“The truth will set you free.” John 8:32
As children we are told not to lie. Telling the truth appears in many of the world’s traditions as a principle to live by. And yet, prevarication is ubiquitous; as one of our most habitually ingrained tendencies, we often don’t even realize the extent to which we continually lie. This leads to three questions: 1. Why do we lie so easily? 2. Why should we care about not lying? 3. How do we stop doing it?
Yogic wisdom suggests that truthfulness is more than just an aphorism to live by. This is especially true in our current social landscape of alternative facts, post-truth, and general mistrust. The yogic view on truth reminds us that honesty isn’t just about facts—veracity is indeed not only an act of courage, but also one of resistance.
We are hardwired to lie.
Studies have suggested that our innate tendency to lie is often linked to the reactive brain, the part of our thought process that causes the fight/flight/freeze reaction when we encounter danger. Lying isn’t restricted to Homo sapiens; many of our animal friends are avid at deception: chameleons and octopi are expert liars, almost seamlessly blending into their surroundings in response to danger. And that’s really the key: lying is our camouflage. Yet, whereas animals resort to camouflage as a means of protecting their lives, lying for most of us has become habitual and is not at all linked with our physical wellbeing. A study in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology found that 60 percent of people lied at least once in a ten-minute conversation with a stranger, and a separate Cambridge study found that people are more likely to engage in dishonest behavior when they feel rejected. Additionally, a study titled “Lying in Everyday Life” found that more than 70 percent of liars would lie again.
This type of lying is wholly different from that of our animal counterparts; we are clearly not lying out of self-preservation—at least not physical preservation. Instead, as psychologist Robert Feldman says, “We find that as soon as people feel their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels.” Thus, the lying that we typically engage in is aimed at sheltering our egos in a habitual way, and, when normalized and shifted to the greater social level, has the tendency of becoming quite dangerous.
Why the truth matters
While there is a stark difference between telling a small, personal lie about who ate the last piece of chocolate cake and a prominent political figure spouting purposely inaccurate data at a crowd of supporters, both the impetus and the result remain fundamentally the same. Lying becomes a form of protecting our interests at the expense of creating an erroneous reality for someone else. Continental philosopher Martin Heidegger called this “facticity.” Through lies, we (consciously or unconsciously) create a new facticity for everyone else and they base their follow-up actions and reactions on this. When we lie, we are essentially creating a new, fictional world for those who the lie affects. When we lie in our personal lives, we affect our immediate circle—our partners, friends, or family—but the stakes are exponentially increased when lying becomes the fabric of our socio-political system and millions of people’s perception of reality becomes skewed. As a result, millions of people are effectively living in different facticities, creating a situation where communication becomes a monumental barrier simply because we are operating from radically different understanding of what’s actually true.
This isn’t at all to diminish the impact of lying in our intimate relationships. The yogic wisdom reminds us that part of the practice of yoga is learning to fully be with what is. When we distort reality for our partners, we create a chasm between us. In that space of separation is where we find dukkah, un-ease, or suffering. This is common sense: when we lie to each other we effectively alienate one another and the level of trust and intimacy possible in our relationships suffers. In the end, whether lying on a personal or social level, we are deepening the gorge between us, and thereby we are (both individually as well as collectively) suffering more as a result.
Truthfulness, or Satya in the Sanskrit, is perhaps now more than ever a revolutionary act of courage. Satya is also the second yama in the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga—it’s right at the top of the list (right after ahimsa, or non-violence): is just that important. To be truthful requires more than correct transmission of facts; authentic honesty is really about inquiring and understanding the reasons we might feel threatened in the first place, and exploring our underlying proclivity to lie. The yogic call to action starts, as always, primarily with ourselves: it requires us to sit with, name, and acknowledge the uncomfortable elements of our vulnerability that make it so easy for us to fabricate alternative realities. When we take the time to home in on the truth of why we feel threatened enough to paint reality a different color than what it actually is, we might find the courage to speak our truth, simply by taking time to be with what’s here right now. Somehow when we acknowledge what is in front of us, it stops being so scary, so foreign. As we practice investigating and expressing our own truth, we become more aware of our tendency to prevaricate and when and why we do it. Our human penchants are primarily based on repeated action and habit. The more we do something, the easier it is to do until we start doing otherwise and build the opposite inclination. Imagine, for a moment, how much more intimacy we can experience in our relationships if we create a commitment to truth, which, like most commitments worth keeping, it isn’t an easy undertaking. Truth, it turns out, isn’t for the cowardly.
The results of our commitment to satya
As we deepen our commitment to honesty with ourselves and with members of our immediate community, our capacity to be with truth expands to our outer personas. We then start to realize the necessity for a world filled with honest communication, and recognize the importance of the accuracy of facts on a larger scale. It is then that we might take the time to do those little-but-now-imperative things, like fact-check an article before we post it to social media or become educated on the veracity of media sources we read. As a result of our exploration into truth, we fortify what Carl Sagan so aptly called our “Baloney Detection Kit” , and we start to become watchdogs—not only of our own consciousness and our ego’s fragility when it is tempted to tell those “little white lies,” but also of institutional dishonesties. Sooner or later we become aware of the toxicity of dishonesty, and we become committed to truth on a greater scale. In this way, honesty becomes an act of resistance, both on a personal level against the fragile ego that wishes to coddle itself at the expense of others, and against greater movements that thrive off the oppression and deliberate spinning of truth for its own gains.
The teachings of yoga remind us that truth, like lying, is a habit. Yet truth, unlike lying, requires the very courageous commitment to the exploration of our easily triggered egos and a curiosity to explore what lies in the depths of our vulnerably. In other words, a commitment to truth calls us to transcend our habitual, reptilian, combative brain and instead operate from a place of consciousness, both personally and socially. It’s in this space that true presence arises, and we become free.