Honesty is one of the most basic and essential qualities that we look for in others. A liar and hypocrite is someone we can never trust – and if we cannot trust someone, what kind of relationship can we have with them?
Honesty is also one of the most important qualities that we need to grow in ourselves when we meditate.
If I want to meditate, I resolve to never deliberately lie to others for any reason. This is not as easy as it sounds, as many times we can tell untruths almost as a reflex, as an automatic reaction to a situation: to hide a wrong action that we have done, to make ourselves look good, or to get something we want, whether material or immaterial – for example, the admiration of someone for an idea that wasn’t really ours, or the friendship of someone who we fear will dislike us if we tell them the true version of events.
Yet even more difficult, and more subtle, is learning to be honest with ourselves. When we meditate and work on ourselves, we have to start to ask ourselves “Am I lying to myself? Am I cheating myself? How am I lying to myself? How am I cheating myself?” We investigate who we really are, examine more closely the real intentions behind our actions, thoughts and words, what is really driving us; so as to pull out into the light what has been pushed underneath the carpet, to find what scorpions are lurking under the sofa!
There’s a reason certain things get pushed underneath the carpet and stay hidden there; the truth is not necessarily beautiful, or easy to accept. Therefore, one crucial element in being honest with ourselves is to decide that, no matter how ugly the reality is, we want to open our eyes and see things as they really are.
1. Being A Detective: The Analytical Mind
Once we are determined to choose honesty, we can learn to use the Analytical Mind, which is a powerful tool that helps us in being honest with ourselves. Using an Analytical Mind means working like a detective investigating our own mind; questioning ourselves, analysing ourselves, trapping into a corner whatever lie we have been telling ourselves, and forcing it out into the open.
To show how it works, let us take an example of the kind of truths that can be brought to light by this kind of investigation.
Suppose I have a bank account that is far from empty, and I don’t lack for any material comfort. I give away money on certain occasions, but only when I am asked to do so, and only small amounts.
Yet, I think of myself as a generous person, and sincerely believe that I am indeed generous: do I not always give without hesitation, whenever I am asked?
Let’s imagine that one day I enter a supermarket and at the door to the supermarket I am asked to give money for some good cause. With no hesitation, I hand over a $20 note. Was this an act of generosity? (It really seems so to me!)
However, if I want to be truly honest with myself, this is where I can start to be the detective investigating my own motivation; I can start to cross-examine myself, to ask myself counter questions, to find out what really drives my action.
I can start by asking, “What if I were to have passed in front of the kiosque without having given anything – would I feel uncomfortable? Would I feel judged? Am I afraid that people will think I’m selfish?”
If the answer is yes, it could still be that I am indeed afraid of being judged, but still give out of genuine generosity. But was it generosity that drove me to give money, or was it only the fear of being judged?
So to find out if this is the case, or not, I can ask:
“If there were nobody around and nobody at the kiosque to see me pass without giving. Would I have still given something?”
If I catch a moment of hesitation inside, if the response is not instantly and without doubt that I would have given – this is suspicious! The investigation must be pushed further.
“Why should I have waited for this day when I was asked for a donation? Why not have given by myself, by post, on line, or another day before?”
If I find myself explaining myself by being too busy, being tired, having no time, having too much to think about; if all kinds of excuses appear for justifying the fact of not having given before, now I can be pretty certain that I am indeed trying to cheat myself, that I am being dishonest with myself!
I could also cross-examine myself from different angles, for example: “Does it make me feel good that other people see me giving a sum of money? Do I like that others know I have given, that this lets people know I am ‘a good person’?”
Or again, “Does this act of giving remove my guilt before the injustice of the world, when I feel ashamed for being rich while others are dying of hunger? Is this $20 simply a way of buying peace of mind the rest of the year when I see all the catastrophes in the world, as I can thus convince myself that I did something to help?”
Another interesting way to question myself would be to imagine a scenario that forces me to choose what is truly the most important thing to me.
“Suppose I have forgotten my wallet and I have only $20 with me. If I give my $20 for the cause, that will mean that I won’t have any money left to pay for my lunch, and that I will have to wait for dinner at home. Would I sacrifice my lunch? What counts more in my eyes; to give for this cause, or my lunch?”
So am I a “generous” person only when my own comfort is not at stake? If that’s the case, what kind of generosity do I practice? Can I really say that I am generous?
What should be understood from this example is that by using a series of questions, especially good and well-directed counter-questions, and the will to open our eyes, we can see what is truly going on inside. All the excuses of the world can be invented to make ourselves and others believe that we are otherwise, but with the proper use of the analytical mind, we can see things as they are, stop lying to ourselves, if truly this is what we want.
2. Determination to See the Truth
The will to see the reality; this is something still more subtle.
Sometimes we can believe something that is not true for a long time, simply because we have been always told that it was this way, and it never occurred to us to question it. More often, though, we unconsciously shut our eyes to reality, we don’t want to see the truth: either because the truth hurts too much, it’s too ugly or too frightening, or because it goes against what we wish for from life.
If, whether consciously or unconsciously, we shut our eyes to the reality because we don’t want to see it, then no matter what the situation it will be impossible for us to accept it. We will always be able to deny the truth even when it is brought right before our eyes.
To show what it can mean to make this choice between deciding to find out the truth, and closing one’s eyes to it, we will look at another example.
Let’s imagine a middle-aged woman with a teenage son. This young man has always got excellent results in school, and has received invitations from the best universities in the country. He has a lot of friends, a pretty girlfriend, is sociable, good at sports and seems quite happy; everything to make a mother proud.
One day, his best friend is arrested after being caught consuming and dealing in illegal drugs.
Now, never once in her life has this mother ever remotely suspected her son of taking drugs. Even the bare idea that he could possibly do such a thing would destroy her castle, destroy her pride and joy, destroy her life.
And yet, if her son’s best friend was caught doing drug-dealing, it’s unlikely that her son is not involved in some way.
It is an occasion for questioning herself seriously, if the condition of her son is really important to her. Has she sacrificed 18 years of her existence so that her son can be a drug-addict? Could the money she gives him for his studies be ending up in the pocket of a drug dealer? Her beloved son, in whom she has complete trust; could he have lied to her so badly?
She is now faced with two clear choices, although her decision between them is not one that she will take consciously.
- She could close her eyes and tell herself that, although his friend might have been doing drugs, her son would never be involved in such things. To reassure herself and remove her guilt, she could even approach her son and ask him, knowing quite well that he will not admit anything: “If you had problems with drugs, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?” Asking a question in such a way invites the reply: “Of course Mum, don’t worry, everything’s fine.”
- She could decide to open her eyes, to do a real investigation to do everything possible to understand the situation and be able to do something about it; even if this implies destroying her castle, her idol, losing her biggest source of pride; even if it means facing some very ugly facts: that she has not been attentive enough; that she has been lulled into a false sense of security by the surface appearance that all is well; that her son has lied to her, that she can no longer trust him.
To close her eyes before the problem, is to abandon her son who is surely in need of help, to leave him alone in his suffering, for the sake of protecting her pride, her comfort zone. It’s a choice motivated by selfishness, even if it is unconscious, and it gives conditions for guilt and regret that will be with her for the rest of her life.
To decide to open her eyes is to accept all that comes with it – destroying the lovely but illusory castle, sacrificing her pride – all so that she can try to help her son before the problem becomes worse, before it is too late. This is what can be called genuine love, and even if it might be more difficult in the short term, it is the only choice that will in the long term bring her peace of mind.
3. Understanding the difference between “knowing” in theory and accepting the reality
It might be quite easy to speak the words, “I’m going to be honest with myself. I want to see the truth.” What’s harder is inside, to really let go completely of the lie around which you have built your life, and face a reality that is entirely out of your comfort zone. There are even some truths so obvious that we all “know” them intellectually, yet all the while we stubbornly refuse to really believe them, unable to accept their harshness.
The most obvious example of this is death. If there is anything certain at the moment when we are born, it is that we will one day die, and that this could happen at any moment. If someone asks us “Are you going to die some day?” we will reply, “Of course.”
Intellectually, we know that we will one day die, but really, inside, when you look – do you really believe it? Do you believe – really – that you could choke and die this evening at dinner? If you go to the doctor and he diagnoses you with an incurable illness that will kill you within two weeks, would you be in shock? If so, why? It’s quite obvious that we have to die at some moment or other, isn’t it?
When you hear that someone your age has recently died, does that make you think, “That could have been me”?
We cheat ourselves so thoroughly that we end up thinking and acting as though death were always far off, as if we were certain to die at the age of 120 and did not have to think about it, as if we had always time before us, as an early death is, indeed, very rare – so rare that it only happens to others.
One day not long ago, there was an article in a magazine: an interview with a woman who had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer. The doctors had told her that her death would happen in the near future, without giving an exact date. Now ten years after she had been diagnosed, she was still alive, although the cancer was still present. She was asked in the interview: “What’s it like to know that you will die?”
This was a serious question being asked: as though there were something bizarre, something extraordinary, about the situation of this woman who was sure to die “in the near future” – as though the one who asked the question was not just as certain to die herself, one day or another.
It’s as if, as long as we are not confronted with a shocking event that brings us to our senses, we manage to “forget” that we are living on borrowed time, that at each birthday, we are closer to the graveyard.
When we see that inside us, when we see the extent to which we are capable of lying to ourselves about such a blindingly obvious fact, what about the rest? Subjects that are not so clearly seen? The real intentions that motivate our actions? Our highest values, our aim in the life?
To meditate, is to work on these subjects so as to become truly honest with ourselves about them. It is to choose to face ourselves, face reality, face the truth; to let go of whatever lies and false beliefs we have been hanging onto, no matter how comforting they are for us.
Of course, all this demands a certain sacrifice, but it also brings a reward. When we are honest, when we choose to see the truth, we are choosing genuine generosity, rather than selfishness disguised as generosity; genuine compassion and love rather than the false imposter of attachment that we falsely know as “love”; and wisdom over ignorance. As children, we all like to make castles of sand, but when we grow up, we have to knock them down and build a real house in which we can live! If I never face the reality, I will always live in a lie, in a false impression of security and comfort, rather than building something solid.
But especially, if I lie to myself, doesn’t that mean I can’t even trust my self?