April 13, 2011

The Eight Limbs of yoga 2.0: Satya—Inconvenient truths about truth.

by Matthew Remski with Scott Petrie

This post is number three of on the subject of “Eight Limbs in the 2.0 Age”. #1 gives an overview of our general approach and method. #2 and #3 address ahimsa philosophically and personally. Here we introduce some new (and old-but-strange) theoretical and idiosyncratic thoughts about satya, currently translated as “truthfulness” within modern yoga.

“Speaking our truth” is a rich compost-pile, indeed.


brecht giving truthful testimony

When Bertolt Brecht, the author of politically dialectical plays and screenplays, appeared before Senator McCarthy and his brylcreamed House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he was asked if his name was “Bertolt Brecht”. He replied in the affirmative. Then he was asked “Are you the same Bertolt Brecht who is the author of plays and screenplays?” He responded “No.”  It was a beautiful lie that expressed a powerful truth.

The congressmen were sweaty, ham-faced, and flustered, because their target had distinguished between his public renown and his personal identity. The man had also distinguished between past identity and present identity. Like a poetically astute Buddhist, he was publicly declaring that he never inhabited the same identity twice. His lie appeared to be an abdication of responsibility for his authorship, but it is precisely this lie that would allow his work, his truth, to go unharassed.

By obscuring his authorship, the man provisionally known as Bertolt Brecht implied that his work is collectively produced and collectively owned: a claim that supported his anarachic ideal to resist private ownership, especially the ownership of ideas. The rest of the testimony was a shambles of wisecracks and mistranslations – a wonderful dialectical play in itself.

Imagine! An author disowns his authorship before a committee dedicated to the protection of the capitalist ownership society. It was an irony to the power of the sublime.


John 18:38. Pilate asks Jesus: “What is truth?”

Jesus says nothing.

Pilate says to the people: “I find no fault with him.”


Strategic empathetic lying is as old as the human feeling of the inner self, and the ability to play that interiority against language that can cover it up. Lying has always been used ethically to protect the innocent, and to misdirect the aggressor. The tradition spans the Irishman telling the redcoat “You can’t get there from here” to the old moral test of hiding a man from his would-be killers, and lying to their faces while he quivers in your cellar.

But there is something new happening in Brecht’s ultimate Brechtian moment. An enormous audience is exposed to the spectacle of a man saying that he is two people, and getting away with it. He has detached his body from his body of work, and walked free, out of a prison of oppressive conformity. He has played the personal against the public, and won through each.

His subversive prevarication sets the stage for a postmodern culture in which nobody is as they seem, and everyone knows it, and in which the creative is subversive by nature.


the organ of speech in postmodernity

Truth used to depend upon a stable point-of-view. A stable point-of-view used to hinge upon a coherent sense of “I”, i.e., authority. Points-of-views came from authors. But in a world in which almost everyone under 40 has multiple functional identities through various communicational pathways, regular shifts in points-of-view have become the accepted masala of the postmodern truth-kitchen.

Most of us try to speak our truth, to be sure, and most of us feel the bodily anxiety and/or depression of failing to do so.

But the online avatar throws in a wrench: who are you speaking truth as? And if you can choose another speaking role tomorrow – will it disagree with the truth of today’s voice?  When tweetdeck allows you to tweet as many birds, you can feel tuneful through each, because you are programmed to know that something that the Patanjalian compilers never had to consider in such obviousness: truths emerge in relation to Other truths. These days, you often don’t know what is true until you hear your many voices speak within the human choir.

If you comment on this article – will you use your legal name? Through which identity will you speak most truly today?


Of course, the thinkers that compiled the sutras are also shielded by anonymity. “Patanjali” is the mythological nom-de-plume assigned to the possibly hundreds of contemplatives that gathered together their fragmentary reflections over several centuries. As a text, it crystallizes in an era before the concept of “single-authorship” exists. It is a wiki-text.

With many authors come many stories. The contradictions of the Yoga Sutras are plentiful, and most apparent between the four books. Sutra 2:22 states that the objective world ceases to exist for the yogi in samadhi. Sutra 3:3 states that samadhi occurs when the subject disappears and nothing but the object remains.

This is either really bad philosophy, or a divergence in views within the same writer, or many authors and views duking it out. But to claim that a text like this holds a consistent truth claim is absurd.

Every modern practitioner has to make choices about what truths yoga speaks here and now.


The Bhagavad Gita appreciates the complexity of speaking truly. Krishna tells Arjuna: “The tapas of speech is this. Your words must not cause distress. They must be true, loving, useful, and inspired by self-inquiry.” (17:15) The conflict between the true, the loving, and the undistressing has never been compressed into a more elusive instruction.


Truth as an internal peak of coherence and satisfaction provides deep subjective pleasure. It is only communicable through language when language breaks into new forms. The drive to artistry feeds on this tension, and seeks to radiate the truth-experience by shattering typical patterns of narrative and description. Every poet lives upon the failure of language.

“The crack in everything” as Leonard Cohen sings.


Where is the irony in yoga? Is it only now emerging, as we can begin to see through the performance of knowledge, and as the disenchanted gather in pulsing blog-pockets? Is there a single “I’ll-tell-you-what-the-truth-is” guru left standing who can survive the age of irony?  There are a few, but they become increasingly tragic: people who destroy otherwise elegant contemplations with the bravado of unexamined authority-fetish, while hiding behind a brand.

Where is honesty about our feelings in yoga? Is it honest to post inspirational quotes from books we’ve barely finished reading as Facebook updates? Have we noticed that the voice that is not our own usually gets only a few Likes, and at most, comments like “LOVE this!!!”? If several commenters feel they respond effectively with emoticons, there may not much to respond to.

The greatest number of comments I ever saw (close to 100) were on an update that simply said “My cat died.”


The collusion of “brand” and truth-claim is becoming obvious, and onerous.


Then there’s science, which updates truth according to evidence. Further, it updates standards of evidence according to gains in data collection. Older methods of truth were either intuitive (shamanic) or authoritative (dogmatic). Now we progress along every path by conventions of reading data in the best possible way. In science, truth is wiki. Is yoga a science? Do we want it to be?


popper deflates the dada of truth

Then, there’s Karl Popper, who claimed that statements that could not be verified or falsified do not belong to the order of shareable or productive knowledge. At best, they are amusements. I don’t know if I agree with him, but we should certainly consider the challenge.

One common unfalsifiable statement within yoga culture might be “There are enlightened beings who have left instructions we can follow to the end of our perfection.” According to Popper, this claim cannot be shown to be false through either observation or experimentation. This would require investigating all human beings and their instructions for signs of enlightenment (however we would define it) – an impossible task. If observation and experimentation are impossible, the claim at hand exits the evolutionary flow of life. It escapes the discourse to position itself above the fray, untouched by time or the human heart.

More simply: Popper says that there are two types of statements: the testable, and the faith-based. If it can be tested, it can move towards truth (an agreement regarding the way things are). If it is a faith statement, it cannot be tested in any way that humans can generally agree on and measure, and therefore can never move towards the convention of truth. It’s not that the faith statement can be assessed as true or not based on its content. It cannot be true because of its very structure. It appeals to something beyond itself for validation. It cannot stand on its own. It purposefully hides its ultimate source from the humans who consider it. It must alienate them.

Falsifiable: “Pranayama heals cancer.” (We only have to produce one tumour-ridden yogi corpse to falsify this claim. This claim is okay – it stays in the conversation that aims to generate truth.)

Non-falsifiable: “Pranayama can heal cancer.” (We’d have to monitor every person with cancer who practices pranayama, and then control for all of the other variables that might heal them. The un-testability of this claim means that it abandons any discourse that seeks to establish what is true.)

Reading or receiving teachings in Patanjali in this light is very interesting. Key claims are clearly unfalsifiable. From Chip Hartranft’s translation:

Isvara is a distinct, incorruptible form of pure awareness, utterly independent of cause and effect, and lacking any store of latent impressions.

If you say so. Who can test this? How? Who can argue with it? How? Popper is saying: if you can’t argue with it, how can it change anything or be useful to anybody? Truth is functional, in other words. It has to be used in relationship.

Does the truth-claim that ends the conversation also alienate the relationship?


I had a poet friend who committed suicide. One week before – at his utter end of both truth and language – he swallowed a bottle of pills, he gave me an audiocassette with his favourite music on it. Son House. Nina Simone. One song was Fred Neil: “I gotta secret, shouldn’t tell… gonna go to heaven in a split pea shell.” I can’t find the tape, and I don’t even have a tape player anymore, but I can hear that album in my dreams from start to finish.

We talked about poetry, always. He had a chip on his shoulder about Basho. He blew out the flame on his Sambuca, knocked it back, and quoted the famous haiku:

Frog jumps into the forest pond.


Silence again.

He dragged on his cigarette and glared at me. “Where’s the fucking suffering in that? Where’s the truth?”

I remember him when I walk into some yoga studios, in which the zen décor seems to wipe away the satya of our spilt blood.


We make choices about meaning. There is no one in charge. Truths are choices for which we are radiantly responsible.

photo by ek park

Matthew Remski is an authoryoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie (who provided essential wing-man services for this piece) he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoesis now available for kindle and other e-readers.

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