Mindfulness of the truth

Bringing mindfulness into our speech

We benefit from practicing lovingkindness, or metta, not just on the meditation cushion but in our daily lives.

And one powerful way of expressing metta towards ourselves and others is to practice truthful speech.

It’s interesting to become more aware of why we’re untruthful. Sometimes it’s for gain (for instance exaggerating our role so that we gain praise); sometimes it’s because of fear (we thing that if people know the truth we’ll lose their esteem); and sometimes it’s out of ill will (we want to hurt someone). When we start to consider that when we lie we’re like puppets having our strings pulled by these negative emotions of craving, fear, and ill will, honesty becomes a kind of freedom.

Sure, there are times when it’s best to leave thoughts unspoken – we need not only to practice honesty but also to practice kindness. And we need to speak at the right time. Trying to make “helpful” suggestions, no matter how well intended, can backfire when the other person is stressed or otherwise upset.

But one of the main kinds of truthful speech that we need to practice in order to bring more metta into our lives is something very simple. When we’ve done something hurtful to another person then we should be prepared to apologize or to confess what we’ve done.

The art of apology

Apology can be a form of meditation in action. Apology is being honest with another person about something we’ve done to hurt or disappoint them. And actually, when we’re apologizing we’re also being honest with ourselves.

Have you noticed how often we rehearse lies and half-truths to ourselves? Ever done something like this? We’re on our way to meet someone and we left the house a little too late to get there on time. Plus, the traffic’s heavy, and so we find ourselves saying internally that we’re sorry we’re late but, boy, was that traffic bad. Recognize this?

Being untruthful, whether it’s an exaggeration, an omission, or a downright lie, happens because of fear, craving (we want to get something or we crave approval), or ill will. Being untruthful is bad for us in part because it reinforces the hold that these negative emotions have on us.

Back to that example from above, we often construct little alternative realities for ourselves to hide our failings. So when we apologize (honestly) to our friend for being late we’re not just telling them the truth, we’re also acknowledging to ourselves what the truth is. Some people construct such elaborate systems of alternative realities that they start to loose touch with reality all together.

Sometimes these attempts at self-justification take over our meditation practice so that over and over again we find ourselves drawn back to fantasy rather than sticking with our present-moment experience. One way to help let go of these repetitive cycles of painful fantasy is by apologizing, and another is through confession.

Apology as a gift

Apologizing involves letting go of our defenses and allowing ourselves to be seen as imperfect. In doing this we give people the gift of being related to authentically.

And we’re recognizing ourselves as imperfect as well. We’re giving to ourselves the gift of self-awareness and integrity.

We’re not pretending to be someone else. The act of apology is also profoundly reconciling. Because we’ve let go of our defenses it allows the other person to forgive us. Together, apology and forgiveness are means of communication that bring ourselves and others together in a deep way – a way based on a recognition that we are who we are and not actors pretending.

Often we’ll avoid apologizing because we think, deep down, that apology makes us look small, but actually apologizing shows that we are big enough to admit to being wrong. And it’s OK to apologize even when we haven’t meant to do anything wrong and sometimes even when someone has taken offense quite unreasonably.

When we say we are sorry it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re admitting that we’re at fault (although it can of course mean just that). The word “sorry” is closely related to the word “sorrow” although we rarely remember the connection. So “sorry” can instead mean that we are sorrowful that the other person is upset, even if they’ve completely misinterpreted what we said or did.

Apologizing in these circumstances can open a door to reconciliation in a way that a defensive “that’s not what I meant” never can. Once the other person has accepted our apology there will be time to explain what we really said or meant or did.

Confession as a gift

Confession is similar to apology, but is not necessarily directed to the person we’ve offended. When we’re confessing, we’re being honest with a third party (and with ourselves, of course) about who we are and what we have done. But in essence we’re standing in front of our ideals in a state of shame and honesty, admitting that we have fallen short of how we would ideally like to behave.

So it’s only possible to confess to someone who shares the same ideals we do. If, for example, you confessed that you were contemplating having an affair to someone who actively encouraged you to go ahead and be unfaithful, then that wouldn’t be very helpful for our ethical development.

We should consider ourselves very lucky indeed if there is someone to whom we can confess in this way. We can consider ourselves blessed to have someone whom we can confide in, who can keep confidences, and who shares our ethical perspective and won’t let us off the hook. That’s a real friend, and such friends are all too rare.

Giving forgiveness

We should also, in the spirit of metta, be prepared to forgive others when they apologize to us. To withhold forgiveness in order to hurt another person or out of self-righteous anger is an abuse of the other person’s honesty and ethical sensitivity. We’re hardly likely to encourage people to be honest with us if we punish them for it. Of course there may be times when we feel unable to forgive someone instantly, and that’s okay. Genuine forgiveness may take time, and false forgiveness is not a virtue. But we should not withhold forgiveness out of anger or mean-spiritedness. We should give forgiveness as freely as we are able.

4 Comments. Leave new

  • This is very good. I never thought of myself as being “untruthful” but after reading this articule on truth, I realized that I am not truthful. Because I cannot confront my spouse about what is really hurting me, I’ll go around it. Or I will use reverse psychology on him. None of which works and only leads to defensiveness on both parties. I tried something different; I was actually able to share a fear I had (which was the underlying emotion) and the response I received was positive. This article confirmed being honest and truthful even if it makes me feel vulnerable.

  • Thanks for this. I’ve fooled myself over the years into thinking that I’m honest. When reporting anything I would use facts, but I am grossly dishonest with how those facts are used. My co-workers think me honest because they don’t know better. They don’t see how I dishonestly manipulate the interpretation of the facts to lighten the fallout upon myself; yet I subject myself to a little of that fallout because it makes me look honest. My journey has just begun.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa! Thanks for this article. I’m wondering how to work with pride in terms of apologising. I know I’m supposed to apologise to someone but I’m still too much in my head and feeling too proud to do it because I keep telling myself the other person deserved my harsh speech. Is there a way to work on this in order to prepare for a future heart-felt apology? Thanks!

    • It gets easier with practice. It’s to do with shifting our focus from the “worldly wind” of status to seeing things more in ethical terms. So instead of seeing our wellbeing and security coming from being superior to another person (and hence not wanting to apologize since we think that puts us in an inferior position) we see our wellbeing and security coming from acting ethically, which means admitting when we’re wrong.

      You can look at the suffering involved in wanting to apologize but not being able to (and continuing to be in conflict with the other person), and imagining the relief you’ll feel once you apologize (and opening the way to being in greater harmony).

      Also, how do you feel when someone apologizes to you? How do you view them? Better or worse? Now turn that around so that you’re the one apologizing. How will the recipient likely feel? Will they tend to view you as better or worse?


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