Is It True? Is It Really True?

Twenty-five years ago, inspired by Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of 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 most of you 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 that 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. (Absolutists always feel better than the rest of us when they get up in the morning, not least because their position is so clear-cut.) 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 is 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 the 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 that 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 have 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.