To tell the truth, we lie all the time

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When I was eleven and just moved to San Francisco, for some reason I began making stuff up. In a class with three sets of twins, I fabricated a twin of my own named Catherine who lived in Cleveland with my grandmother because ‘we didn’t get along’.  I told my closest friend, who was also new that year, that the shower in our bathroom was a fern grotto with moss and a little cascade. Admittedly that shower was dark, enclosed and who knows what could have grown in there had my mother not stayed on top of it, but a fern grotto? My friend was mightily disappointed on that first visit to my home, but I guess she forgave me because we’re still friends almost sixty years later.

So I come to the virtue of Truthfulness with curiosity. Would we have children not fabricate tall tales for the amusement of others?

One of my meditation students is involved in the theater, where she says ‘truth’ is not about being factual, as the whole play is usually the product of imagination, but about being true to the play and staying in character. Certainly in painting or poetry, the two art forms I am most familiar with, the painting or poem requires being true to it, honoring it, not suddenly breaking out into some other kind of painting or poem. The art dictates the core truth so that every aspect is enhancing the integrated whole. But this has nothing to do with factual truth, does it? There’s a deeper truth that is revealed when we stay true to the art.

Truth in Politics
But lets get back to factual truth. In this highly charged political season, there seems to be a dearth of it. Perhaps you remember comedian Stephen Colbert’s infamous ‘truthiness’ where political doublespeak sounds true, but isn’t. It puts us on notice that there are a lot of ways of thinking about things and talking about things that conveniently skirt issues and sound true enough, but upon closer examination are revealed to be false.

We can complain about it, sure, but it’s more useful to notice how we are inclined to readily believe ‘facts’ that support our preexisting position, and how we may quickly reject fact-based ‘lies’ when they don’t. We are also more likely to believe something to be true when it comes from someone we want to believe, perhaps someone who looks like us or shares our values. With news sources offering more editorial opinion than researched facts and information flowing so freely on the internet, discerning the factual truth becomes increasingly difficult. But it is up to each of us to make the effort to find the truth, and to not be attached to rigid positions. Question everything!

Being Honest with Friends and Family
On an interpersonal level, most of us adults have found it is just too much of a hassle to keep track of lies. So we are as honest as we can be, and when it would be hurtful to say what we think, we don’t lie, we just stay silent. And that’s skillful. The Buddha’s teaching of Wise Speech asks us to think before we speak, and then only say what is true, kind and timely.

How does that play out in real life? In class students offered two situations for us to examine:

First up, what do you do when you were invited to something you didn’t want to attend, gave an elaborate excuse and get caught out later in the lie. How could that have been handled better? Well, keep it simple! We don’t need to make an excuse or tell a tale. ‘I’m not available.’ is sufficient, but if pressed ‘That’s not my thing.’ or ‘I’m not up for that.’ also work. We don’t need reasons. If it’s a person we would like to spend time with, we can come up with an alternative type of activity that is more our thing. If not, then a simple, ‘I hope you enjoy it.’ is sufficient.

The second situation was brought up by the student who works in theater. She wondered how to be honest with an actor after a not-so-great performance. For the answer to this, I turned to Toastmasters excellent format for evaluating other members’ speeches. First, while watching the performance, regardless of how bad it is, find something praiseworthy, and then be sure to praise that. Right after a performance, that’s enough. But later, if the actor actually requests your full opinion, or if it is your job to give them an evaluation, you can use what we call the ‘Toastmaster sandwich’, beginning with something they did well and ending with something else they did well. In the middle give the meat of what they might consider doing differently next time to be more effective. But again, only if they request your opinion.

Sometimes we think we are being kind by lying to each other, but upon further reflection it just creates misunderstandings and confusion. Others of us feel compelled to tell the ‘truth’ regardless of how hurtful it may be. I put truth in quotes because it is often just a personal opinion. Finding our way in this is never easy, but again, if we pause to reflect whether what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we have a better chance of maintaining strong, respectful and caring relationships.

I’m sure you can think of other challenging situations we can look at together. Please comment below and get the conversation started!

The Biggest Lies We Tell All the Time
Where we are likely to be lying more often than not is to ourselves! Our thoughts rattle around saying the same old thing over and over and we believe them without question and let them guide our behavior. In our next class we will be exploring this aspect of Truthfulness. Stay tuned!


  1. How do you approach family members truthfully about ways they’ve hurt you without offending, not having Wise Speech, etc.? For instance, I recently respectfully shared with my father some things that his side of the family did that hurt my feelings, and he responded by saying I had levied some “heavy accusations” toward them, as if we were all in a court of law. I didn’t think of them as accusations; rather, those were my feelings I needed to share, and I did so from my heart center. I wanted more honesty among us but I’m learning I can’t share those feelings with those people. However, when I spend time with the them, I don’t feel like my true self is being honored or present. Thanks for any insights you can share.

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  2. Dear Molly,
    Thank you for sharing and for asking this question. I am sure you speak for many of us who have challenges in communicating with our families.

    I think this exploration centers on intention and expectation. We can ask ourselves ‘What is my intention here?’ It sounds like your intention was to speak your truth. I am sure you did so in a way that was honest, kind and timely. But then there is expectation. It is quite natural to hope that your father, whose love and respect and understanding is so important to every child, would totally get where you are coming from. But expectation sabotages our wise intention. Perhaps your expectation was that he would meet you in the same clear heart space that you have created through much inner development. He can’t! He has not gone through what you have gone through. He is just dealing with your words as they comingle with his own patterns of thought, emotions, judgments. Chances are he was dealing with his fear of having somehow failed you, and the defensiveness that brings up for him. Also he may have felt like he was being put in the position of having to defend his family, whom he loves too, just as he loves you. And because there is no way to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ he may have felt helpless, and that is very uncomfortable.

    It’s so interesting that you mention ‘court of law’ because years ago when my brother and I confronted my father with what we felt was important for him to know, he said, ‘Okay, okay, you can take away Exhibit A!’ Perhaps for these men, court is one place where the truth gets laid painfully bare, where niceties by necessity have to be put aside.

    When you are with your family, as much as possible notice and compassionately release your expectations. Let go of needing them to honor your true self. If you live from that true self, no one else can tarnish it. I am guessing you have a much easier time spending a holiday with somebody else’s ‘crazy aunt’ than you do with your own. Why? Because you don’t hold anyone else’s ‘crazy aunt’ responsible for the unskillful things she said or did when you were young and vulnerable.

    We tend to vest family members with way too much power. Can we love them without expectation that they will suddenly evolve into different people than the ones who were so unskillful in the first place? Can we simply see them as living beings struggling with their own set of conflicted patterns? Can we parent ourselves and rejoice in relationships we have created with people who do seem to understand us, and stop making our familes responsible for our well being? These are huge challenges! My parents have been gone for over a quarter century and there are still things I wish they had told me, and things they did or didn’t do that I still blame them for. All I can do about that is to parent myself the way I want to be parented. The ancient history that we are all dealing with in our patterns of thought and emotion can never be truly addressed or resolved by anyone else but ourselves. A lot of inner befriending, understanding and letting go is all that we need. No one else can do that for us. Not even Dad.

    Thanks so much again for your comment and question. Maybe it will spark further comments and discussion here, which would be great.


    1. Thanks Stef! As always, your insight is SO helpful. I sincerely appreciate the time and energy you put into your lengthy reply (which could almost have been another blog post, it was so well done). I particularly resonated with this: “Let go of needing them to honor your true self. If you live from that true self, no one else can tarnish it.” Lots of good nuggets here to digest. With gratitude and love, thank you!


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