Can I Be Honest with You?

Telling the truth requires that you know the truth. Mindfulness meditation, says Cyndi Lee, helps us see the ways we deceive others—and ourselves. 

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

I’d be lying if I said that I always tell the truth. It’s not that I’m a liar, but sometimes I’m just too busy to be honest. Yesterday while I was walking my dog through Washington Square Park, I was approached by a person asking for donations to a worthy cause. I am all in favor of that cause, but right then I was running late. So I whooshed by saying, “I gave already.” No big deal, yet a twinge of guilt and confusion arose—had I really already given? Or was I lying to the volunteer and, even worse, to myself?

White lies, fibs, shading the truth, exaggerations, self-denial—these are all things that most of us do now and then. And I wonder how much it matters if we fudge the truth when Aunt Mabel asks how we liked our purple-polka-dot birthday poncho? In a teaching on compassion, the Dalai Lama told the story of a monk who was walking in the woods when a deer ran past him, followed a few minutes later by a hunter who asked the monk which way the deer had gone. The monk, deciding to lie, pointed to a path going in the opposite direction of the deer. There are doubtlessly times when being kind takes priority over complete honesty, but how do you decide? How can you tell if you are lying even to yourself?

The first step is to cultivate awareness through mindfulness meditation. Using your breath as a home base for your wandering mind, notice when you get caught up in thought and your attention strays from the breath. Do your best to remain gentle and curious. Don’t try to fix anything or indulge in recriminations against yourself. Just practice letting go of whatever you observe, return your mind to the present moment through the medium of the breath, and then begin again.

Mindfulness meditation is a straightforward technique for observing all thoughts—good or bad, happy or sad, honest or dishonest. Rather than changing or rearranging anything, we practice simply resting in time and space and noticing how thoughts naturally dissolve on their own. Sitting on the cushion, we soon start to recognize certain repetitive thought sequences. We might think, “There I go again…” and then, with a little inner laugh, let go of the thought and come back to the breath. This happens over and over again, and, like a yoga class for our mind, it requires a balance of exertion and letting go. This way of working with the mind is revolutionary, because normally we react and act very fast with no sense of gap at all. Developing clarity and kindness in relationship to our own mind-habits is actually the first step toward shifting our patterns of speech and action in a way that is both gentle and firmly grounded.

The second step is to take the awareness we have gained on the cushion and bring it into the rest of our lives. To do this, we must make a commitment to cut dishonesty the moment it occurs. I have a friend who admitted to herself one day that she constantly exaggerated, often for no purpose other than to give others the impression that she was cool and accomplished. In order to shift her habit she used meditation techniques, and whenever she heard herself exaggerate she would say, right in mid-sentence, “Oops—I lied,” and then she’d start over, giving accurate information. Her meditation practice of letting go of thoughts and returning to the home base of the breath translated into action as she became more conscious of her tendency to exaggerate. In meditation, this is called taking a fresh start and it can be applied to any activity, including dishonest speech or behavior.

You may not chronically inflate stories like my friend, but you might find your honesty slipping if it gets in the way of what you want. Observe a typical yoga class. To prevent injury and get the most benefit from asana practice, I encourage my yoga students to be honest with themselves about what their current abilities are. But for some, the craving to touch their toes is so overwhelming that they crunch up their necks, smother their hearts, and risk straining their backs just for the fleeting sensation of fingertips on toe tips. This kind of denial is another form of dishonesty (as well as aggression) and, in this case, it can mean losing out on the benefits of a safe and appropriate forward bend.

Perhaps these examples are small potatoes in the bigger world of bold-faced lies and malicious deceit, but a big deal is a small deal that grew. When we walk through the world on a ground of dishonesty, our fundamental perception of reality starts to dissolve. We no longer recognize that we already have everything we need to be happy. Then, thinking that what we have or who we are isn’t good enough, we embellish the truth to compensate.

Knowing that thought turns into speech, which turns into action, which ultimately affects our whole world, it’s fortunate that meditation can provide a clear vantage point from which to make choices about what you say to yourself and others. Honestly, isn’t that how you would rather live?