Category Archives: truthfulness

A grain of salt, a kernel of truth

elephantThe expression ‘take what you hear with a grain of salt’ reminds me to allow for the very likely possibility that what I’m hearing is not entirely true. This is usually no fault of the person sharing. It’s just the nature of living in a complex world full of ever evolving knowledge.

Conversely, in every statement I hear, I try to notice that it has at least a kernel of truth in it. This is challenging because of the visceral reaction I feel to any idea or world view with which I strongly disagree.  But it is worth the effort, because if I can activate a sense of compassion for the person, listen carefully to what they are saying, I may be able to see the fear that is driving their statement and my reaction. In this way I can find our shared humanity. (Read more about Faulty Filters of Fear)

If truth is valued, then it’s important to take with a grain of salt even an idea we cherish and to recognize the kernel of truth even in an idea we abhor.

We would probably all prefer a solid truth to rely on, but accepting any old thing as true is obviously not the answer. In our rush to feel we know what’s what, we tend to accept things at face value if they feel true to us. But why do they feel true? Because they are familiar? We heard them repeated from parents, other family members, teachers, schoolmates, admired community leaders and news sources. Are any of those completely reliable sources? Or were they just repeating what they heard and accepted or hoped was true?

We get attached to our version of truth. We welcome anything that confirms it and feel threatened by anything that challenges it.  We incorporate these ‘truths’ into who we believe ourselves to be. We want to be right at any cost, because being wrong would dismantle our tightly held sense of self.  We likely label those who disagree with us as wrong, misguided, bullheaded or maybe even evil. We are less and less likely to reach out and engage with others outside a defined ‘safe’ circle, because from inside that circle it seems as if the world, or ‘wrong-thinking’ pockets in it, are dangerous and threatening.

Stuck in our entrenched positions, it is quite challenging to cultivate qualities of compassion and loving kindness. We may like to think we are kind, but we only extend compassion to people within circumscribed areas of agreement. Outside of that is a dangerous land of enemy thinkers we deem undeserving of our compassion.

Then we come to meditation practice and we are asked to send infinite loving-kindness to all beings. We are asked not to make an enemy of anything or anyone. This feels like an insurmountable challenge, maybe even one we don’t want to take on. What would we have to give up of ourselves to let down our guard in that way? The very idea threatens who we believe ourselves to be, and yet we believe ourselves to be good and kind. Uh oh! What a pickle!

At this point the most fearful among us make an enemy of the practice itself, saying ‘It’s not for me’ or ‘I don’t believe in that malarkey’. They go back to the bitter battle of defining their territory and needing to be right in order to feel okay.

That’s one choice. What’s the other? Do we have to hang out with people we disagree with and bite our tongues while they rant nonsense?

No. As a kindness to ourselves we can choose to respectfully steer clear of people caught up in tornadoes of fear and anger, unless we feel centered enough and called upon to help. Then we do so as conduits of infinite loving-kindness. If we’re not feeling kind even toward ourselves, it is best not to engage. Instead we focus on taking care of ourselves first because we have nothing to offer anyone else but our own fear-based opinions and depletable resources which will be of use to no one, and could make matters worse.

To not make an enemy of anyone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. But they don’t have to agree with us for us to recognize our shared existence in this complex web of being. They are caught up in this tricky business of living just as we are. We may not wish that their goals come to fruition, but we do wish them well. (Even if in wishing them well we sneakily think, that if they were well they would not be so caught up in their wrong thinking!)

Our willingness to extend compassion to all beings, regardless of what they believe, helps us to be kinder to ourselves as well. We all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t feel particularly good about. We may have tried keeping them hidden but they pop out in all sorts of inconvenient ways. We create a fortress of Self, constructed of our preferences and our firm ideas that we defend to the end. We expend so much energy in this defensive stance that we become exhausted and none the happier for all our efforts. We just get prickly and prone to provoking fear-based emotions in others, causing misery all around.

The kinder we are to ourselves the less dependent we are on having to be right in order to be okay. But why would we want to let go of being right? Isn’t that losing something? In my experience, and in the experience of many others, giving up the need to be right is a great relief. We are not at war here. We are in a complex community of life that thrives on collaboration and communication and coexistence. The less vested we are in being right all the time, the happier we tend to be. Is that true? And if so, how do we get there?

First, let’s look at the expansive history and ongoing evolution of thought and knowledge. Consider how the facts that were accepted as true one hundred years ago don’t all hold up to the light of what further research has shown to be true. In many cases, it’s simply that we didn’t have a lens to see what was right before our eyes. Whether looking at things on a cellular level or into the cosmos, in both cases what our forebears could see with their limited tools don’t all hold up today, do they? That alone can give us pause to hold our current acceptance of what we ‘know’ to be true a little more lightly.

But still, for most of us, budging at all from our long-held opinions would be threatening. We have a need to be right, to know it all, to have things locked in.

Could we adopt a more scientific mindset? Could we inquire, observe, hypothesize, experiment and be open to being proven wrong in our hypothesis? The scientific community is trained to question everything. Non-scientists can adopt at least a degree of that same liberated mind instead of accepting any particular fact as the absolute truth.

But wait, we might say, things happened in history and some things we saw before our very eyes. Surely that is true, right? History is presented as facts, but history is written by the victors, by the dominant culture and throughout recorded history primarily by men. The filters that naturally arise from these varied perspectives present some facts and not others, either by complete omission or by highlighting certain aspects, projecting attributes upon them, and giving them whatever motivation, perspective and emphasis the person who lived to tell the tale chooses.

There seems to be a wave of research into previously untold stories to broaden and deepen our understanding of what life might have been like before our time. As important as this is, we can never recreate it exactly. We bring the zeitgeist of our current culture, our own slant laced with nostalgia or horror at past injustice. No re-creation of the past can help but be flawed. But for most of us it is far better than letting the past disappear completely and all the lessons learned lost.

Because of this interest, we now have a number of dedicated museums that are willing to look without blinders at things like the Holocaust, the African-American historical experience, etc. We even have the technology to capture in a most profoundly moving way a Holocaust survivor in a  hologram. In his own words he answers whatever question a visitor might pose in real time about his life and experiences. Along with written and oral accounts, a vital history lesson is being preserved in the hopes of never allowing such a thing to happen again.

Being open to listen and learn from people’s personal experiences is much easier if we don’t have preconceived notions that filter out what we are uncomfortable hearing. None of us want to believe that such horrors could occur, but denying that they do would seem a sure way to perpetuate them.

No one individual’s perspective will capture the whole of an experience, but by cobbling together a multiplicity of personal perspectives, we can come much closer to understanding the past. We might think that one factual account of an eyewitness would be completely reliable, but life is multifaceted. When the San Francisco Bay Area had a powerful earthquake in October 1989, those who lived through it asked each other the classic post-trauma question ‘Where were you?’ resulting in a wide variety of recountings of personal experience. So already, even in the moment, you have hundreds of thousands of versions of the facts, all of them true, but none of them telling the whole story. It’s like the blind men feeling the elephant and each coming out with a completely different description of what ‘elephant’ is, as shown in this video.

The earthquake was more than a collection of personal experiences. There are lots of facts: the date, the time, the 6.9 magnitude as recorded on the Richter scale. These facts are true, but possibly not the whole truth. Clock time itself is a cultural agreement among humans, not observed by the rest of nature, after all. And the measuring equipment will probably be considered unreliable and obsolete in fifty years. There were undeniable facts of fatalities, injuries and structural failures. But each fact is one facet of a much larger story that we don’t know. We didn’t know the victims personally and even if we did, no one knows anyone completely. Seismic engineers may be able to figure out probable cause for structural failures, but fifty years hence chances are there will be more in-depth understanding. This doesn’t make the facts untrue. It just makes them incomplete. That’s useful for us to remember when we think we know something. Can we at least acknowledge that our facts are incomplete?

On retreat at Spirit Rock a few years ago I suddenly had the knock-on-the-head recognition that ‘I don’t know!’ Looking around I could see how my mental shorthand, our communal convenient labeling of the world we live in as objects with names, left me still lacking in any real knowledge. My mental notation of ‘tree’ is just a skim the surface shorthand that’s necessary in order not to be overwhelmed by all the information being presented at every turn in this life. I don’t know and am unable to observe the goings on inside that tree or where it’s root go underground. I’ve been taught some things about the processes in general, but honestly I don’t know in this particular tree’s case what’s going on. I don’t know its history, what tree it fell from as a seedling, how it came to grow in this spot, etc. etc. And understanding how limited my knowledge was did not make me ambitious to find out more. It liberated me from feeling I had to know everything in order to feel okay. I hadn’t realized how tightly wrapped I had been in the fear-based need to believe that my shorthand version of the world is complete.

We have shorthand ways of defining people as well. We assign them categories based on gender, age, weight, height, ethnicity, profession, personality traits, clothing, possessions, etc. But what does it all add up to? Assumptions! And those assumptions cause us to judge them based on our experiences, in person or through the media, with others who we have pigeonholed in some of the same categories. Is this the way we want to be known? Of course not. Each of us wants to be seen clearly with fresh eyes, not through preconditioned filters that are blindingly inaccurate.

All the conclusions we draw are based on ephemera. And our assumptions come back to bite us in so many ways. For example, in our desire to be seen, respected, loved and admired we often compare ourselves with others. But we compare their perceived polished outsides with our more in-depth view of our own messy insides. Neither of our judgments are accurate.

We can see how clinging to our need to be right at all costs doesn’t serve us. But we may still feel we know facts when we see them. Let’s look at more examples from the 1989 earthquake.

People across the country watching film footage on television news were led to believe that the whole of San Francisco and much of the East Bay were in ruins. Why would a news report show the untouched areas? That’s not news because nothing changed. What had changed, and was therefore newsworthy, was the collapsed freeway and Bay Bridge, and the Marina district in flames. With so much going on, it’s not surprising that reporters failed to mention that the majority of the Bay Area was perfectly fine.

That’s the news biz for you! ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the policy of the newsroom. Feeding the negativity bias of the survival mode part of our brain, is a safe bet for news shows to keep ratings up. In the newsroom, choices are constantly being made as to what to present. When my husband Will was a TV news film editor, the Black Panthers were much in the news. The reporters would tell Will what clips to include and in what order to suit their stories. It horrified him to see how they chose to include shots that showed them as militaristic and threatening, then routinely exclude footage of the community help programs run by the Panthers. So disturbed was he by this daily misrepresentation, that he saved the discarded footage on a reel in his work drawer. He should have taken it home. Eventually it was discovered and destroyed.

History is often destroyed because it doesn’t represent the skewed viewpoint of the person who is presenting the news. Today almost all of us carry around a phone that can record history in the making. This is changing our understanding of our world in wondrous and horrifying ways. We are seeing many more videos of cute and funny animals, of humans helping others of every species, of people standing way to close to tornadoes and lava flow, and we see firsthand the brutality and misuse of lethal force by those who are meant to protect us. In this way we are expanding the input possible, cobbling together a more accurate sense of things. But at the same time we are filtering out what doesn’t confirm our worldview, thus becoming more entrenched, and more likely to consider other views as ‘enemy’.

Can we recognize our own intentions and the intentions of those who are sharing their stories, each with their own hopes, dreams and agenda? In the long run, I can imagine that this explosion of sharing will offer future historians a more accurate reflection of the times we live in.         But they will have a whole lot of cat videos to wade through.

In next week’s post we will look at how to live with not knowing — and love it!

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Happiness begins with questioning in

questionmarkIn our ongoing exploration of the Ten Perfections of the Heart, we have been looking at Truthfulness, especially how truthful we are with ourselves. It is not that we are outright lying, just that we are not often questioning the statements, beliefs, judgments, etc. that are the running inner commentary of our mental lives. How much does this inner commentary shape the way we relate to this present moment and all that we are dealing with? Do our assumptions persuade us and dissuade us in ways we are not even aware of? Of course! So after quieting the mind down a bit in meditation, it is extremely valuable to start questioning these previously unquestioned long-standing thoughts that have been getting a free ride all this time. If we are basing our intentions, attitudes, words and actions on something we haven’t even looked at lately, then there’s no time like the present to start questioning.

As we take the time to unplug, focus on our breath and develop awareness and compassion, we have the opportunity to begin to see the nature of the thoughts that pass through (again and again). Especially right after meditating, we can allow ourselves just a few more minutes to really notice and question.

Of course, the process is particularly noticeable when on a silent retreat. (But don’t put it off until then!) On retreat there is so much time in silence, and without the opportunity to be expressed, thoughts stand out in our minds. They have more space to move around because the normal thoughts that typically run our daily activities have become unnecessary: We don’t have to pick anything up from the store, make anything for dinner, accomplish anything on our to do list or think of what to say or review what we should have said instead of what we did say, etc. On retreat all we do is respond to the bells by getting up, going to the meditation hall, sitting, walking, dining, listening to dharma talks, maybe going on a little hike or resting in the sun, and doing our one simple daily yogi job — a housekeeping or cooking chore that we have chosen. The remaining thought patterns have a lot of room in our heads to rattle around, so that we actually see them passing through, again and again.

How we come into relationship with these repeating patterns is really the focus of our practice as we go about our day.

Do we combat them? “Oh, shut up!’

Abuse them? “You are so stupid!”

Placate them? “I promise I’ll do better.’

Reinforce them by adding in some emotional component? ‘ Grrr, that really made me angry, and not only that, remember the time…?’

Or, as the Buddha suggested, do we question their veracity? ‘Is that true?’ ‘What proof do I have to back up that belief, assumption, judgment or statement?’

This is a valuable investigation, and one that is lifelong. We develop the powerful habit of self-exploration. This is quite different from self-doubt, which is the habit of undermining our best intentions. Inner investigation is simply making sure that we are being truthful in what we tell ourselves. So many of our thought patterns simply repeat something we heard as children. We have tuned ourselves in to a certain set of beliefs, and we accept anything we hear that resonates with those original assumptions. But where did the assumptions come from? They are often negative judgments about ourselves or the world, and when we simply accept them as true without questioning, we do a disservice to ourselves and those around us. With our child’s limited view we made sense of a confusing world at the time, but now, from our adult perspective, if we take a moment to really look, these assumptions reveal themselves to be erroneous, painful and unnecessary now. Whatever we thought we were protecting doesn’t need this protection any longer. The truth does set us free!

As with all the Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, we can spend a lifetime in this practice and find great value in it. We have insights into the nature of mind and how we are causing ourselves and others to suffer by being oblivious to the patterns of thought and emotion that activate anger, jealousy and ill will of all kinds.

In our meditation practice, we are training ourselves to be present with whatever arises in our experience. This is a worthy endeavor in itself, but when we get into inner investigation, the real fruits of our efforts reveal themselves. When we see that thoughts are not ‘who we are’ but instead just wisps of mental formations passing through our vast compassionate field of experience, or synaptic activity, it makes it a lot easier to look at them without freaking out or freezing up or turning away.

You can see how the matter of identity comes into play with this investigation. We may cling to certain beliefs, opinions and judgments as components of our personality or character. Those of you who have studied the work of Byron Katie will recognize these valuable questions: ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?’

As we begin to explore the next Paramita of ‘Resolve’, we are asked to continue with this practice of looking closely at the nature of our thoughts. The Buddha taught that there are four aspects to ‘Resolve’, and the first one is Discernment. And what is involved in discernment? It is really looking at the intention or course we have set for ourselves and noticing all the underpinnings of thoughts and judgments that rise up in our field of experience that may be sabotaging our intentions. Discernment makes us look at the goals themselves to see if they are worthy and sustainable.

So here we are again, paying attention to the nature of thoughts that arise, and questioning them. We just can’t get away from it! And that’s okay, because there is incredible richness in this process. This is where the wondrous insights grow from the fertile field of ongoing dedication to awareness and compassion.

To tell the truth, we lie all the time

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?

 

COVER

Cover of soon to be published book. See below for more info.

Which brings to mind the book my husband, the artist Will Noble, has just finished illustrating. It’s a true celebration of imagination, based on the lyrics of the Peter, Paul and Mary song ‘Autumn to May’. (Ordering info, if interested.)

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!