Zen, and Being Truthful




             “Speak the truth but then leave immediately afterwards.” –  Slovenian proverb

     So, I have a question. How much truth can you stand?

     I think from a Zen and Taoist perspective, being truthful points to the training needed to stay in proximity of now and seeing reality by dropping conditioning’s filters. We can then experience reality as closely as possible and relate that to others. 

     Many times, when people start to embrace a spiritual path, they make the decision to become totally honest in their relationships with others. In Western movies there is the saying, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” I like that, I use that, and I find the whole idea useful. But often, in our spiritual quest, we take some really good concepts and we project them outward, magnify them, and idealize them. 

     Truthfulness, that communication that relies on some internal editing, risks becoming all about TELLING “OUR” TRUTH. This is an idealized concept but doesn’t work well with the need for editing when engaged with others. We can cause damage and  suffering by telling what we see as the naked truth. People will tell others their opinions and critiques under the guise of telling the truth, or spread lies that they believe are true. 

     Being truthful starts and stops at you. You’re it, the generator and keeper of what’s truthful. Being truthful requires some awareness, compassion, ethics and the ability to edit.  

     The process of seeing yourself clearly requires you to be as truthful as you can stand. 

     So, how much truth can you uncover and accept to see about yourself? How much clean mirror can you bring to your experience? Seeing clearly is one of those things we hear often when speaking of Buddhism. This means to see  yourself with the heart of compassion and proceed to drop labels, criticism, and conclusions about the self.

     Probably the most difficult experience of speaking the truth to myself was waking up in a hospital bed after overdosing for the third time.  I distinctly remember waking up and lying there with the sunlight streaming through the window. I was disoriented at first until I felt that crisp crackle of plastic under the sheets. The hospital protecting it’s mattresses with plastic coverings. NOISY plastic coverings. Clarity of where I was and how I got there intensified along with the fears/tears.

     I remember feeling very, very clear, tired, and sick. In the clarity there was an absence of emotion, judgement, guilt, or regret. I was lying there feeling the reality of where I was, in a hospital.


     I had the insight that I could stop lying to myself about where I was in life. And, in doing so was to chose to look at some very bitter parts of my life. To stop lying to myself I would need to quit looking at content and start examining the process of HOW I was living life. I had hurt and damaged a lot of other people to get where I woke up and  had sustained an enormous of damage. It felt as though I had been living and accumulating suffering for decades. 

     I took a vow to start telling myself the truth, not in the ideal sense of always telling the truth to everyone, but in the adult sense of being true and honest with myself.  

     It was a good start and it felt like the first step in being an adult. It allowed me to process relationship issues that had been in place for decades. It has taken me a long way.

      All spiritual beliefs and being truthful go hand in hand. If you, like myself, are on a spiritual quest then you have probably come to the conclusion that being truthful about “WHAT IS” happens to be one of those prerequisites to any useful insights. 

     I remember times when I had insights into my own behavior in the here and now.  It occurred to me that seeing clearly HOW I am now, is so much more helpful than the position of “feeling bad” about the way I was in the past. The process I used in the past, if there is no insight into how I develop process, is the same process I am using now. If there is no insight then the past and present will remain looping a process. Different content but similar processes.

     I project that this is what happens when people react to past behaviors. It’s tied to the way they are still processing the feelings that they are having are right now about the present. 

     Changing process comes from insight and contemplation.  On a retreat I realized that almost everything I did was at least partially engaged with the idea of gaining prestige and attention. It dropped in during walking meditation down an old riverbed.  The insight occurred during a vision of an old argument that I just had to win, that in reflection meant nothing. This led to a question of  my entire motivation during exchanges with others. When I ask a question, is it really a genuine question? Or, I “showing off” by being clever? Is it an actual inquiry or me seeking attention? When I am in conversations, am I adding to the conversation or am I vying for some leverage, status, and power?

     This line of inquiry was difficult. To make an adjustment meant that I needed to be here and listening to others. I would need to slow down and listen to my internal response as opposed to conditioned reaction. My Conditioned personality wasn’t the least bit interested in processing this line of examination. I would need to be aware of my  intentions for saying anything in the future. It appeared to me that my intentions were, at times, no more than explanations for saying things that were unnecessary or were ego based instead of informational.  

     What did I see in attending to this?

     In the past I have used telling the truth in the worst ways possible. Telling someone something true while knowing it would hurt them. Using “true” information in an attempt to gain recognition, fame, and power. Saying what I see as true can be a mean and nasty device.

     What I found helpful was to start being aware of this tendency and move to a clearer, cleaner, genuine response that was triggered from a responsive heart. It seems to have made a difference in my communication. It feels cleaner and without conclusion or the intent to just gain status. This involves a leap into that small gap that comes before I say anything and am able to make room to see if it’s a genuine response or just an ego driven reaction. After putting this into practice I felt that I had a much more truthful area to respond from, a more genuine self. (And remembering that it is so easy to lapse back into old speech patterns! It’s why we practice!)

     The value of being truthful can be measured by our intent concerning telling something truthful. If truthful is an accurate report of what is or what has happened, isn’t the value dependent entirely on intent for the telling? 

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” –  Marcus Aurelius

     Unfortunately we can take the ideal of telling the TRUTH and make it into a monster. Sometimes people decide to tell what they see as the truth to the degree that it causes suffering. Telling what I believe is true may cause hurt and damage. It may not help to resolve anything at all. It may be something used to justify bolstering ego. My primary process is to cause no harm and reduce suffering. My encouragement is when being honest needs to be edited to avoid harming. do it. Honesty’s value lies in its ability to reduce suffering.

     In the 12 Steps there is a step that is about making amends. Going back to people we have harmed and asking forgiveness. I like this step. It feels like a practice that reinforces being truthful with ourselves and others. It also makes the point that we don’t do amends if by doing so it will cause harm. The 12 Step program is a wise program. It was set up with the realization that being truthful is healing but also needs to be done skillfully.

     So, being truthful, in the most skillful manner possible, under the circumstances in which truthful needs to be addressed is a path worth consideration. 

     We sometimes become involved in discussion about the ultimate truth without addressing that idea of intent. Reality is truth. All reality is the final reality in compliance with transience. Any interpretation of reality cannot be true, it can only be truthful. We need to remember that the best we can do is interpret what our senses tell us and be as truthful as possible. That truth in capitol letters seems like a perfection or ideal that can only point to an illusion and delusion. Being truthful lends itself to making decisions about our intent within context and content.

Be well my friends. 

Let me know what you think and share your perspectives.



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