See For Yourself
See For Yourself
More than ever, the word “truth” is ambiguous.
Undesirable information is now dismissed by calling it “fake news.” Integrity is questioned as the first resort, not the last. This approach sows seeds of disconnect and mistrust. We know what kind of fruit those seeds bear.
But let’s unpack this a bit more, because truth is often ambiguous, and yet we must make choices and act. In the case of external information, we often can’t check the veracity for ourselves. It can feel like we are left with “he said / she said.” But are we? The Buddha taught quite a bit about working with “truth.” But he was not teaching this for the world of politics. He had something much more intimate in mind.
The teachings of the Buddha offer some ways to investigate how we know what is true, to practice such that we are not pulled into stories, and ultimately to see through and relate skillfully to the concept of truth.
At this moment, what is true? You may first think of an abstraction, such as “It is evening” or “I am sitting at my desk.” Try getting a little more intimate, and simple. There is the hardness of the chair. But the actual experience is simply hardness, or pressure. Perhaps there is also warmth, mental tiredness, sadness, a ticking sound, or a slight buzzing sensation on the skin of the face. In practical terms, we know things by how they reveal themselves in experience. We could say that truth is simply “what is” (or “what has come to be”).
This also applies in the realm of the mind, and caution is needed to disentangle what actually is. Ideas indicate the presence of thought: There is thought. That is true, while the content of the ideas may or may not be accurate.
An important dimension of practice is to check carefully into what we believe to be true, questioning it. Our mind carries many assumptions that have never been checked and which prevent us from seeing things as they are and knowing freedom.
When my friends were moving into a new apartment, they could not fit the desk through the bedroom door. They were carrying it with the desktop upward, as one uses a desk. At that moment, they might have asserted as truth, “The desk does not fit through the door.” Eventually they discovered that by turning it on its side — no longer treating it as a “desk” — it easily fit. We may think that we wouldn’t make such a mistake, but our mind too is easily blocked by unseen assumptions. How often have you heard in a meeting, “We can’t do that because…” In the vast majority of such cases, what follows is an unexamined assumption.
When we begin to see that perception is far from innocent — that the mind shades, distorts, and even censors part of experience — we may feel lost, as if we no longer have any idea what is true. Here, the instruction is: Return to the basic experience of this moment. This is true. Don’t worry whether it is absolutely true.
Or, we may feel the urge to destroy all of our views, concepts, and stories. This is unrealistic. In the words of Rebecca Solnit, “A few decades ago, there was a lot of postmodern anxiety about the idea that every experience was mediated. [But] the real question was the caliber of what was mediating experience, and how much you’re cognizant of it.” Long before postmodernism, the Buddha encouraged developing a mind possessed of love, compassion, and clarity, as well as the skill to watch that mind carefully as it receives and responds to experience.
In doing so, we start to be able to see the stories operating in our mind. We have a story of our life, stories about our strengths and weaknesses, preferences, needs, and aspirations. These often operate subconsciously. We might think we are a poor communicator, or a victim of some circumstance, or a great bridge player. Unless we are aware of these stories, our thoughts and actions will run in line with them. The result is the repetitive situations we tend to encounter (getting into the same relationship again and again, or the same job, for instance), and the suffering this brings.
In some of the earliest teachings of the Buddha, it is stated that wise practitioners come to see stories, ideologies, and views — which we normally designate as “true” or “false,” and in which we place great faith, and for which we suffer greatly — as neither worth defending nor opposing. Such a person “does not construct, prefer, or take up any doctrine” (Sn 803). This is a radical notion. It comes about when we know truth simply as “what is.” Wise View is not a particular view that can be stated as true, but is rather an orientation that understands what views are — having seen through them completely.
There are many practices that help reveal our stories and/or develop the strength to resist their numbing effect. Clearly grounding in the body while experiencing strong emotions and thought patterns helps to manage them while also cutting the tendency for them to continue. One practitioner aptly said, “The body never lies.”
I recall sitting through an episode of shame, calmly noting how the sensation of it originated in the back of my throat and caused my forehead to pucker in a particular way. The interest in this investigation made it quite easy to endure, and I clearly saw that the whole episode arose from a stray thought entering my mind and triggering a story from the past. I neither believed the shame nor fought against it. On another occasion, I observed a flash of anger ripple through my body like a heat pulse or shock wave. When it roared through my head, there was a push against my throat and mouth — I clearly saw how I would have spoken if awareness had not been strong enough. But the view fueling the anger (the defense of “myself”) vanished as quickly as it had formed once the pulse had passed.
There are other approaches too. One teacher investigated his views by devoting himself to writing, requiring that everything he wrote be something he knew to be true. The inquiry technique of Byron Katie (asking about the truth of our thoughts, how we react to them, and who we would be without the story) can also undercut identification with conceptual views.
Some of what your own mind produces is “fake news,” concepts and stories that are distinct from the reality and aliveness of what is happening right now. The key is to recognize this — neither defending nor opposing these stories — and then choose what needs to be done from a place of freedom. Once you have this psychological understanding and skill, it will be easier to respond to the views and actions of people in the external world too.