"What's a yama?" you might ask. Yoga books often translate "the yamas and the niyamas" as the rules of ethical living, the ten commandments of yoga. Literally, yama means death, or limit. Practiced correctly the yamas put to death the ego. Killing the ego means living clearly without getting stuck in the limited perception of who I am. Straightforwardly, the yamas are the do's and don'ts of life: do not harm; tell the truth; do not steal; restrain yourself; do not covet. On any path, in any tradition, I see similar rules. Perhaps it's like learning to play the piano - once a pianist learns the literal keys, masters the chords, feels in the dance, she can play Bach spontaneously, paying less attention to the literal notes on the page.
I can't play Bach spontaneously, but if I were a virtuoso I'd still have to hit the right keys. Ignoring the rules of practice, hitting the wrong keys, playing an untuned piano, means there's no Bach. The first yama is ahimsa - nonharming. If I harm others, or if I support a company that pollutes our rivers, I take part, even subtly, in upsetting the eco-system that binds me to life. If I take what is not freely given, not only do I upset someone from whom I have taken, I immediately rob myself of my integrity, even subtly.
So how is the second yama, satya, or truth-telling, related to writing? The comparison may sound odd, since so much of the craft of writing comes from making up fictions, retelling myths, fabricating characters, and more often than not, imagining what isn't in front of me. Even in front-page journalism, where the rules seem to be "stick to the facts", no human perspective can recount anything objectively. A writer's perspective can shift, depending on the angle of the story, the editor's pick, or the political investment of the newspaper he's writing for. Truth- telling, even language itself, whether in speech or in print, is usually not a literal act. Words themselves are signifiers; they never fully embrace the signified. The entire act of communication is a translation - hieroglyphics for living things; characters for sounds; a string of letters for a string of ideas - one thing is held for another, a calligraphic shape is held for a feeling, a series of sounds for a thought.
Nevertheless, when I'm writing, I can't escape the feeling that some things I say are more truthful than others. I have to say it like it is for me, or what is honestly flowing through me. If I hold back from the voice of the heart, I sense that I am clenching the white page with a jaw that refuses to let go of its words. That's writer's block.
Hemingway in A Moveable Feast recalls experiencing writer's block in Paris. After spending a few hours throwing orange peels into the fire, he leans over a rooftop,and says to himself: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." And so, Hemingway went on from there to write one true sentence after another, even though most of it is fiction.
But what is true? That can get complicated. So often I find myself mediating what is true for me based on how I sense others will receive my words, what I think others want to hear. In that process of filtering, so much of my truth muffles. If I'm writing a letter, I tell the truth in a way I think the person receiving it will understand. The precept of non-harming precedes that of truth telling. So at some level, I need to be aware of the other's feelings, and with that I need to be gentle with my words, sensitive to the context, temperate in my tone.
Still, it gets tricky. If I've check all of the above, speak a soft truth, and the person I'm speaking to reacts badly, how responsible am I for her feelings? What if I speak to another honestly, in a way that at the time feels sensitive, but I unintentionally upset a fragile balance? I have been myself guilty of breaking down because of the slightest misinterpretation of a flippant comment, or a few carelessly - or even carefully - uttered words.
Eckhart Tolle describes forgiveness as the act of staying present with what is. Forgiveness accepts the past; forgiveness learns from the mistakes; forgiveness assumes we are all imperfectly sailing in this ship of fools - together. Perhaps honesty begins with this moment, this breath, without asking to change what has happened before. Begin, now, with "one true sentence."
I recently found consolation in Antione Saint-Exupery's Letter to a Hostage. This past summer, like Saint-Exupery in Portugal waiting for a visa to America, I found myself floating between two homes, or three homes, depending on the view. In June, I moved from Wales to England. Three days later, I flew from England to Canada, then three weeks later, back again. In August, I went to Scotland for almost a month, and thenI moved back to England. For two and a half months, I had no firm sense of where I belonged. I felt like I was living in a constant crossing, suspension, abeyance in time. The steadfast anchors of my childhood seemed distant; I set anchors in the sands of a new home, and I tugged uncertainly on their chains. With that letting go of my own familiar territory, or the sense of self attached to a place, a sense of an agile release of a wave emerged. In the next moment, a sense of discord engulfed me.
Although I felt safe in the passage of time, there were moments when I felt "threatened" as Saint-Exupery writes in his letter, "in my own substance by the frailty of the distant poles on which I depend[ed]". "How does life construct those lines of force which make us live?" Saint-Exupery asks, "What are the chief moments that have made this presence one of the poles which I need?"
He answers his own question: "Real miracles make little noise! Essential events are so simple!"
In that sense of suspension, of rootlessness in space, I learnt to trust little miracles in the tiniest things. Daily, there were miracles in my temporary nest of Edinburgh, there were special affections - smiles, glances, repetitions, synchronicities.
"Each star shows a real direction," writes Saint-Exupery, "They are all Magi's stars." What star we follow depends on so many forces, and so often we can feel confused in our path towards the star we have chosen. "Am I following the right one?" I ask myself, "Or is my vision of its light masked in clouds? Am I focussing too much on the journey rather than the destination? How do I centre myself in this movement? Where is the point between these polarities of old and new homes?"
Saint-Exupery offered some hope: "So you feel strained and enlivened by the fields of forces which attract or repel you, entreat or resist you. There you are well founded in the centre of the cardinal directions."
There you are a heart-beating centre. There you are amidst the Magi's stars. There you are, strained and enlivened, pulled and opposed, greeting life in it's myriad masks, embracing the starlight in all directions.
When in Edinburgh, I began this letter to a friend. I doubt I will send it, so I thought I'd put it here, on my blog, for it's a letter that begins with one true sentence. For the sake of anonymity, it's addressed to A, for anonymous, of course.
The stars of evening have faded. It is morning. Edinburgh is a haze of dull, clouded light. Stones of an abandoned attempt of a Scottish Parthenon sit in close view upon a green hill. Noble but modest, slate blue engulfs the relics. The sky is the colour of a cygnet, the colour of dust. It is an intermediary colour, neither black nor white, neither blue nor grey, neither here nor there. I've wiped the dust clean of yesterday's dancing with an old cloth. I sit amidst my own parthenon of stones. Jade, amethyst, turquoise, tiger's eye and moonstone fall tumbled next a haphazard temple of chestnut shells broken on an altar. I sit amidst my own ruins, my own half-finished tales, my own dreams and hopes building in ways I hadn't expected. How ridiculous and sublime it all unveils itself in the dawning of a new day.
And still, there are these whispers of light. Light breaking through the clouds. Still there are these letters I write to you. These words I let go of that circle me, like gulls circling a statue. Like Saint-Exupery and his words to a friend in hostage, I am living between the earth and the sky, here and there, Canada and England, in a simultaneously lucky and unlucky abeyance in time. I am simultaneously walled in and liberated, in my little ways, in this awkward place in time. The gulls are crying out. I am reaching out in Edinburgh's stone-surrounded city under today's stone-coloured sky, placing words in the crevices of this space for the gods and goddesses, in whatever their forms, to hear.
Like Saint-Exupery to his distant friend, I write many letters. I whisper messages to the ones who might listen, the ones whom I go to feeling pure without pretence. In my dances, in my poems, in my true sentences.
"Real miracles make little noise!" Saint-Exupery says. Fragility is your greatest strength, to paraphrase Pina Bausch.
Below I've picked out a few fragile words of Antoine to his friend. They are simple in their honesty. Their strength is in their fragility. They are true sentences.
"I feel pure in you and come to you. (...) Neither my sayings nor my doings have taught you who I am. But because you have accepted me as I am, you are indulgent when necessary, towards those doings and sayings. I know that you are prepared to accept me as I am. What could I do with a friend who would judge me? When I welcome a friend, if he is lame, I invite him to sit down and do not ask him to dance.
My friend, I need you as one needs a space where one can breathe. I need to sit by you, once more, on the banks of the Saône, with my elbows on the table of a little wooden inn, and invite two bargees, and to drink them in the peace of a smile like the day."