Lesson 9 — Seeking the Truth
There is a reality. The universe functions in certain ways and not others, for instance. And you and I behave in various ways in various circumstances. Truth, as I am using the term, is human understanding that is in accord with reality, with what actually is. Understanding that is absent (ignorance) and understanding that is not in accord with reality (delusion) create all sorts of problems in our lives. Analysis that is not based on truth misleads us, and action that is not based on truth goes awry. A high quality life, a life that functions smoothly, is a life based on understanding the way things are and the way things work.
Do we want to know the truth about ourselves? About the world around us? About our place in the cosmos?
“Of course,” is the automatic response.
“Yes and no,” is the reality.
We humans are comfort-loving creatures. We are also curious creatures. If our curiosity was never in conflict with our love of comfort, curiosity would take the reins, and many more of us would absorb ourselves in truth-seeking, reality-seeking explorations. Unfortunately, there is often conflict. Some truths upset us. They disturb our comfort.
For the most part, this conflict arises in two kinds of situations. In the first, some newly-acquired understanding conflicts with our existing world view, with our normal way of interpreting and making sense of the data of life. In the second, we see something about ourselves that runs counter to the image we have of ourselves — counter to our assumptions about the kind of person we are – our values, our behavior.
Let’s first consider the world view problem. Each culture has its consensus reality, its set of assumptions about the way things are that represents truth in the overall judgment of that culture. As each of us grows up we acquire our own world view. These individual world views mirror consensus reality in many respects, but not all. To some extent we develop our own set of assumptions about how things are and how things work, as well as about what is valuable and what is not. Parents, friends, school, church, and personal experience all influence the process, and slowly, gradually, we create for ourselves an interpretive framework that helps us make sense of the raw data of life. My world view is in many respects similar to yours, but even in a shared culture, many of the specifics will differ.
We need a world view. It helps us get through a day and a lifetime. Yet that world view can also limit us. In combining many helpful, truth-fostering ways of looking at things with some misleading perspectives and at least a few outright lies, it is a mixed blessing. There are no perfectly-accurate world views.
We get considerable comfort from the feeling that we understand. When, however, something conflicts with our world view — when we are presented with new information about the way things are, or we are asked to interpret old data in a new way — discomfort often arises. This clash between our experience and our assumptions about truth is a form of cognitive dissonance. The level of that discomfort, and our way of dealing with it, depends largely upon how attached we have become to our present world view — how tightly we cling to it.
Some people clutch their world view very tightly and resist accepting any data that would force them to change it, no matter how persuasive the case for change might be. These people have become ego-attached to their habitual way of looking at things, and they interpret a threat to their point of view as a threat to themselves. Rigid, reactive, and closed-minded is the way they appear to others.
At the other end of the spectrum we find wise, open-minded, reality-seeking people. Such people have come to the conclusion that their long term comfort is going to be greatest if they understand what is as clearly as possible. This requires being open to new data and new ways of interpreting data. It requires updating their world view whenever they come upon a better, clearer, truer way of looking at things. They also understand that there are limits to our knowledge. When they don’t know, they acknowledge that they don’t know. They don’t fill in the blanks with guesses and call it truth.
Wise, reality-seeking people also have moments of cognitive dissonance, but their way of dealing with it is very different. Instead of rejecting the new data or perspective in knee-jerk fashion, and immediately mounting a heated defense of their way of seeing things, reality-seeking people risk immersing themselves in the new. Instead of immediately pushing the new idea away, they intentionally move toward it, get into it, try to understand it. Only after they have clearly understood it, do they set it up against the old established “truth” and ultimately accept or reject it. Their desire for clarity and truth is stronger than their desire to avoid discomfort. Also, even when the discomfort exists, it is a less intense discomfort because open-minded people are less ego-attached to their world views. They are less personally identified with them. Sure, like everyone else, their world views form part of their personhood, but they are not afraid of becoming a different person if different means better. And they believe that ways of understanding which are truer, which reflect reality more accurately, are definitely better.
There is another set of assumptions that we carry around with ourselves — a very personal one. It is often called our self-image. Whereas our world view helps us make sense of the external world, our self-image is a picture of the person we believe ourselves to be. The self-image, like the world view, is also the product of years of living and a multitude of influences — parents, siblings, school, friends, etc. Also like the world view, it is not a completely true picture of the way things are. Some people, for instance, have acquired an overly-negative self-image. They’ve become convinced that they have few endearing qualities. They may see themselves as physically unattractive, uncreative, unproductive, or dumb. And with such a self-image in place, they tend to ignore and downplay messages from the world which say that they are better than all that. Because they don’t see things as they are, their unrealistic view of themselves gets in the way of their effectiveness and their growth.
Others of us have an overly-positive image of ourselves. The image we cherish and carry around is of the person we want to become rather than the person we are. Like the too-negative self-image, the too-positive one also interferes with our growth. If we have come to feel that we are perfect, then we avoid acknowledging any behavior, thoughts, or values that fall short of the ideal. If we become attached to a perfect self-image, then discrepancies between reality and perfection cause inner distress, and the brain/mind process sometimes goes to extreme lengths to avoid that pain. It may rationalize the less-than-perfect reality — explain it away by creating a plausible but incorrect reason for it happening. It may deny its existence. It may repress the memory of it having happened. Or it may project it onto others — that is, lead us see as a problem for other people the unskillful behavior that we are unwilling to see in ourselves. Seeing ourselves as we really are, right now, today — warts, dark feelings, unskillful behavior, and all — is the starting point for any sort of personal transformation.
Is there anything we can do to move from delusion about what is, to seeing things as they really are? Of course there is. The first step is to sincerely want to do something about it. We must want to understand what is really going on, even if the reality we find disappoints us in some way. This can be tough. Can we value reality more highly than our hopes? More highly than our expectations? Can we value reality even if it overturns certain long-held, emotionally-cherished assumptions? Intellectually deciding that clarity and truth are better than delusion probably will not automatically change closed-mindedness to open, or overturn a deeply entrenched need to be perfect. It is, however, an appropriate place to start.
We can also adopt a new attitude toward psychic discomfort. When new data conflicts with self-image or world view, and discomfort arises, we can change the way we respond to that discomfort. Instead of trying to push the discomfort away and get rid of it as quickly as possible, we can consider it to be a helpful message saying, “Look more closely at this. Exactly why is it that you are feeling uncomfortable?” When we feel the cognitive dissonance it means that we have seen something, so let’s look squarely at it. Let’s actively investigate the disturbance.
There is something else we can do. We can become more attentive, detached, and quiet-minded. The moments when reality and self-image clash are often fleeting ones. Often, an intention to act flashes through the mind, and action immediately follows. Perhaps an impulse of anger arises, and angry words escape our lips. We may not be attentive enough to see what has actually happened, to see the step-by-step process that led up to, and resulted in, our overt behavior, our harsh speech. Yet we can train ourselves to be more attentive. We can cultivate the kind of quiet, attentive mind that makes such seeing more likely. Yoga, Tai Chi, and mindfulness meditation are all practices that ground us in the present moment and call on us to be attentive to what is happening here and now. Through such practices we become increasingly able to catch the content of each fleeting moment, to see what our mind/body process is really up to.
When we become more accepting of truth-caused discomfort and our own imperfections, things start to get better.
- For one thing, we’re not fighting reality any longer; we’re cooperating with it. In any battle between reality and delusion, reality ultimately wins. And the fighting itself is uncomfortable.
- For another, seeing our own unskillful behavior often starts a subtle process to get rid of it. If we haven’t seen it, it isn’t apt to change. But when we have seen it, the deeper wisdom within starts moving us toward new habits of mind and behavior in which old, unskillful ways no longer have a place.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
“There is a reality.” true or false?
What about a bumper sticker I saw: “The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality”: true or false?
What about the titles of books I have: Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be and The Truth about the Truth? (Welcome to the Postmodern Era!)
“A high-quality life, a life that functions smoothly, is a life based on understanding the way things are and the way things work.” Would you call such an understanding the “Tao te Ching”?
Which is stronger in you: seeking comfort or pursuing curiosity?
How have you found your own “world view” changing or evolving throughout your life? What major challenges to it have you confronted? In what circumstances do you think you are less than “open minded” and “reality seeking”?
How realistic do you think your “self-image” is?
What practices do you follow for grounding yourself in the present moment and attending mindfully to what is happening here and now? Explain what you have learned through such practices.
What “unskilful behaviour” [note Cop’s Canadian spelling of both words] do you recognize in yourself that you can begin to improve?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.