Telling the Truth

John Smith—06/2004
How often do we tell the truth, about who we are, what we are feeling, what we are thinking? If truth be told, hardly at all. It would seem that most people, at least in Western society, play life like a poker game, eking every advantage from a hidden hand. The rewards for telling the truth, however, can be both unexpected and profound.

ONE ANCIENT METHOD used to enlighten the mind is to continually ask ourselves, "Who am I?" Trying to pin our identity down in this way leads, with perseverance, to the realization that the term itself is nonsensical — our cherished personal identity is as ephemeral as morning mist. And yet, most of us spend huge amounts of effort hiding the illusion of who we think we are, and presenting to the world an official "me".

This is who I am — this person. I am so and so. This is me. And I want you to believe this illusion because if you don't, the tenuous nature of who I think I am will be exposed, for few of us have the strength of character, thank God, to support our own illusion. We need others to bolster the lie of identity, and from that need, society finds cohesion.

The problem with lies, though, is that they have a habit of multiplying. Lies breed like rabbits. So we might think we are being very honest when we divulge, for example, our feelings to a close friend, but if those feelings are felt in the context of a false identity, are they really our feelings? More likely, they are generated to conform to and confirm that identity, a process which is largely invisible to us because it operates largely on an unconscious level?

Have you ever found yourself dreaming, and incorporating external stimuli into the dream? The morning alarm goes off and in your dream perhaps you have triggered a fire alarm. The mind is a skilful weaver of stories, able to trot out consistent tales on the fly, no matter how unbelievable. This happens primarily with unresolved feelings — the mind weaves a story around those feelings and then presents them to us in a way that gives those feelings life. And whilst that illusion might be useful for growth and resolution, they are illusions nonetheless.

This presents a problem: the illusions at the core of our identity have no cracks or breaks; they are not easy to spot by a mind looking for inconsistency. for it is by inconsistency — a "glitch in the matrix" — that we determine illusion. The stories we tell about ourselves seem to always be consistent (at least in the moment). There is no glitch. And like watching a movie in a cinema that we know is not real, we soon find ourselves lost in the illusion.

What is your story? Who do you tell yourself and others that you are? What is the "you" that you present to yourself and the world? My "me" is a lovely guy, a really nice guy. In fact, he is so nice, understanding and kind, that he has no known enemies, except of course himself. For the true self is always the enemy of the false self. If truth be told he hates himself because he is not true to himself. But what is self? Does he need only to substitute a different, more real self?

In reality, however, there is no "real" self. He cannot substitute anything for that lie, and that is the bind. If he were to be truthful, he would be nothing. And he would present that "nothingness" to the world, for that would be telling the truth. But he has to be careful. for it is easy to simulate nothingness as well!

That reminds me of the joke about a rabbi telling his congregation that he had finally found the answer to life; that he had looked so deeply inside that he realized truth. With all his focus, he draws himself up and announces to them, "I am nothing!" Silence. and then there is a little voice at the bank of the synagogue. It is the cleaner, and he says, "Yes, and I am nothing also." The rabbi looks indignant and bellows, "YOU!! YOU are nothing??!!"

So how do we rid ourselves of simulation when it is the mind's nature to spin a yarn? How do we stop that process of storytelling? How do we avoid entrapping ourselves further into more subtle lies — lies which can be much more difficult to identify? It is not easy because our capacity for self-deception seems infinite. But it can be done, and if we make the effort to do it the rewards are great — and unexpected.

The best way to stop spinning yarns about ourselves is to get out of our minds — switch off our story spinning machines. (Another perspective might be to focus or anchor our minds.) When we do that we feel a relief and energy because we are no longer repressed by who we think we are. We feel freedom. The main method used by society is currently a combination of alcohol, music and drugs. They numb the mind and distort our identity. But they only give us short-term release, and can damage our systems in the process (not to mention other people!).

The healthiest and long-term most rewarding way to soften identity is to increase our focus on the physical world, using it to anchor ourselves. Many spiritually oriented people feel claustrophobic in physical reality, because they mistakenly see it as a trap to the spirit, when in fact it is the mind that is the trap. The physical allows us to ground ourselves, limiting our flights of fancy and opening the door to a more subtle knowing of ourselves to develop. It is not a trap but liberation. (Materialism is a problem of the mind, not of physical reality.)

Perhaps the best physical anchor is our breath. Whilst we are alive, we are always breathing. Being a dynamic process rather than a static object, the breath is relatively easy to focus upon, although, to the untrained mind, focusing on anything for extended periods of time can be difficult. Can you focus on your breathing for just 30 seconds without getting lost in fantasies and thoughts? Most people can't and, indeed, have never even tried. Just 30 seconds… it is not a long time. If you can do it, if you can quiet the mind, you will feel liberation… in just 30 seconds.

So telling the truth is dependant upon how quiet and focused our minds are. A noisy mind is the father of lies: it spins out fantasy after fantasy; churning out endless identities in its dance of deceit. And each of those identities is a lie that fools ourselves and others into believing that we are somebody, rather than nobody. We forget that the nobodies in life actually have the most fun, and the greatest potential to realisation. The nobodies are actually the most liberated. And the nobodies are the people from which we can learn the most.

A useful exercise when our and about, living our lives, is to continually ask ourselves who we are being at a particular moment in time. Are we our job, a sex god or goddess, an elder, the wise one, a father, a mother, a lover, a geek, a teacher, a down and out, a fool, an Adonis, a siren, a scientist, a monk, a scallywag, a drunk, an enlightened one, a shrinking violet, an old codger, or any combination of these? Who are we at each moment? Of course, we may be so lost in a physical process like painting, playing sport, sewing or sex that there is a welcomed respite in this role playing (this is why any activity that takes us out of our usual identity is so popular). But it is not long before our fear of being nothing jolts us into spinning another tale about ourselves. Human beings are comforted by lies.

The irony is that although we are comforted by lies, we are most comfortable around people who are telling the truth. There is nothing more disconcerting than to be around someone who continually plays roles. However, we are always prepared to accept the stories of others in return for a similar favour. We trade in lies and that trade is called friendship. Friends have an unspoken agreement to uphold each others fantasies. It is a mutual conspiracy of identity. That is how most friends bond. (Occasionally, friends will tell the truth to each other to release the intolerable pressure of deceit, but only during intense or intimate moments.)

Start telling the truth and you are likely to lose many of your friends and associates, including the ones you thought were closest to you. That is why intimate relationships usually fail in the longer term; lovers are notorious for upholding each other's lies, until the cold light of day, which invariably dawns, reveals the deceit. And when that agreement to mutually overlook lies of identity is broken, we feel personally betrayed. We feel furious and ashamed. If we are mature, we can go on to build relationships on a more real foundation, although many escape by finding new lovers (new conspirers), focusing on having children, working impossible hours or taking drugs (like alcohol).

But truth-telling is a road that all souls must eventually travel, for otherwise we stagnate in who we think we are and what we think we deserve. That process of letting go happens naturally as we get older, but when we are dragged, kicking and screaming, towards liberation we often do not appreciate it in the moment. Many older people look shell-shocked, harbouring deep resentments that life has seemingly betrayed who they think they are (or at least were), when in fact life is liberating them from identity. Old age can be an enlightening experience if it is accepted for what it is, a letting go of identity. Unfortunately, we often prefer to cling to the identity and project that feeling of deterioration onto the physical body instead. And the body naturally complies with the belief in physical decay.

The road to happiness and fulfilment is to acknowledge, in every facet of our lives, that we really are nothing. Telling the truth in this way is liberating. No wonder, in a society obsessed with celebrity, fame and individualism, we are so unhappy and enslaved. No wonder our emotions are so capricious: their very foundation is a lie. Isn't it time we told the truth?