Let’s Be Hontest

An article about honesty and it’s implications by Sally Kempton from YogaJournal.com.


An argument for radical truthfulness goes deep: 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 yogic text, the Taittiriya Upanishad, says that God is truth itself, while a Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, calls truth “the signet ring of God.” In psychological terms, lying disconnects us from reality and it always makes us a little bit crazy. Anyone who grew up in a family that kept secrets will recognize the eerie 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 assume that the president, the media, and our religious institutions are continually lying to us.

When the consequences of lying are so spiritually and socially destructive, why would an ethical person ever choose to tell an untruth? First, an ethical person might decide 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 to win. (The position is similar to the Allied disinformation tactic in World War II, which misled the Nazi intelligence about the real target of D-day.) In short, Krishna makes the decision to lie because it serves what he perceives as higher values: those of justice and, ultimately, peace.

My college philosophy teacher used to make this point with a personal example. As a Jewish child living in Germany, she was saved from being captured by the Nazis because a Catholic family lied to the Gestapo about her presence in their back bedroom. For the family to have told the truth would have brought about her death. It was a small lie for a larger truth.

Another situation in which lying might be ethical is when the truth is simply too harsh for the person who is receiving it. A friend of mine, when diagnosed with breast cancer, told her 90-year-old mother that everything was fine, because she recognized that telling the truth about her condition would create too much anxiety for her already-fragile mother.

Conversely, there are times when telling a factual truth can be an act of disguised or overt aggression. When Fran tells her friend Allison that she saw Allison’s husband with another woman, Fran may be speaking out of concern for her friend, but she may also be expressing a hidden hostility or envy. Most of us can remember less dramatic but equally painful examples of bitter truth telling: disclosures made in anger, hurtful comments about a friend’s or partner’s secret vulnerabilities, revelations that destroy trust. In the past 30 years, especially in certain spiritual communities, there’s been a prevailing ethic that privileges full disclosure, public confession, and extreme transparency in relationships. The results have been liberating in some respects, destructive in others. So it seems vital that we each find our own way of balancing truthfulness with other values. One great yardstick to use is called “the four gates of speech,” which include the following questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? and Is this the right moment to say it? When we feel caught between speaking a bitter truth and keeping quiet, these questions help us sort out the priorities.

As I’ve said, balancing the relative value of, say, truth and kindness, is not always easy, and it requires a high degree of honesty—especially about your own deep inner motives. If the compulsion to be relentlessly honest sometimes conceals aggression, the decision to hide the truth because of kindness, or because the time is wrong, can be a cover for your fears or for the desire to stay inside of 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.

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 is facing a child-custody battle. Her lawyer suggested that she write a description of all the incidents in which 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 Alice reread the document, she realized that she hadn’t included her own hurtful words and actions. Part of the reason she hadn’t was tactical: She wanted sole custody of their child. But another 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 both of us were at fault. 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 to avoid facing the gap between how we want to act and how we actually behave. For the postmodern, 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 yourself that you are afraid to expose to scrutiny. Only when you’re willing to look at your areas of falseness can you discover the deepest possibilities of the practice of 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, make yourself look better, justify mistakes, or run away from confrontation. When you notice yourself telling an untruth, acknowledge that you did it. As much as possible, make a point of not saying anything you know to be untrue.

As you learn how to catch your own characteristic patterns of untruth—both inner and outer—you will also begin to notice that sometimes truths need to be spoken, and other times 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 such as, 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 as well as 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 we become alchemists, able to turn the base metal of lies into the gold of reality just through our words. Instead, I believe that he is actually 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, and that reflects the deeper state within the heart.

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