In his autobiography, My Experiments With Truth, Mahatma Gandhi narrates his experience with eating meat, smoking, drinking, stealing and subsequent atonement. Later, in his reformed adult life (he wrote the book in his early 20’s), he gave himself the challenge to practice absolute truthfulness about these behaviours and much else.
Have you ever tried that? How long did you last?
In terms of honesty, on a scale of one to 10, lies being at the low end are ‘polite’ and at the other end of the scale are destructive and outrageous. However big or small, they lodge themselves in your interior lie detector and blow smoke into your heart. You might talk a good line about why you had to lie but you feel the effect of every one of them. In direct proportion to the lies you tell, there are feelings of distrust, cynicism and doubt about yourself and others.
Satya or truth telling is the second of Patanjali’s Yamas, or universal moral precepts. His view is that we must not lie. There is no negotiating truth. Just tell it like you see it. In some ways it makes life simpler. St. Augustine, Immanuel Kant and Gandhi agreed; lying is the thin edge of the wedge after which the door to falsehood is wide open.
The utilitarian approach to truth telling creates an escape from absolute truth. In summary, the materialist western philosophers such as John Stuart Mills suggest that you always tell the truth unless a lie is to your advantage. Current governments, corporations and some religious institutions are associated with this practice.
The third way calls for some sort of balance between the high value of truth and the need for discernment to avoid causing harm. Satya is balanced with ahimsa, non harming. Those adopting this practice must devote a good deal of time to detecting motives and deciding on the least harmful and most honest behaviours. Whereas the absolutist – Don’t lie! Ever! …is a simpler framework to understand.
The liar has to expend considerable energy keeping the story straight, and perhaps implicating or involving others to strengthen the lie. Some noble lies were told to hide the identity of refugees in WWII. In other situations one might shelter a fragile family member from a painful truth too harsh to be received without harm. In both these examples the bald truth would be harmful.
Balancing the relative values of truth and kindness requires that one be clear about motives. Is it relentless honesty or aggression when you tell a truth that the listener may find painful to hear?
Conversely, hiding the truth might be done out of fear of moving out of your comfort zone. Discriminating truthfulness requires that we attend carefully and intelligently to self-understanding. In other words, svadyaya or self study is linked to satya, truth telling.
If you decide to experiment with a satya practice, don’t stop at factual or emotional lies. It’s at least a two-step process. When you notice how you lie to yourself and others, you might catch a glimpse of why you lie. Mostly we want to look good to ourselves and others.
Our calm looking must be reserved for deep investigation into our own smudgy hearts. Being transparent to yourself exposes the deepest possibilities of the practice of truth.
In Sanskrit, the word satya has the root sat which means ‘being’. Your truth is revealed when you are willing to recognize your deeper truths unashamedly. And with practice, it becomes easier to tell when you are blurting something out to get it off your chest or speaking in order to make yourself ‘right’. We can all call ourselves to more rigour in that regard.
The basics of truthfulness demand that we pay attention to facts. Facts call us to account when we would prefer to bury them or distort them when embarrassed by the truth of a situation.
The four gates of speech to check before uttering a difficult truth are: Is it true? Is it kind and necessary to say right now? What is my motivation for speaking now? And when will it be appropriate to speak about this matter?
Patanjali speaks of the power of truth to merge with the deeper state of the heart. He is speaking about inspiration developed over a lengthy practice of truth telling. Then our words have power to illuminate and be received.
If journaling is useful, review the day and detect when your thoughts and speech were harmonious. Breathing quietly, notice the times they were in discord. What were the reasons you distorted the truth? Who or what were you trying to protect?
Finally, with the focus on your heart, ask for courage and discrimination to speak and act with authentic loving honesty to yourself and others. Then watch to see how you handle it the next time a similar situation arises.