Truth: knowing it or living it
Our need for truth is hard-wired into the psyche. We make distinctions every day between true and false, and try to clarify those situations that are ambiguous. We seek out the certainties and good evidence that make all the difference between success or failure in any endeavour. We also have a longing for absolute, capital-T, Truths, be they scientific or psychological or religious. Like medieval alchemists, we hope for the revelation that will eventually turn base metals into gold.
But where are those absolute Truths? There are always many pretenders to the throne, yet none of them survive for long unscathed. Truths are disturbingly mortal. They grow and die. They decay from their excesses, or fracture through rigidity. They are killed off by younger, rampaging, alpha-male, truths. New gods enslave the old gods and starve them to death. Churches are built over demolished temples. Scientists demolish their predecessors. Newton dethroned Aristotle, and was dethroned in turn by Einstein. Even our personal truths are fluid. What was absolutely true for me at twenty is not true now at fifty-five.
Kant said the very idea of eternal truths is an illusion. He said The Truth is forever beyond our grasp because our minds are constructed to understand things only in highly selective ways. We can only see the world that we are capable of seeing, and Kant had the insight to realise how immensely limited this is. We can never hope to understand the mind of God, or the absolute laws of creation. We can't even understand the world as a dog would see it.
The Truth, no matter who declares it, is always a falsehood. Only relative truths can be true. Truths definitely exist since they are so clearly superior to falsehood, but they are always vulnerable to revision as new information arise. The only truths that don't change are usually the dead ones.
Eternal Truths might appear to be harmless fantasies or beautiful refuges from uncertainty, but they do have a darker side. Truth is naturally combative: the very word implies its opposition to what it believes is false, ignorant and deceptive. True believers are commonly narrow-minded and intolerant, whether they express their opinions or not.
Truths are usually established by crushing the opposition. History is full of brutal ideological wars, such as the crusades and the cold war. The battle over what is true and therefore 'right' goes on incessantly in the media, and the individual viewpoint invariably suffers. As Emerson said, "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the independent thought of each one of its members."
The Truth can turn people into monsters. When a small man talks about The Truth, he feels like a big man. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Bush all felt they knew what was absolutely right and wrong for their countries, regardless of the human cost. Religious leaders typically speak with supreme assurance. We even hear that sanctimonious, know-it-all tone of voice from our relatives, our friends and our workmates. Whenever I feel that 'my truth' is also 'The Truth', it actually becomes toxic to both of us.
Pope Benedict rails against the idea of relative truths. He longs for the time when the Church was assumed to know everything there was to know about man, God and the world. He says that relativism leads to moral depravity and 'anything goes'. Yet there are no divine yardsticks worthy of much respect. Much as you may admire a religious leader from a safe distance, would you trust the Pope or the Dalai Lama to make a judgement on you that mattered?
Although The Truth is a fiction – an archetypal symbol rather than a reality – to search for it is not at all a useless activity. Like Moses, we may never reach the promised land, but in seeking it, we find provisional truths that are infinitely 'more true' than others.
This is how knowledge and personal wisdom develop. Relativity theory is 'more true' than Newtonian physics. Today's medicine is not perfect, but it is 'more true' than medieval medicine. Modern psychology explains human misery far better than older ideas such as sin, karma and retribution.
Yet absolute truths do exist. These are the truths that are absolutely true for you at this time and place in your life. That is as true as any truth can be, and these are the truths that matter (I don't much care if the Big Bang theory is proved wrong). Those personal truths are hard to find, and it usually take years of trial-and-error. This is not surprising, since we start life as babies not knowing who we are, at the mercy of the invasive truths of others.
We find our own truths by asking: 'What is good and bad for me?' What kind of food should I eat, what intake of coffee, alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, how much sleep, exercise, work and partying, what kind of people should I be with or avoid, where to live, what kind of livelihood and long-term relationships, how to express myself, how to balance the needs of self and others, and so on. Not to mention finding our personal values, life aspiration, cultural affiliations, and the right way out of catastrophes.
As a young man, I found it hard to 'think' my way to self-understanding, because the language and concepts I used were not my own. All that changed on my first meditation retreat. I found a way of knowing myself without words – a way of 'thinking' via the body, through sensation, feeling and image.
A meditation retreat has its psychological effect because you minimise all input - no talk, no books, no people and nothing to do - so that what is left over is just 'you'. I found this approach to inner truth so revelatory that I spent a total of eighteen months in retreat at that time.
I found that the Buddha's instructions were perfect for the task. First become calm and clear-minded he said, and then 'just watch' the multitude of thoughts, sensations and feelings that make up your experience, without trying to manipulate them. Do this with great attention to detail throughout your whole day.
As the mental confusion and busyness subside, then deep insights are likely to arise. Although the conscious mind does the hard work, the answers seem come from elsewhere. They come as flashes of understanding, small epiphanies, messages from the body, moments of joy or illumination, profound convictions, streams of vision.
These insights rarely stay vivid for long, but their effects resonate deeply through the psyche. Once we tap into this kind of direct knowing, it becomes harder though not impossible to lie to ourselves, or to be fooled by the half-truths of others. We know the ring of truth and falsehood when we hear it.
The Buddha said his techniques would lead to an understanding that went 'beyond rule and ritual' – beyond all words, beliefs, outer forms and codes of behaviour. I found that to be true. With these techniques, the Buddha found his truths, and I found mine. I could also see that his chosen path with its strong emphasis on 'being' and 'knowing' in preference to 'doing' has obvious shortcomings.
Jean-Paul Sartre said that knowing our truth is not enough. We also need the nerve to act upon it. Otherwise, our search for knowledge is just a mind-game more suited to ashrams and universities and bedside reading.
Sartre said we should accept the enormous freedom we have to choose our every action. Thought is important, but we really find ourselves through our actions. Sartre said that was an act of 'bad faith' to deny how free we actually are. To lead what he called 'an authentic life' means you are willing to start or end a conversation, a meal, a task, a relationship or even a train of thought, at the right time, and take the consequences.
Sartre knew that it is so much easier to follow habit, or to fit into roles, or to do what people expect of us. Being social animals, we all want to belong. We usually get some reward if we fit in and are criticised if we don't. Yet Sartre, tough as ever, spoke of 'the waiter who was too much of a waiter' – the man who chose a role over a life. We all have to compromise at times, but we usually do so far more than we need to.
Sartre said we make hundreds of small, either/or decisions every hour, mostly on automatic pilot. To act freely, and in harmony with your soul, we need to grasp the moment of choice that precedes each action. For example, as we walk to the shops, what do we 'choose' to think about? Last night's TV, a coming task, an old argument, the weather, your sore back, or all of them at once? Whatever we choose has its consequences.
'Just watch and know' says the Buddha. 'Act consciously' says Sartre. We can easily combine these two injunctions. To lead an authentic life, we need to be calm and observant enough to see the options, and to then make conscious choices, again and again and again, throughout the day. This is a gentle, natural and deliberate way to find our own truths, and it is well worth the effort.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2005