There’s an old joke about two American mafia enforcers on a mission to recover money from a Russian drug dealer. The Russian speaks no English, so they take along a Russian-speaking accountant to translate. The enforcers hold a gun to the Russian’s head and demand to know where he’s stashed the money. “Under my wife’s mattress,” says the Russian. “What did he say?” asks the gunman. The accountant replies: “He said he’s not afraid to die.”
If we use a 1 to 10 scale, with polite lies (‘No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat’) at the low end, and outrageous, destructive lies like that accountant’s at the high end, your worst falsehoods would probably rate no more than a three or four. Yet, those falsehoods are probably lodged in your psyche, still giving off smoke, perhaps even helping to obscure the clarity of your heart. You can justify them, but some part of you feels the effect of every lie you’ve told. How? In the feelings of cynicism, distrust, and doubt that you feel towards yourself, and in your own tendencies to suspect other people of lying or concealing the truth from you.
That is just one reason why at some point in your spiritual life, you will come up against the need to engage the yogic practice of truthfulness. And, as in all the great yogic practices, we usually discover that it’s not as easy as it might seem.
Twenty-five years ago, inspired by Gandhi’s autobiography, ‘My Experiments with Truth ‘, I decided to practice absolute truthfulness for one week. I lasted two days. On the third day, a man I was trying to impress asked me if I’d read the sage Vyasa’s commentary on the ‘Brahma Sutras ‘, and I heard myself saying, “Yes.” (Not only had I not cracked that difficult text of Vedantic philosophy, I’d never actually laid eyes on it.) A few minutes later, I forced myself to confess the lie. That wasn’t so hard. In general, it turned out to be fairly easy not to fudge the external facts of a situation. The problem was that practicing factual truthfulness made me even more aware of the web of unspoken falsehoods that I lived with. Falsehoods like the pretense of liking a person I actually found irritating. Or the mask of detachment with which I covered my intense desire to be chosen for a certain job. It was an informative week.
In the end, that first experiment with truth led me to one of the more searing self-inquiry practices of my life. I was forced me to confront the multiple masks which dishonesty uses to disguise itself. I was shown why honesty is so much more complicated than it first appears.
TELL IT LIKE IT IS
The conversation about the meaning of truthfulness has been going on for a long time. I see three sides to it. On one hand, there’s the absolutist position taken by Patanjali in the ‘Yoga Sutras ‘: truth, or satya, is an unconditional value, and a yogi shouldn’t lie. Ever. The opposite position – familiar to anyone who pays attention to the behavior of the government, corporations, many religious institutions, and maybe even your parents – is what used to be called ‘utilitarian.’ This is the materialist position supported by Western philosophers like John Stuart Mill, and by texts like the Artha Shastra, the Indian book of statecraft, which we might call the precursor to Machiavelli. The basic utilitarian posture goes something like “Always tell the truth except when a lie is to your advantage.”
The third position strives for a kind of ultimate balance. It recognizes the high value of truth, but points out that truth-telling can sometimes have harmful consequences, and so needs to be balanced with other ethical values like nonviolence (ahimsa), peace, and justice.
It’s easy to see that the third position demands a high degree of discernment. The absolutist position, though definitely not easy, has the merit of being simple, which is why it has so many major philosophical and ethical players in its corner. (Absolutists often feel better than the rest of us when they get up in the morning, not least because their position is so clear-cut.) The theologian St. Augustine and the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, like Patanjali and Gandhi, called Truth – as in no lies, exaggerations, or fudging – the absolute value, never to be abandoned. No loopholes. Lying, according to this position, is the ultimate slippery slope. First, because a liar has to expend infinite amounts of energy just keeping his stories straight. You start out telling your neighbor that the IPod player he wanted to borrow for his party is broken, and then you have to maintain the lie by not letting him see you using the IPod. You also have to make sure your wife knows not to let on. Already, your lie has cost you energy. And there is always danger that it will be exposed in the future, after which your neighbor will never really believe or trust you. Not to mention your wife, who’s probably already heard you lying about other stuff.
The other argument for radical truthfulness goes much deeper: lying takes you out of alignment with reality. This was Gandhi’s position, based on the insight that truth lies at the very heart of existence, of reality. A kabbalistic text calls truth ‘the signet ring of God,’ while the Taitteriya Upanishad says that God is truth itself. In psychological terms, since lying disconnects us from reality, it will always make us a little bit crazy. Anyone who grew up in a family that hid secrets will recognize the feeling of cognitive dissonance that arises when facts are concealed. That dissonance currently rages through the bloodstream of society; lies and secrets having become so embedded in our corporate, governmental and personal lives that most of us automatically assume that the president, the media, and our religious institutions are lying to us about something.
When the consequences of lying are so spiritually and socially destructive, why would an ethical person ever choose to tell an untruth? For two reasons. An ethical person might choose to lie if telling the factual truth would compromise other, equally important values. In the ‘Mahabharata ‘, the great ethical treatise of the Indian tradition, there is a famous moment involving a lie. Krishna is guiding the righteous Pandavas in a pivotal battle against the forces of evil. Krishna – who is considered by orthodox Hindus to embody divine truth in human form – orders the righteous king Yudhisthira to tell a lie in order to demoralize the enemy general. Yudhisthira agrees to tell the first lie of his life, that the general’s son, Aswatthama, has been killed in battle. Krishna’s position is that in a battle against terrible evil, one does what one must in order to win. (It’s a position not dissimilar to the Allied disinformation tactic in World War II, which misled the Nazi intelligence about the real target of D-Day). Krishna, in short, makes a decision to lie because it serves what he perceives as higher values: the values of justice and ultimately peace.
My college philosophy teacher used to make this point with a personal example: as a Jewish child in Germany, she was saved from capture by the Nazis because a Catholic family lied to the Gestapo about her presence in their back bedroom. For them to have told the truth would have brought about her death. A small lie for a larger truth.
The other situation in which lying might be ethical is when the truth is simply too harsh to be received. A friend of mine, diagnosed with breast cancer, tells her 90-year-old mother that everything is fine, because she recognizes that telling her mother the truth would create too much anxiety for her already fragile parent.
Or take the case of a father who tells his five year old that the child’s mother is sick when actually she’s in rehab. He tells the lie because he doesn’t want his son to lose respect for his mother. At some point, my friend knows, he may need to reveal the truth in its complexity. He makes the decision to lie for the sake of what he sees as a greater truth, protecting the relationship between his child and his wife.
TRIED AND TRUE
Many of us can think of times when telling a truth actually caused harm. Recently, a student of mine was asked to describe something he had done for which he felt remorse. Unhesitatingly, he described the time he saw a friend’s wife holding hands with another man in a restaurant, and called his friend to report the incident. His friend, who was jealous and insecure, decided to separate from his wife, despite the fact that the hand-holding had been a momentary flirtation with an ex-boyfriend. It took 6 months, and a lot of heartache, before the couple reunited. My student has never stopped wishing he’d never spoken, and has spent hours examining the underlying aggression that had prompted him to make that call.
Then there are the less dramatic examples of harmful truth-telling: the things we say in anger, the comments on a friend or partner’s secret vulnerabilities, the bitter revelations that destroy trust. The ethic that priveleges full disclosure, public confession, and transparency in relationships can help liberate us from hypocricy, but often at a terrible price. So it seems vital that we each find our own way of balancing truthfulness with other values. One great yardstick is the four gates of speech: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is this the right moment to say it? When we feel caught between speaking a bitter truth and keeping it quiet, these questions help sort out the priorities.
Of course, balancing the relative value of, say, truth and kindness requires a high degree of honesty – especially, honesty about your own motives. If the compulsion to relentless honesty sometimes conceals aggression, the decision to hide the truth because of kindness or because the time is wrong can be a cover for fear, or for the desire to stay inside your comfort zone. Radical truth-telling is simple. You just plunge in and do it, regardless of the effect it has on others. Discriminating truth-telling demands far more attentiveness, emotional intelligence, and self-understanding.
FACING YOUR LIES
So, when you experiment with truth, don’t stop at factual or even emotional honesty. Truthfulness requires self-inquiry: a two-step process of looking into your heart. First, you notice ‘how ‘ and ‘when ‘ you lie – whether it’s to others, or to yourself. Then you look at your motives for lying. As you practice rigorously noticing when and how you stretch or distort the truth, you’ll start to see patterns. Maybe you exaggerate to make a story better. Maybe you describe an incident so that it highlights someone else’s mistake and conceals your own. Maybe you hear yourself automatically saying ‘I love you,’ to a friend or a lover, despite the fact that in that moment you are actually feeling distracted, disinterested, or downright hostile.
As you begin to look at ‘how ‘ you lie, it becomes possible to find out ‘why ‘ you lie. My friend Alice is getting divorced and facing a child custody battle. Her lawyer suggested that she write a description of all the incidents where her ex husband had failed as a father and husband. She wrote a series of “He said, then I said,” dialogues, highlighting the ways in which her husband had hurt her and their daughter. When she re-read the document, she realized that she had edited out her own hurtful words and actions. Part of this was that tactical: she wanted sole custody of her child. But part of it was her need to feel justified about leaving her marriage. “Once I started to look deeper at these conversations, I could see that if you were going to talk about who was at fault, I was as much at fault as he was. In fact, there were times I acted like a total bitch. I so much didn’t want to see myself that way that my memory would literally distort what happened.”
Alice was confronting what most of us would recognize as a particularly insidious form of untruth: the justifications, excuses, and blaming strategies that we use in order to avoid facing the gap between who we want to be and how we actually behave. For the post-modern, psychologically informed yogi, Patanjali’s vow to unconditional truth demands much more than a commitment to factual accuracy. It asks you to become transparent to ‘yourself ‘, to be willing to gaze unflinchingly, yet without bitterness or self-blame, at the parts of you that you are afraid to expose to scrutiny. It’s only when you’re willing to look at your areas of falseness that you discover the deepest possibilities of the practice of truth.
STANDING IN TRUTH
In Sanskrit, the word for truth is ‘satya ‘. The root of the word satya is ‘sat ‘, which means ‘being.’ Your truth, your real truth, is revealed in any moment that you are willing to stand unashamedly in your own being. Ultimately, that means recognizing what is in fact your deepest truth – the unvarnished awareness of the unspoken “I am.” As you become more comfortable with your “beingness,” it becomes progressively easier to distinguish the instinct to speak genuine truth from the compulsion to blurt things out, to speak just to get something off our chest, or to speak just for the sake of being ‘right.’ That said, there is hardly one of us who wouldn’t benefit from calling ourselves to more rigor in our attitude towards truth.
Here are the basics in the practice of truthfulness. Pay attention to factual truth. Notice and make a point of calling yourself on the urge to conceal embarrassing facts, to try to make yourself look better, to justify mistakes, or run away from needed confrontation. When you notice yourself telling an untruth, check yourself. As much as possible, make a point of ‘not ‘saying anything you know to be untrue.
As you learn to catch your own characteristic patterns of untruth – inner and outer – you will also begin to notice that some truths need to be spoken, and there are times when remaining silent is an acceptable alternative. In other words, your commitment to truthfulness comes to include an authentic, and trustworthy capacity for discriminating speech. Truth is a genuine teacher. When you decide to follow where it leads, constantly asking questions like “What is my motive for speaking? Is it kind and necessary to say this? If not now, how will I know that it’s right to say this?” the power of truth will show its subtleties and teach its wisdom. Patanjali says that through truthfulness we gain such a power that all our words turn out to be true. I don’t believe that he means that we become alchemists, able to turn the base metal of lies into the gold of reality just by our words. Instead, I believe that he’s talking about the power to speak from inspiration – to hold firmly to the truth that is not only factual, but that illuminates, that can be received, that reflects the deeper state of the heart.
TRY THIS: Truthseeker’s Self Inquiry
Before going to bed at night, take some time to look back at the day’s interactions. Remember your conversations, your phone calls, your thoughts. Notice when your thoughts and your speech were in harmony, and when they were not. Write down what you see. Then, take your awareness into the heart, and center yourself by focusing on the breath.
Ask yourself, “What were my reasons for this dishonesty? Was it social convention? Was it to protect someone else? To protect myself? What do I believe would be the consequences of telling the factual truth in this situation?”
See if you can discern the true motives for your untruthfulness.
Finally, with your focus in the heart, ask for the courage and discrimination to speak and act with authentic, loving honesty – to yourself and others – the next time a similar situation arises.
Finally, make a decision to stop speaking or acting dishonestly in this situation. Then observe carefully what are the results.