by Era Buck
The saying "Seek the truth and the truth shall make you free" is attributed to Jesus. Like so many biblical quotes it is usually taken out of context to convey and lend authority to some desired message . In that grand tradition - I use it today in its full ambiguity so that you may take it and use it to stimulate your thinking in the ways most meaningful to you.
One of our UU principles is to affirm and promote "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." As such we identify ourselves as seekers of truth. Today I suggest that if we would seek the truth, we must speak the truth.
My personal commitment to honesty is considered unusual by some who know me. I almost never tell lies of any color, I routinely correct mistakes made during business transactions even if they are in my favor, I don't exaggerate my deductions to the IRA, and if I dent someone's car in a parking lot, I leave them a note even if there were no witnesses. I think it began as a teenager -- when like so many teenagers I experienced a certain outrage at the apparent hypocrisy of many of the people around me -- and I vowed not to become a part of that. At around the same time in my life I noticed that dishonesty was absolute poison to interpersonal relationships. Young love seems inevitably to be some combination of agony and ecstasy. I had some inkling that a great deal of the agony could be avoided through truth telling. Another thing that has contributed to my commitment to honesty was my studies of yoga and meditation and some eastern religious thought. The importance of the daily work of self discipline and the basic laws of Karma shaped my thinking and my efforts in this endeavor. Thus, my work with honesty as a personal value and an essential part of my spiritual development has been ongoing for over 30 years and I suspect will continue for the next 30 or more. Today I invite you to join me in reviewing what I've learned and what some other folks have found -- and to examine the meaning of honesty in your life as you search for truth.
Truth comes at several levels. The framework I'm going to share with you is from a book called Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton. He says many things I agree with and quite a few I donít. I recommend the book to you not for your acceptance of what he says -- but because it will likely stimulate your thinking on the subject.
Level one: Blandon calls Factual truth. This includes not telling falsehoods and not withholding the truth. Classic here is the time honored (or time worn depending on your perspective) story of the honesty of George Washington when he said I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the cherry tree. He did not name someone else as the culprit and he did not ask for a definition of chop.
Failure to mention pertinent facts is also a violation of the truth. I was once asked to interview for a job at an institution that did not welcome UUs onto their faculty. It was suggested that I could respond to questions about my religion by saying that I had been brought up Presbyterian which is a true statement but did not reflect the truth of the matter which was that I was a card-carrying UU. That instance was an easy choice for me, but it is this latter type of violation of the truth that has given me the greatest challenges. The subtle omissions or partial truths that allow people to jump to their own conclusions while I stand innocently by are very seductive. What I notice about this is that when the truth comes out (and it does sooner or later (my mother used to tell me that and I didn't get it so I invite particularly you younger folks to learn from my mistakes you don't have time to make them all yourselves anyway)), so when the truth come out, I feel like I've been caught in an outright lie and others feel lied to.
Blandon's Level Two: Honesty about current thoughts and feelings.
The second level of honesty is honesty about current thoughts and feelings. For many of us the hard work here begins with being honest with ourselves about our feelings or thoughts. Most of us have pretty strong programming about what thoughts and feelings we SHOULD have and anything that doesn't fit in that box gets pushed aside. Many of us are constantly expending tremendous amounts of energy keeping stuff pushed away. I like to think of myself as a kind and generous person and many times I am. Many times I am not. It was the kind and generous me who got involved with the Children of Chernobyl but, to tell you the truth, I had some selfish and resentful thoughts and feelings about people taking up my time and resources during our experience this summer. Stuffing those thoughts and feelings only increased the tension for everyone. Acknowledging and confronting the thoughts and feelings allowed me to address them in a constructive manner and enjoy my time with my friends from Belarus.
Communicating thoughts and feelings to others in a way that is truth telling rather than manipulation requires considerable skill -- skills are developed through practice. Finding someone to be the practice target is no small feat. In a few minutes I want to share some of M Scott Peck's suggestions for practicing honesty that make the practice less hazardous to ourselves and those around us. When working with living honestly at level two, one of the things I find helpful is the practice of mindfulness meditation. The process of emptying the mind and then acknowledging whatever thoughts or feelings come through without judgment or analysis has been invaluable.
Level Three: Blandon calls Exposing the Fiction
At this level telling the truth and living the truth become the same thing. At this level, the Hindus say, If you speak the truth long enough, your word becomes universal law At this level, we dispose of the illusions of our self we have spent so much time constructing and maintaining. We admit our ignorance and our abilities. We admit our confusion. We admit our fears about not having it quite right. In the Buddhist tradition this is being fully present in the moment and accepting what is.
Those three levels I summarize as the physical truth, the emotional truth, and the spiritual truth (enlightenment, salvation). As nearly as I can tell the only ones who function at level three continually are folks like Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, the Dali Lama, Rumi, some gurus in India maybe.
As with so many things, this is not a linear progression. We are all at different stages of development at all the levels. My sense is that much as the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our selves are related, so are the levels of truth we engage in. Having said that, it also seems to me that development in any given level is limited by how well we practice honesty at the levels with lower numbers. Which is to say if we disregard physical truth, we can not be truly committed to emotional or spiritual truth. How many enlightened liars do you know of ?
Now for some of us enlightenment is a pretty elusive goal, especially if we are probably only going to know it in brief intermittent flashes in this lifetime -- short of quitting our jobs, selling our possessions and moving to a mountain top. I can tell you that the nano second for which I understood what level three might be like was very liberating, but that is not what keeps my commitment to honesty. I am not that noble. I just can't keep getting to heaven or nirvana at the top of my to do list ñ try as I might ñ laundry and work deadlines continue to creep to the top of the list.
There are some short term benefits to honesty that make it easier to incorporate into our lives. The reading from The Road Less Traveled enumerated some of those. Physical truth telling simplifies our lives immeasurably.
We don't have to keep up with both the facts and the fabrication we build which have a troublesome way of running together over time. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive Honesty is a great detangler. There is less stuff to file away and keep sorted -- which when you start sluffing off brain cells as quickly as I am is a real bonus.
We don't have the stress of worrying that our deception will be discovered. Anyone interested in stress reduction? I recommend honesty. Practicing honesty colors many of my choices and makes them easier. Because part of physical honesty is not withholding truth ñ any thing I do I know sooner or later may come to light. I don't do anything with the expectation that it will be kept secret. It makes it easier to choose the high road and live my values.
Emotional truth telling to ourselves and others allows us to experience unconditional love. I don't have any doubts about the depth of the love I receive because it continues to rain down on me even when I'm petty -- or angry -- or --illogical. We don't have to protect and maintain some image of ourselves that the people around us love ñ they have access to the real thing. When we know one anotherís true selves ñ the good, the bad, and the ugly, we discover an intimacy that fills our souls. In our covenant groups, the check-in is a brief honest expression of who we are in the moment and I think is an essential aspect of the powerful connections we make in those groups.
Spiritual truth telling lets us connect with the divine in ourselves and others. It allows us to experience a oneness in the moment and to change and grow without clinging to images of ourselves that were true only moments ago. These benefits are worth the ongoing effort of staying conscious and committed to the truth and to honesty.
M Scott Peck in The Road Less traveled gives us some guidelines that may be useful on this path:
Never speak falsehood. Withholding the truth is potentially a lie. Blanton, whose framework of truth I've discussed, sees withholding truth as the same as a lie. Peck sees some circumstances where it may be justified or even necessary. However, they are few and far between and he has a whole set of guidelines about making a decision to withhold truth. Don't withhold truth based on your personal needs : need for power, need to be liked etc The decision to withhold truth must be based on the needs of the person from whom the truth is being withheld and the examples he uses are parents withhold information from children which they are not developmentally able to process. It is really easy to get into quicksand with this Only ever withhold truth from some one you genuinely love. Without love - you cannot make a decision about some one else's needs.
The key consideration in withholding truth is an assessment of the other person's ability to use the truth for their spiritual growth. And he notes that we almost always underestimate other peoples capacity to use the truth for growth.
I want to be perfectly clear that there was no justification for withholding truth because it might hurt someone's feelings. Utilizing truth for spiritual growth is many times not painless.
In summary, if we are serious about searching for truth, we must search it out at every level , every day, in every moment. Its hard work. The benefits are being truly alive, having meaningful relationships, personal growth and development, freedom from the fear of being found out, factually, emotionally, and spiritually -- oh yeah and there's the occasional ecstasy of enlightenment if you're lucky.
I would have our church community be a safe practice ground for this work.