When I used to teach yoga, I loved teaching the inherent conflict between the Yamas (principles) known as Sattva (truth) and Ahimsa (non-harming/kindness). I often did so by sharing the following story:
A meditator was sitting in the forest when a deer ran by. For a moment, the meditator ceased meditating, instead watching the grace and beauty of the deer. The deer passed by him and took the path on the right.
But a few minutes later, a hunter came by, and asked the meditator, “Which path did the deer take? The left or the right?”
This story is a metaphor for all those times in our lives when we face the dilemma of speaking our truth and practicing kindness.
When we can be both truthful and kind, we have no confusion about our intentions.
When we are neither truthful nor kind, we also have no confusion about our intentions.
But it’s in those times where it seems we need to choose between the two that make for some of the hardest decisions in our lives.
At the time I was teaching this story, I was shifting from a lifetime of choosing kindness over truth. I chose to keep the peace over being an instigator. I chose to sacrifice my own needs (lie to myself) so as not to “put anyone out” (fake kindness).
Ignoring my true feelings in the name of making someone else comfortable (being nice) eventually became an unsustainable lifestyle for me.
The truth was exploding inside me, and I longed to share it.
But, I didn’t have many skills in this regard; I lacked tact and grace as I began spitting out long-held but suppressed truths.
I became flustered and rattled easily if someone pushed back. And I hurt people I loved by truth-speaking with such little skill for delivery. It was like I had turned a faucet on full blast, but because it had been turned off for so long, the initial outpouring was sporadic, spraying everyone around me (and myself) in the face.
I have regrets about those early days of birthing my truth.
I knew my truth was sometimes not coming out kindly, but a wiser part of me knew I had to go a bit too far in the new direction to find balance.
I believe this to be true about larger cultural shifts as well. Momentum is a powerful force to overcome. The status quo is heavy and immobile. So, did the #MeToo movement go too far, as some might believe? No. I think it went as far as it had to go to make people uncomfortable enough to engage in self-reflection and begin the healing and rebuilding.
Have protests for Black Lives Matter gone too far? No. We have so much more to learn and understand about the oppression of Black people throughout the world to this day. If people won’t listen when protestors block freeways, why would they listen if protestors protested in a designated area?
If we want to tip a hierarchy, we often have to go too far in the other direction just to unstick the sticky status quo, let alone move it. Then, and only then, can we talk about balance.
I know this is an area of disagreement, as so many promote incremental change over revolutionary change. But all we need to do is ask ourselves how much has really changed in our world and over the decades regarding these situations. Waiting for incremental change is like watching a glacier move.
And so it was for me when I first began truth-seeking: I went too far, too fast for a while.
But I’m glad I continued because over time I learned to temper my truth with kindness. How to balance honesty with compassion. How to put some boundaries around my fire. How to be in a place of integrity with myself and not have regrets later on.
What I was learning was that it wasn’t so much how we balance kindness and truth as we engage in the world, but how we balance these things within ourselves.
Before it matters whether we tell others the truth, it matters that we tell ourselves the truth.
Before our kindness toward others is authentic, we must practice being kind to ourselves.
Before we know what is true out there, we have to determine what is true in here.
Before we answer the meditator’s situation from the opening story, we need to know what we will do when these conflicts arise within ourselves.
Will we live according to our principles and core values, even when it makes us uncomfortable?
Will we commit to treating ourselves with kindness and respect, caring for our bodies and minds, even when the truth is that we’re still trying to like ourselves more?
Will we accept the truth that we are not always kind to ourselves?
Will we be kind to ourselves as we awaken more truths?
These are the questions that matter. Because if we can’t do these things for ourselves, there’s no way we can do them in our daily lives and with others.
Let me close with a practice, one that I shared in the context of a yoga class but could be translated into any situation—even sitting down reading this article:
“Imagine that you have brought your best friend’s body to class today instead of your own. She now has yours. You did not exchange rules; you trust one another to intuitively take good care of each other’s bodies. As you move through your practice today wearing your friend’s body, notice where the aches and pains lie. Observe the areas of tension and tightness with compassion. Notice also where the body is inviting you to move further inward. Take that step on behalf of your friend’s body. Keep in mind that once the class is over, you will be returning her body to her. She will slip it right back on. You will tell her how much you loved it, how well you cared for it, how beautiful you think it is. She will note how much more expansive and grounded it feels. She will be pleased by how freely her neck and shoulders now roll. She will thank you.
You will then slip back into your own body. For your body, she cooked a nutritious meal from scratch. With every chop and dice, she thought about how this food would nourish your body. She ate the meal slowly, appreciating every single bite. She treated the act of eating like an act of celebration, for, in fact, there was something to celebrate: your amazing body.”
In this practice, both Sattva and Ahimsa are honored throughout. They are in a delicate dance; there is no conflict. There is only truth and kindness—alignment within our bodies and minds.
So, about the meditator, the hunter, and the deer? Only you can answer that question.
Award-Winning Author & Wholeness Advocate
Author: Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness — A Memoir of New Beginnings, winner of the 2020 IPA for Body, Mind and Spirit