There’s an old joke about two American Mafia enforcers who are on a mission to recover money from a Russian drug dealer. The Russian speaks no English, so the Americans take along a Russian-speaking accountant to translate. One of the enforcers holds a gun to the Russian drug dealer’s head and demands to know where he’s stashed the money. "Under my wife’s mattress," says the dealer. "What did he say?" asks the gunman. The accountant replies: "He said he’s not afraid to die."
On 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 the Russian accountant’s at the high end, your worst falsehoods would probably rate no more than a 3 or 4. Yet those lies are probably lodged in your psyche, still giving off smoke. You can justify them, but some part of you feels the effect of every lie you’ve told. How? In the cynicism, distrust, and doubt that you feel toward yourself, and in your own tendencies to suspect other people of either lying or concealing the truth from you.
Realizing the effect that lying has on your soul is just one reason that, at some point in your spiritual life, you will feel the need to engage in the yogic practice of truthfulness. As with all the great yogic practices, doing so isn’t as easy as it might seem.
Twenty-five years ago, inspired by Mahatma 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 Brahma Sutra, and I heard myself answering, "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, which wasn’t so hard. In general during my experiment, it turned out to be fairly easy not to fudge the external facts of a situation. But practicing factual truthfulness made me even more aware of the web of unspoken falsehoods I lived with. Falsehoods such as the pretense of liking a person I really 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, and it led me to one of the more searing self-inquiry practices of my life. I was forced to confront the multiple masks that disguise dishonesty. 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 Sutra: 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, and many religious institutions—is what used to be called "utilitarian." This is the materialist position supported by Western philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and by texts like the Arthashastra, the Indian book of statecraft, which we might call the precursor to Machiavelli’s writings. 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 and demands a high degree of discernment. 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 such as nonviolence (ahimsa), peace, and justice.
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, because their position is so clear-cut.) The theologian Saint 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 stories straight. You start out telling your neighbor that your iPod he wanted to borrow for his party is broken, and then you have to maintain the lie by not letting him see you using it. You also have to make sure your wife knows not to let on. Already, the lie has cost you energy. And there is always the 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 second 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 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.
Tried and True
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.
So when you experiment with truth, don’t stop at factual or even emotional honesty. Truthfulness requires self-inquiry, which is 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 observing 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.
Facing Your Lies
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.
Standing in Truth
The root of the Sanskrit word satya is sat, which means "being." Your truth, your real truth, is revealed in any moment 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 between the instinct to speak a genuine truth and the compulsion to quickly blurt things out, to speak just to get something off your chest, or to speak just for the sake of being right. That said, almost all of us would benefit from calling ourselves to more rigor in our attitude toward 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.