Over the past few days, two things have recurred in my thinking. Two things with a common root of words – what we say, how it is heard.

First, the story in the news of a 13 year old girl committing suicide after a row with her parents about chores. I followed news reports about her being missing; about police being worried; how she had left home after a row with parents; and then in the car I heard a news bulletin with the shocking news that her body had been found hung. My instinctive reaction was to cry out, “no”. We can but wonder as to the torment she was in, and the torment that will doubtless live with her parents for the rest of their days. And, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t suggest that her parents did anything wrong; who amongst us hasn’t argued with parents, children, spouses?

Secondly, something I said myself to someone else, someone I respect and owe a debt of gratitude to, a throwaway remark, overheard by others, that was meant to be jovial but was misplaced and misunderstood.   How I wished, even a few minutes later, let alone 24 hours later, those words could have been unsaid; how I wished I had thought first; how I wish I had simply been silent.

Its easy to be wise with hindsight.

Its lead me to ponder on what yoga says about words and communication.

The first limb of yoga, written about in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras around 1500 BC, is known as the Yamas, literally “restraints”. These are codes for how we interact with each others, sometimes called, along with the Niyamas, “Rules for right living”  

There are five Yamas:

  • Ahimsa –non violence
  • Satya – truthfulness
  • Asteya – non stealing
  • Brahmacharya – non excess
  • Aparigraha – non possessiveness

Its interesting that these are the first limb of yoga; whilst the full eight limbs of yoga shouldn’t been seen as a rigid ascent, none the less there is an order, and with the Yamas at the start, its clear that these restraints, these rules for right living, are the foundation of our yoga.

For completeness the other limbs of yoga are:

  • Niyama – observances – how we relate to ourselves
  • Asana – postures
  • Pranayama – breath control
  • Pratyahara – sense withdrawal – literally quieting the mind
  • Dharaṇa – concentration – how we relate to our mind
  • Dhyana – meditation – moving beyond the mind
  • Samadhi – a state of union

Clearly Ahimsa – non violence – and Satya – truth – relate most to what we say.

Its tempting to interpret Ahimsa as a prohibition on physical violence to another – and that’s a major part of it. However non violence goes wider than that; it covers mental and emotional harm to others, harm to our world around us, to nature, and harm to ourselves.

When we say something cruel or hurtful, that is violence to someone else.

When we say – even silently – something cruel about ourselves, that’s violence to ourselves. I was reading a few days ago a quote that suggested if we recorded every self critical thing we said to ourselves in a day, and then played it back as if it was directed at someone else, we would be shocked.   Arguably, my horror at hurting someone else with a careless word should be matched by my horror at hurting myself through replaying it and constantly criticising myself – literally, beating myself up.

“Don’t beat yourself up about it” we say to someone who has made a mistake, or someone who is struggling having being hurt by another. Beating someone else up leads you to court and punishment by the justice system – beating ourselves up leads to a more invidious circle of self punishment.

So we need to consider our words not only by Ahimsa to others, and maybe to our world around, but Ahimsa to ourselves as to how we react when something is misunderstood or misconstrued. We need to apply Ahimsa to how we react to what others have said about us, what we have heard.

Practically, that means the sarcastic tweet to a politician or celebrity on Twitter is probably not in the spirit of Ahimsa – it seems like a throwaway instant reaction, but if the recipient reads it, it may harm them, it may negatively influence others views and lead to a flurry of such comment.

Practically, it means forgiving ourselves if we say something wrong rather than reliving it with if only, if only, if only.

Practically, it means being generous in our response to others, forgiving when offence has been unintentionally given.

Satya – truthfulness – partners with non violence. Non violence prevents extreme truth, bluntness, where it may harm; truthfulness encourages us to face up to the difficult conversations that non violence may initially have us shy away from.

Again, its something of many layers. Its not just being true in dealing with others, its being true to yourself.

Truth demands just that when we speak to, or about, others. Honesty, rather than shades of grey. Measured comment rather than jibe or speculation. Truth doesn’t make a joke at someone else’s expense.

Truth demands that we be honest about ourselves – rather than becoming wrapped up in fantasy dramas, truth requires measured examination of our instinctive reactions and thoughts, especially the self critical ones. Put simply, rather than wallowing in pity, or dwelling on upset, truth requires an honest assessment of circumstances.

Truth demands we are honest in what we hear – if we know something was said in error, or hurt was caused through carelessness, truth demands we don’t hold a grudge, we let go, we forgive.

The dance of truth and non violence is one of many such interplays in our lives, and govern amongst other things what we say, what we hear, how we react to what we say, how we react to what we hear.

I’m personally under no illusion that this is easy – this week has taught me that – but we, I, must try. Because the alternative is uncaring cynicism and lies and, I suspect, the world has more than enough of that.