“Cretans never tell the truth,” was a remark once made by a visitor to Paris. “I ought to know: I am a Cretan.” his statement reminds me of the classical Labyrinth in ancient Greece, where lurked in wait, the fearful Minotaur, hopeful of seizing and devouring its victims. That maze, too, was on the island of Crete. The statement I’ve just quoted, suggests a different kind of labyrinth: a conundrum from which there is no escape.
Truth does suggest, for many people, a maze of hypotheses, conundrums, and false leads that end always in a blank wall. As Pontius Pilate put it, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); his implication was, that Absolute Truth probably does not exist. I remember, however, Paramhansa Yogananda’s comment on that statement. It especially intrigued me, for to him, it demonstrated only the shallowness of pride. Reason indeed, without the addition of intuitive faith, is shallow and does induce pride. Any attempt, moreover, to find truth in this world of relativities leads inevitably to the conclusion, that nothing, not even the most hypothetically fundamental scientific discovery, can be absolute.
Just consider the following points: This man may be better than that one; if any particular man out of a given lot, however, is the best, who is to say that there will be no one else anywhere, in any other lot, even better? Who can affirm that anyone, in any field, is supremely and absolutely the ultimate best?
Again, John may declare, “I am perfectly well!” No one, probably, including John himself, would quite know what he means by “perfectly,” but in any case, it is certainly never possible to be absolutely well. Who knows what microbes may be biding their time within even the healthiest body, waiting to wreak their havoc eventually?
Harold Horsey may be a better polo player than Peter Pawn, but Peter, on the other hand, may be able to best Harold at chess. Abstractions like love may not be susceptible to comparisons, but how, in this imperfect world, can even love be expressed absolutely? How can happiness be absolute? Can contentment? In this realm of relativities, it is impossible for anything to be absolute.
In this way, many people try to justify the outright lies they tell. I caught Jean Paul Sartre in just such a lie, as I explained in my book, Out of the Labyrinth. On the other hand, some lies (not Sartre’s, however, who favored the “big lie”) might indeed be, in some cases, “perfectly” justifiable. Paramhansa Yogananda offered a few hypothetical situations: “Suppose,” he said, “someone were to approach you and ask you to swear on every scripture you considered holy, never to repeat what he was going to tell you, and suppose you consented. Suppose, further, that he then announced, ‘I just put a rattlesnake in So-and-So’s bed.’ What would you do? Of course you should reveal such an unholy secret! Not to do so would be sinful. And even though it would also be wrong to break your promise, it would have been still more wrong to make it in the first place, without knowing the merits of what you were being asked to conceal. To be faithful to such an oath would only compound your mistake.”
Again he said, “Suppose someone were to come rushing up to you, pleading for sanctuary, and you hid him in a closet. And then let us say that the men chasing him came to you and demanded to know where he was, or in what direction he had fled. To clarify the issue still further, let us say that those men were criminals, and the man to whom you’d granted asylum was innocent of wrongdoing. What would you do? Your priority, most certainly, should be to protect the innocent man. In this case—as, of course, in almost all cases—you’d be right to honor your word to him. Your solution, therefore, might be simply to point silently left or right, indicating he’d gone off in that direction. If pressed further, it would even be within the bounds of truthfulness to answer, ‘I don’t know.’ (After all, you couldn’t possibly say exactly where he was! He might be on the left side of that closet, on the right side, or at the back of it!) It would even be justified, as a last resort, to speak an ‘unfact,’ since this would still, in a deeper sense, be true, or at least not a dharmic or ethically wrong. You would be morally right, then, in actually saying to them, ‘He went in that direction.’”
In the story, as Master told it, the man who betrayed his supplicant in the name of truthfulness was punished, after death, for having told what was a fact. It had been, in the higher sense, an untruth: harmful, not beneficial. As punishment, the man was given the choice of spending time in hell with ten wise men, or in heaven with ten fools. His sin was that his betrayal of that supplicant had resulted in the man’s death.
The Indian scriptures state, “If a duty conflicts with a higher duty, it ceases to be a duty.”
The Indian scriptures state, “If a duty conflicts with a higher duty, it ceases to be a duty.” In God’s manifested universe, relativity rules. This being the case, one might wonder why Yogananda even bothered to take issue with that question of Pontius Pilate’s (“What is truth?”). It can only have been, because Pilate presumed to give more importance to reasoning than to the intuitive ability, latent in everybody, to perceive the fundamental truth of the soul. Isn’t this, indeed, what materialistic science does all the time?
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.”
People who depend too much on reasoning proclaim boldly, that Absolute Truth does not exist. They are, however, merely skating about on the surface of reality. Even scientists, mistaking endless categories of facts for fundamental truths, are blind compared to the deep wisdom of great saints and masters, whose realization of Divine Consciousness as the essential reality, is both a fact and a truth, and one that can be personally experienced by all. It is only, as Yogananda pointed out, in this world of relativities that there are higher and lower levels of reality, and therefore, in a sense, of truth.
The higher truths are those, over which the veil of maya (delusion) is thinner and more transparent. “If you visit a sick friend in the hospital,” Yogananda said, “and find him looking ghastly, ought you to tell him he looks as though he were at the very portals of death? To make such a statement, might discourage him to the point where he could actually worsen and die. On the other hand, even if death does seem to be approaching, ought you to tell him with a ‘beamish’ smile, ‘Gee, Tom! You’re looking great!’ How could you sincerely make such a statement? Probably—assuming that you are a sensible, kind human being—you’ll find something positive to say. If you can’t do that, then you’ll avoid the subject altogether and tell him simply how glad you are to see him, perhaps also assuring him of your prayers. Again, you might say, ‘Well, Tom, you might be a lot worse!’ [That is what my Guru once said after entering the monks’ dining room one day, and finding it in an appalling mess: ‘It might be worse.’] “You might even tell him,” he said, “if you could do so sincerely, ‘You have it in you to get completely well!’ It would even be good—and, indeed, truthful, provided you could speak with spiritual power—to voice an underlying truth by affirming the man’s soul-potential. Thus, you might declare with deep concentration, ‘You are well!’”
I used to enjoy, as a child, proposing self-evidently ridiculous reasons to support arguments I knew were obviously false. I “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.” —John Keates So(ul) to Speak did so, not to persuade anyone of the truth of what I was suggesting, but only to underscore my own awareness of the tricky nature of reason itself. By the same token, I never accepted reasoning alone as a final proof of anything. I did, however, accept valid authority. Above all, I believed in the intuitive feeling of “rightness” in my own heart.
In a debating society that I joined temporarily in college, I won my first (and only) debate by challenging my opponent for having supported his argument by quoting the mere opinion of someone who, though famous, lacked any qualification as an authority on the subject we were debating. (Our debate was, however, my “swan song” in that society, from which I soon resigned, for I myself didn’t believe the side I’d been assigned to debate, and was uncomfortable over my victory.)
When I was a child, I might have said (but—cooks, please note!—did not say!), “Don’t give me spinach to eat. For,
consider the expression, ‘green with envy.’ This means that green, being the color of envy, may even induce that quality in people. The darker the green, moreover (and obviously), the more intense the envy. Besides, the slightly bitter taste of spinach only suggests that any envy it infuses in one will be all the more bitter.
Do you want your son to grow up bitterly envying others?” Of course, I wouldn’t have believed my argument, and I knew my mother would have known I didn’t believe it. I would simply have been “having fun.” But there was a serious side to my playfulness. It helped me to keep alive mentally a distrust of reasoning itself as a final arbiter in any discussion.
“Logic,” as the inventor C.F. Kettering put it well, “is an organized procedure for going wrong with confidence and certainty.” To my mind, an argument had to go beyond “making sense.” (Mother once wrote to our governess from Italy, where my parents were on vacation, “Please tell the boys to be good, and that will make everyone happy including me. Don [meaning me] is sure to find a flaw in that argument, but you might try it, anyway!”)
Years later, when I read Autobiography of a Yogi, I found in it many accounts of miracles which were utterly beyond anything I’d ever experienced, heard of, or even imagined. The book itself, however, felt so right to me that I took the next bus across America and offered myself as the author’s disciple. He accepted me, resulting in a complete change in regretted.
Patanjali, in the yamas (the proscriptive principles) of his Yoga Sutras, had an interesting way of counseling aspirants to be truthful. Instead of saying, “Be truthful,” he wrote, “Avoid untruthfulness.” What this phrasing of his advice emphasized was, that everyone would be truthful naturally if he had no reason to conceal the truth. In other words, it is not so much that truthfulness is a necessary virtue as that untruthfulness is a fault to be avoided. Truth is what simply is. The only thing, therefore, that might make a person want to avoid telling the truth is a penchant for deception, especially for self deception: for hiding from whatever is.
“There was a rainbow once in heaven. Now it is listed in the catalogue of common things.”
Let us examine a few of the ways in which people often deceive themselves, even in the supposed name of truth.
A common tendency is to tell unpleasant truths about other people, while “revealing” only pleasant truths about oneself. This tendency received a kind of special sanction, during the time, years ago, of Werner Erhart’s “Self honesty” programs, called, “EST.” A student of EST in Honolulu once told a friend of mine that he wanted to “confront” me about some failing in the way I lead Ananda that, he felt, I needed to address. When finally we met, he made a point of telling me the mistake I was committing. As things turned out, I instantly saw the merit of his advice, and thanked him accordingly. Well, this wasn’t at all what he’d wanted or expected! What he’d anticipated was the ego-satisfaction of a triumph over me! He spent another hour belaboring the issue from every possible angle. At last I said, “Listen, I agreed with you. I also thanked you for your advice, and I intend to follow it. What more do you want from me?”
I’ve seen another common tendency: that of expressing the truth rudely and unkindly. The thought behind this tendency seems to be that the truth itself naturally is abrasive. Why so? Truth is liberating. Speaking the truth abrasively becomes, for such people, a mere “ego game.” When I first lived in India many years ago, I met not a few people who, under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s noble truthfulness, overlooked the fact that Gandhi himself was always gracious and respectful to all. My Guru taught us to speak what he called “the beneficial truth.” Sometimes, of course, frankness is necessary even if it must be expressed bluntly or caustically. Still, no one should ever be completely frank with others until he has overcome any tendency in himself to want to hurt.
All of us want our advice to be effective. This usually means that any truth we utter, should be expressed usefully, which usually means, also tactfully. My Guru, whose entire life was devoted to helping others, never tried to beat anyone down. Even when he had to deliver a scolding, what I saw in his eyes was regret. Normally, he was sensitive and diplomatic—so much so that, if he’d forgotten someone’s name, he might ask gently, “What is your full name?”
If, moreover, our commitment to truthfulness is sincere, we will naturally be more interested in understanding ourselves, than in pointing out the defects of other people.
Absolute Truth does exist. Its domain lies beyond the surging ocean of relativity. Truth is the ultimate essence of all that is. It is Satchidananda: ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss. That essential Truth cannot possibly be painful, for it is the very nature of the true Self. In that Self, nothing external can ever affect us. In our egos, on the other hand, there is no limit to how many things we may find hurtful, depending on how we define their influence on us.
Suffering comes to us to the extent only that we want things different from what they are. Almost anything can cause suffering to the ego. We may define even a weekend of fresh air and sunshine amid the beauties of Nature as sheer misery, if we have been looking forward to spending these days in a crowded hall packed tightly with hundreds of noisy people jostling together and shouting merrily about some glitzy“event.”
The ego is everlastingly the first, the most constant, the most consistent, and the greatest obstacle to our getting even a glimpse of Divine Bliss. When we speak the truth, we should —Patanjali “Be truthful, avoid untruthfulness.”So(ul) to Speak bear in mind that no high spiritual truth can ever be anything but beneficial. Truth, as I said, is liberating! Therefore did Jesus say, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)
“Be truthful, avoid untruthfulness.”
In an interesting story by Arthur Conan Doyle, a man is killed in a car crash. An old friend of his from many years ago meets him as he lies there, and says to him, “No pain, of course?” The victim, in surprise, answers, “None.” “There never is,” his friend replies. Then the accident victim, remembering something, exclaims in surprise, “But—you’re dead!” The reason he felt no pain was that he himself was “dead.”
Nothing that is painful to your ego can affect your soul. If a hurt to your ego can nudge you towards self-liberation, then, instead of resenting it, you ought to be grateful! From that higher point of view, it would even be quite appropriate (though perhaps unusual), to respond to every insult, every slight, every misunderstanding by saying, “Thank you!”
Truthfulness depends, in this world of relativities, on many factors. Facts are not necessarily truths, even in a relative sense. There are higher and lower truths: deeper potentials, for example, in ourselves and in others than present realities. By divine realization, those potentials can be made dynamic to our consciousness. Thus, those latent potentials might well be classed with truths.
To say, then, “I am well,” when you know you’re actually rather ill, may be a wholesome affirmation, and may be true by very reason of its wholesomeness. It is something I told myself a few years ago, after a major heart surgery. As a result, I was home after four days instead of the predicted two weeks.
Here is an important point to bear in mind: If you feel in yourself the slightest tendency to want to correct others, try instead to ferret out in yourself what it is that makes you want to point out their weaknesses. Don’t share with anyone, necessarily, the self-discoveries you may make, for (as my Guru said) someone might someday, in a moment of anger, hurl your self-revelation back at you and perhaps discourage you thereby from trying to become better. Ask yourself, however, “Isn’t it more important, and more conducive to my own happiness, to work on improving myself, and therefore to come just that much closer to Bliss itself?”
Let the world totter on as it will: you’ll never be able to change it or anyone in it, by criticism. Isn’t it a big enough job, anyway, simply to improve yourself? That was above all what Patanjali meant by advising the spiritual aspirant to develop truthfulness by the avoidance of untruthfulness. Don’t hide from unpleasant realities in yourself. The more you try to conceal from yourself your own faults and weaknesses, the more you’ll only lead yourself into fogs of self-deception. And the greater the self-deception, the more it will blind you to the underlying reality of your very being, which is Divine Bliss.
“Reason indeed, without the addition of intuitive faith, is shallow and does induce pride.”
On the other hand, the better you succeed in accepting yourself as you are, and in facing every flaw in your nature for what it is, the easier you will find it to improve yourself, and, ultimately, to attain spiritual perfection.
Outwardly, there are also immediate and practical benefits to be derived from truthfulness. For one thing, everyone will naturally trust your word. For another, by strict truthfulness (of thought above all), one’s mere word (as Patanjali implied, and as Yogananda stated) becomes “binding on the universe.”
This, then, is the essence of what it means to be truthful: I, you, and all manifested beings are integral parts of the vast network of existence. We see ourselves, in our egos, as separate and distinct entities. John, to his own self-perception, is not at all the same person as Joe. Animals are not vegetables; vegetables are not minerals; and even animals and vegetables are not often mixed together with greens in a salad. Musical instruments require a sounding board. Singers use their bodies as resonant “chambers” for the vocal tones they produce. Similarly, when we habitually speak the truth, we find support from the very universe for our concentrated utterances.
Habitual liars, on the other hand, develop in time a certain thinness—perhaps even in the timbre of their voices, but always in their ability to accomplish anything effectively. What one might expect, in other words, to come out as a sort of vocal thinness, may emerge instead as a kind of vague mental focus, indicating lack of support from a clear conscience.
Let your truthfulness be above all an outward expression of your own, inward, ever-blissful nature.
Interestingly, one does sometimes find people trying to compensate for this lack of inner conviction by loud bluster and bravado. Certain signs betray them, however. For example, they will talk at you, not with you. It is as if they wanted to exclude you (and any part of objective reality) from some reckoning they wish to avoid. In most cases, the sensitive ear will detect their lack of sincere commitment to truth. The self-betrayal will be either in their tone of voice, or in the vagueness and lack of clarity in their way of self presentation. If you question their truthfulness, and are willing to confront them on the point (usually, it isn’t worth the bother to ply them with incisive questions), they will insist on their own integrity.
Truthfulness, on the other hand, carries with it both conviction and clarity. Its vocal expression will give no hint of protestation, no attempt to persuade or to exaggerate. The simple truth will be told plainly, but it need not be stark. People confuse truth with dry, rational definitions. The underlying truth of everything, however, is ultimately Bliss itself. There is plenty of room, here, for poetry and statements of feeling and truth at all levels without exaggeration. John Keats, in one of his famous poems, lamented, “There was a rainbow once in heaven. Now it is listed in the catalogue of common things.” The sheer poetry of truth is something seldom considered. It is nevertheless, however, a reality.
The most important thing is, not to wish that things were other than what they are. This resolution requires both an attitude of non-attachment and an ability to accept reality even if it is not entirely pleasant to the ego. There is one danger attendant on trying to tell the beneficial truth. Some people make that intention an excuse for telling the merely convenient truth—the “benefit” being, of course, to themselves. They may even excuse such feeling in the name of what they tell themselves is a “higher” truth—that is, those aspects of truth which will benefit one cause, even if they might harm another. The detective’s classical question, “Cui bono?” or, “Who benefits?” must be asked here. If your “higher truth” benefits you but may harm someone else, hold that “truth” more than suspect! A true statement must be beneficial to everyone concerned.
To discriminate, as to whether something you want to say or to accomplish truly is beneficial, rather than merely convenient for you, hold the thought contemplatively up to the Divine Will itself, asking, “Is this (contemplated thought or action) your will?” Accept wholeheartedly any impartial guidance you feel from God. By following this course religiously, you will never go wrong. John Keats also wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
There is something beautiful in the expression of those truths, even, from which one tends at first to recoil in dismay. For, everything in the overall scheme of things, balances out. Today’s pain becomes tomorrow’s pleasure. Today’s sorrow becomes tomorrow’s joy. Today’s failure becomes tomorrow’s triumph. The beauty in this ineluctable fact lies not in those happier outcomes, which must always change back in time and become their opposites. It lies, rather, in the final realization that, through all the ups and downs of life, it is really only ourselves, within, that we’ve enjoyed! That same underlying Self, moreover, is with us always. Whether we revel in a delicious banquet, or find ourselves rushed off to the hospital to get our insides removed, there is, literally, no difference whatever to the underlying reality of Who we are, and in what our deepest experience of life consists: Satchidananda, ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new Bliss.
“Logic is an organized procedure for going wrong with confidence and certainty.”
—C. F. Kettering
Live always in that inner bliss, and nothing will be able to touch you, ever. Let your truthfulness be above all an outward expression of your own, inward, ever-blissful nature.
Excerpted from “Religion in the New Age and Other Essays for the Spiritual Seeker,” published by Crystal Clarity Publishers.