when we see the first two Yamas, truthfulness and causing no harm, come head to head with the old adage “the truth hurts”. Circle back to this student who comes to class out of convenience, not because she really likes it. While that may be true, it still hurt my feelings. So, how do we rectify doing no harm yet engaging in truthful speech?
Several weeks ago I took class at a studio in Brooklyn. The teacher shared with us a poem from 1835 by a woman named Beth Day titled The Three Gates of Gold, and it could not have come to my life at a better time..
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.
Its almost needless to say that it is a challenge to differentiate between what IS true in a universal sense versus what FEELS true through the narrow scope of our personal existence. Which is why these next 2 gates are so valuable, when “truth” becomes subjective, we ask, “is it necessary?” Does what I want to say serve some greater purpose? Or is does it simply serve my need to say something? Does it contribute to or does it detract from the experience, the conversation, or general well being of the other person or even on a global scale (why not think bigger?!). And even if it slips through as being necessary, then it is in understanding if words are kind that we have one more chance. Does what we have to say come from a genuinely thoughtful and compassionate place? Is it information that you offer lovingly?
First, we may want to consider: what is the point of speaking? Words have the potential to be kind or cause harm. They have the ability to be helpful or to be hurtful.. (hurtful even if true). They can be true or false. Words can be shallow and pointless or poignant and purposeful.
Shouldn’t our goal, in general, be to live a life of purpose? A life that is full of meaning and in service of the world, or the very least in service of our community? Versus being pointless, random and in service of ourselves? Shouldn’t our words and our actions be a reflection of our values? Therefore the result of speech and conversation being to create connection with others rooted in kindness, cherished values and aligned action.
If the purpose of conversation is to connect with other people this concept becomes ever more important. Truth, necessity and kindness become the foundational support to authentic interpersonal connection. If we speak only for the sake of speaking we have not connected, but rather disconnected in a pretty self serving way.
So how do we connect truthfully and authentically? And why is it important? I think it all starts with self reflection and self inquiry (on the mat, in meditation, journaling, or therapy -- all good places to start). If we have not truly seen ourselves and understood our own experience, we are not able to truly see the person in front of us, where they are coming from, or what they are going through. To talk at someone (disconnected) is very different from speaking with someone (authentic space holding). How could we really be with and speak with someone in their grief, sadness, frustration or even true happiness if we have never allowed ourselves to be completely in those experiences of our own. Can we really sit with sadness or anger? Can we really hold space for someone’s complete and unbridled joy?
We share our stories and experiences as a way of relating to or with another person but we should pause and ask ourselves what is the purpose of this share? Whom does it serve? Does it serve only the purpose of me speaking or does it offer something valuable to the person in front of me? Not that there needs to be a moral to every story, but a point or contribution... otherwise it’s just small talk... And really, that’s not true connection anyway.
What we learn from this kind of reflection is that we are not all that different from each other. Our experience may be different. But we all know and have experienced the fundamentals of anger, frustration, grief, heartbreak, love, pain, joy, etc. At the core, we all fear the same things- loss, judgement, rejection, loneliness, just as we all long for the same things- love, acceptance, contentment and community. If we are able to know those feelings for ourselves then we are able to see them and hold space for other people. It moves us away from seeing ourselves as different and the need to draw lines of separation. It moves us away from divisiveness and tribalism and toward our fellow human beings. The bottom line is, we are all totally messed up. None of this is in an effort to become perfect or to change who we are, but to become real, really connected, kind and aware of ourselves, the universe, and perhaps even our place in it.
Then maybe, just maybe we will be able to speak to others as we wish to be spoken to. Treat them as we wish to be treated. And put props away like we care about the space we practice in. And not be an asshole. (Yep. Bringing it full circle.)
I write this with all the love in the world.
As always, you can take or leave it.