The pursuit of truth was considered noble or even sacred by many ancient civilizations. The Romans believed that it was one of the main virtues that a citizen should possess and in their mythology Veritas, was the goddess of truth. It was believed that she was hidden at the bottom of a holy well because she was so elusive. But what exactly is truth and why does it matter?
There are many theories about how we can determine if something can actually be considered true but that is not what this article is about. My interest is in the truth we articulate internally and externally, as an opposite to lying and my dictionary defines lying as: “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive”. I would define truth, therefore, as an intention to communicate with openness and fidelity both verbally and non-verbally. Moreover, we are frequently the targets of our own deception which I’ll expand upon further down.
When we open up a debate on truth, inevitably someone will raise “good” examples where telling a lie is preferable. All such example fall into the category of falsehoods generally thought of as acceptable because they pursue a higher good. At one extreme we have situations such as the following: you are hiding Ann Frank and a group of Nazi soldiers knock on the door and ask if you know where she is! Of course many of us would not hesitate to lie here. One could argue that if a saint were in your shoes, he may, by pursuing the truth, manage to get the Nazis to see the error of their ways and leave but …. On the other hand, this is war and during war there are many acts of violence committed for the greater good and perhaps this is the way lying should be perceived, as an act of violence and the justification for its use, therefore, weighed up in a similar way to other acts of aggression. There is a scale of response, of course, and I’m not for one minute suggesting that lying should sit alongside bombing a city, only that like other acts of violence, it causes harm to the persons deceived.
Then there are “white lies”, such as typical responses to: “does my bum look fat in this dress”. We also use white lies to protect the vulnerable such as children from things we do not think they are ready to understand. Here we need to go deeper. Telling the truth does not mean volunteering absolutely every thought we have when there is no specific request but if someone actually asks you for your opinion about how they look in some clothing, with a little effort this could be conveyed with honesty in a way which would ultimately help them. As I heard someone say recently, if you can speak from the heart then even the toughest pills can be made easier to swallow. Equally, we are not obliged to reveal details to children which are beyond their understanding but we can still convey the truth. In fact telling the truth sometimes requires more initial effort if it is done with compassion but in some circumstances telling a lie may require more long-term effort to maintain the concealment. The so called burden of guilt is more often the burden of perpetuating a lie and explains why many acts of adultery are revealed at some point down the line. We should also ask ourselves if the reason for a “white lie” is more about saving ourselves from awkwardness or embarrassment.
A commitment to the truth is first and foremost a commitment to honesty in our internal dialogue. As stated earlier, we are most often the targets of our own deceit. According to psychologist Bessel Van Der Kolk: “our greatest source of suffering is the lies we tell ourselves”. The real difficulty here, is that we are often unaware of what we are doing. It is not until we engage on a relentless examination of the stories we tell ourselves that we uncover falsehood after falsehood. One of the most common ways we deceive ourselves is by filling in the gaps in our knowledge with assumptions. In his book, The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz states that we create assumptions because we fear not knowing. This creates problems in all walks of life but possibly none more so than in our intimate relationships where frequently we make assumptions about what the other is thinking, doing, knows etc, all without any reliable basis whatsoever for our suppositions; often with disastrous results.
A tantric path is an inner journey in pursuit of truth. My own experience of this quest is that it’s akin to scraping away layers of plaster from a wall standing between who we think we are and our true or authentic nature. I view lies as the glue which hold all the layers of plaster together; introspection being the hammer and chisel. In my personal experience, it’s only as we scrape away the layers that we start to confront what the glue is made up of: the traumas and social conditioning of our past. One of the best solvents for this glue is the quest for honesty, a relentless quest. The quest needs to be relentless because on first examination we often don’t see what lies behind the way we think and the things we do. Only as we peel back the layers do we expose the lies through which we view the world.
Until we engage with the truth, our spiritual path is nothing more than a stroll through a land of fantasy. We simply go through the motions, navigating one spiritual bypass after another without ever “getting” life’s lessons. Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris claims that lying is by definition a refusal to cooperate with others and it is to recoil from relationships, but it is far more pernicious; it is a refusal to fully engage with life and ultimately with ourselves. In short, until we make a commitment to truth we are simply wasting our time!
However, elusive Veritas might be, when we pull her out of the well and allow her to be the lantern we use to illuminate our path, then, we begin to see that our experience of life is an experience of our stories. If we look at life through pink lenses we see a pink world and if we look at the same events through blue lenses, everything appears blue. There is not a single thing which has its own intrinsic meaning; its meaning is the one given to it by the perceiver. As we commit to truth, the veil (or Maya as the Hindus call it) lifts and we see the world for what it is. As we change internally, we change our world and this leads directly to abiding happiness, which is why a path guided by truth excels all other gifts and is ultimately the greatest gift we can give ourselves.