by Sally Kempton
Twenty-five years ago, inspired by Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, I decided to practice absolute truthfulness for one week. I lasted less than two days. On the third day, a man I was trying to impress asked me if I’d read Thoreau, and I heard myself saying, “Yes,” despite the fact that I hadn’t. A few minutes later, I forced myself to confess the lie. Truth is, that wasn’t so hard. What turned out to be harder was looking at why I’d lied. It was deeply humiliating to my ego to recognize that I had such an attachment to looking smart that I couldn’t admit not having read the book. And once I’d started looking into the motive for that lie, it started a whole process of inquiry that actually hasn’t stopped since.
The problem I saw—and which I’m sure that a lot of us who’ve tried being transparent have noticed as you go through your own inner process of transformation and maturation– was that factual truthfulness was just the tip of the iceberg of what truthfulness entails. There were so many murky areas, unstated self-deceptions that I had allowed to stand unchallenged. The hardest ones to look at were the self-justifying stories that seemed to spring up like mushrooms whenever I didn’t feel like doing the work it took to look at my own motives, or when I wanted to weasel out of a commitment or a promise, or the critical positions that my mind would start generating almost automatically when I didn’t like the mirror that another person held up for me to look at! That week of being strict about truth was tough.
If you’ve ever spent any period of time really trying not to lie, you know what a searing practice of self-inquiry it can set off. And it also shows you why philosophers and spiritual teachers have so much to say about truthfulness.
As it turns out, the conversation about what truthfulness really means has been going on for a long time. There are actually three sides to it. On one hand, there’s the absolutist position taken by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, one of the key texts of Hindu philosophy. Truth, he teaches, is an unconditional value, and a person on the path of spiritual growth shouldn’t lie. Ever. The second position is unabashedly utilitarian, 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 suits your agenda.”
The third position strives for a kind of harmony between competing values. Yes, it says, truth is a high value, but truth needs to be balanced with other ethical values like non-violence, kindness, peace and justice.
It’s easy to see that the third position is way more ethically challenging. 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. St Augustine and Immanuel Kant, like Patanjali and Gandhi, call 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. To paraphrase Mark Twain, you start out telling your neighbor that the serving dish he wanted to borrow for his party are broken, and then you have to maintain the lie. That means you can’t let him see you using the dishes. You have to remember the lie you told him, but 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.
But the final 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. When we lie, we automatically put ourselves out of touch with the inner compass, which means with our basic sanity.
In psychological terms, as we well know, lying will always make us a little bit crazy. The whole recovery movement, not to mention family systems theory, is based on getting yourself to speak your secrets out loud. Most of you have undoubtedly experienced the freedom that comes when you tell a group about something that you’ve been too ashamed to speak about. Anyone who grew up in a family which hid secrets will recognize the crazy 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 spouses 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? I’m going to give you two reasons, and maybe you can think of more. 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 pivotal moment when Krishna is guiding the righteous Pandavas in a pivotal battle against the forces of evil. Krishna—who, you’ll remember, is considered by Hindus to embody divine truth in human form–orders the righteous king Yudhisthira to tell a lie. He does it because they are fighting a battle against terrible evil, and this is the only way to win the battle. Krishna, in short, chooses to lie because it serves what in this case are 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 fudging the truth is ethical is when the truth is simply too harsh to be received. This is an issue that spiritual counselors often face. A classic example would be a psychotherapist working with a client’s deep character flaws. Early in the therapy, if the psycho-therapist were to point out certain truths to the client, she risks triggering so much pain that it would destroy the therapeutic container. Until some of the core traumas that keep character weakness in place have been addressed, it can be dangerously destabilizing to call someone on their demons. Later, when the patient’s vessel is stronger, the situation changes. As the patient (or the daughter, or the spiritual teacher’s student) matures, it becomes the parent figure’s duty to reveal the truth in its complexity. The art of truth in this situation is to know how and when difficult truths should be revealed. A misstep or an error of timing can have terrible consequences. In this case too, we may tell a small lie for the sake of a larger truth.
On the other hand, there are situations in which a small truth actually covers a deeper lie. Recently, a friend of mine felt compelled to tell her sister that the sister’s husband is having an affair. She kept saying she had a duty to do this out of love for her sister. But when she did a self-inquiry process about it, it became clear that there was a lot of hidden aggression towards her sister, as well as a need to be seen as the grownup one, the one who knew how to look out for her younger sibling. My teacher used to call such ambiguous disclosures ‘telling the bitter truth.’ A bitter truth is a fact that is simply too painful to be digestible.
In the last thirty years, especially in the spiritual world, we’ve lived with an ethic that privileges full disclosure, public confession, and transparency in relationships. The results have been mixed, at best. So it seems vital that we forge an ethic that can balance 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.
But balancing the relative value of, say, truth and kindness is not always easy, and it requires a high degree of honesty about our 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 often masks fear, or the desire to stay inside your comfort zone. Radical truth-telling is simple. You just plunge in and do it. Selective truth-telling demands far more discrimination, and a rigorous ability to discern motive.
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. “I lie all the time,” a friend confessed after trying this experiment in self-observation. “I’ll say that some important person is a friend of mine when actually I only spoke to them once. I act like I want to spend time with someone when actually I’m bored by them. I’ll act like I’m enjoying sex with my husband when actually I’m thinking about something or even someone else the whole time.”
It’s only when we’re willing to look at our areas of falseness that we discover the deepest possibilities of the practice of truth. In Sanskrit, the word for truth is satya. The root of the word satya is sat, which means ‘being.’ Our truth, our real truth, is revealed in any moment that we are willing to stand unashamedly in our own being.
That said, there is hardly one of us who wouldn’t benefit from calling ourselves to more rigor in our attitude towards truth.
Of course, it starts with attention to factual truth. You 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 the urge to tell an untruth, you check yourself. As much as possible, you 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, but that there are also times when remaining silent is an acceptable alternative to telling certain truths. In other words, your commitment to truthfulness comes to include an authentic, and trustworthy capacity for discriminating speech. Truth is a genuine teacher. When we make up our mind to follow where it leads, constantly asking ourselves 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 us its subtleties and teach us 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 psychics, 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.
|Sally Kempton has been practicing and teaching for forty years. A former New York journalist, she spent 20 years as a monk in a Vedic tradition, and received deep training in the texts of yoga, Vedanta, and Kashmir Shaivism. She writes the monthly Wisdom column for Yoga Journal, and is the author of the recently published Meditation for the Love of It, which Spirituality and Health magazine called, “the meditation book your heart wants you to read.”|