The following piece was written by Brianna Goodman, copy and features editor for MindBodyBrew. Brianna teaches yoga with The Perri Institute for Mind and Body in New York City. She currently attends Fordham University, where she is pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing, with a minor in Communications. Catch her class Sunday and Wednesday mornings at Steps on Broadway.
I’ve often found that reading, more than any other activity, implores the task of self-reflection. Lately, I seem to be reading book after book that demands readers to be more honest. This pattern has forced me to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth—I’m not always so great at being honest.
I don’t think of myself as a particularly dishonest person. I avoid embellishing resumes, I don’t round up when calculating my roommate’s half of the groceries; I told my Mom about the dent in her car the day I acquired it (although, scout’s honor, I am still convinced that this dent was the result of a hit and run, and not from the pile of snow that I bumped into). I do, however, often employ the ‘little white lie.’ I do it in situations that are arguably harmless, and I do it in order to make people feel—or at least what I believe will make them feel—comfortable. I am a people pleaser who will stop at almost nothing to avoid confrontation. It’s why I tend to apologize to strangers on the street when they’ve hit me with their bags, or why I tell friends it’s no problem that they’re perpetually late even though it makes me anxious. The other day I caught myself reassuring a friend that I, too, cannot refrain from consuming an entire bag of chips in one sitting… what? Cookies maybe, but definitely not chips. (Even that was a lie. One or two cookies is really enough.)
These are small instances that hardly seem to matter. But the more I catch myself tossing out little white lies, the more I realize that the compulsion to ‘put people at ease’ is kind of problematic. I lie because I choose comfort over truth, and not only does this violate the non-duality principle of Buddhist philosophy that I know and admire, but it also doesn’t make for a particularly productive existence. Telling these little untruths presumes the haughty assumption that those I’m speaking to require me to put them at ease—I’d certainly be upset if others thought the same of me. It also assumes that there is a fundamental essence to comfort, and that this essence is inherently good. As a yoga teacher, I implore students weekly not to place value judgments on their practices, or on themselves. I encourage them to embrace that concept of non-duality, and to observe and acknowledge the present moment without labeling it as good or bad, as success or failure. And yet here I go, clinging to comfort and running from discomfort, unwilling to acknowledge that embracing the discomfort that the truth can bring is sometimes exactly what is needed. Discomfort is a tool that lets us know when something deserves our attention. It’s an incredibly important tool that should not be avoided.
As I look closer at the conditions under which I lie, I’m discovering that it’s about more than just me trying to make people feel good. It’s a lot about me wanting other people to feel good about me. I apologize to the bag-bearing strangers because I fear they’ll think I’m rude. I assure friends that their lateness is fine because I’m worried they’ll think I’m uptight. I agree that chips are impossible to put down because I don’t want people to think I’m judgmental, or a snob. It’s all about me, and my desire to be liked—even by people I’ll likely never see again, and who probably didn’t notice, let alone think about, me at all. But the authors, thinkers, and teachers whom I admire aren’t the ones suppressing their feelings to avoid discomfort; they’re the ones who speak their truths, whatever they may be, accepting that this might garner them a critic or two.
I recently finished Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and loved it for dozens of reasons I never expected to. It was compassionate, reflective, funny, and most importantly, honest. More than once, Poehler described her own self-check for ensuring the truth:
“You put your hand on your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true.”
This exercise is so simple, so direct, and yet it has kept me pondering for weeks. Sit back, place your hand on your heart, and ask yourself if what you’ve written—or in many cases, said—is true. How often do we breeze through conversations without pause for reflection? It’s nothing new to say that our culture favors the quick: quick typers, quick thinkers, quick food preparers, etc. But accomplishing the quick often comes at the expense of the truth. Media outlets are constantly retracting previous statements published hastily, apologizing for whatever untruth they’ve unwittingly presented. Text messages are sent to unintended recipients because we neglect to take the time to confirm our receiver. Insensitive tweets, inappropriate Instagrams, misspelled emails—the list of unlikeable byproducts of our faster! faster! nation is unending. Poehler’s simple exercise, I believe, has the power to be revolutionary. How much more effective could we be, both individually and collectively, if we paused and gave ourselves the space to confirm our honesty?
In Ethan Nichtern’s wise and approachable book, The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, a section on ‘Mindful Expression’ also implores practitioners to seek honesty:
“In the Buddhist teachings on appropriate speech, the first lesson is always to try to express ourselves truthfully, without twisting the meaning of what we are saying. This does not mean we have to disclose everything to everyone. When we choose to share things, the question is whether we can do so without changing or sugar-coating what we are saying. For me, the most important aspect of this piece of skillful speech is the willingness to be open and authentic.”
The phrase “when we choose to share things” is incredibly important here, because there is always a choice. We must be able to acknowledge the moments when we know we cannot—or should not—tell all, and recognize that it is perfectly okay to be quiet, and to listen. If my little white lies derive from the feeling that the truth would be unwelcome, then maybe it’s okay to be quiet, and support whoever is making their own confessions (so long as staying silent isn’t a cop out for a truth that is harmful, and at times immoral, to suppress). I also like the reminder to acknowledge when we’re twisting our truths, because these twists can signal to us that we’re avoiding the heart of the matter—perhaps because we’re afraid of how the real truth will be received. Maybe these fears are warranted, but often times I’d argue that they are not. We don’t give our friends and loved ones even half the credit they deserve; they can handle a little awkwardness. We all can.
As I finish Stephen King’s On Writing, I am once again confronted with the immediate need to speak the truth. In answer to the question, ‘What should I write?’ King is quite blunt:
“Anything you damn well want. Anything at all…as long as you tell the truth.”
For King, if it isn’t truthful, it’s basically worthless. If a writer isn’t truthful, then they aren’t serious about their craft:
“This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the morality Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it…If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t, or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.”
That last sentence in particular struck a chord—how often have I rejected stories before I’ve even written them, for fear they might offend someone I know? I fear writing something too political, because I worry I’ll burn bridges. I fear the permanence of the Internet age, and worry that a published piece will later haunt me with its flaws. These fears and hesitations seem to me to be a less-obvious mode of hoarding—in this instance, a hoarding of the truth. But King writes frankly about books he’s written that he’s not too fond of—he doesn’t obsess or regret, just acknowledges and moves on. He has his critics, but they don’t devastate him. He doesn’t worry that he’ll crumble under the weight of one bad review, and I think many of us—certainly me—could take after his lead.
We can’t derive our satisfaction from the praise of others; it’s an unreliable, unproductive tactic for reassuring ourselves of our worth. We can’t silence our truths because someone might not like them. We can’t please everyone, and trying to do so only holds us back from the progress we can make, and the stories we can share. In the end, we have our ability to self-reflect, and our ability to know, for ourselves and ourselves alone, what is honest and authentic. That, and not the compliments of others, should be our driving force.
So before I press send, before I quickly blurt out an ‘innocent’ half-truth, before I discard a piece of writing because I fear criticism, I’ll take my lead from Amy, and these other truth-tellers:
I’ll place my hand on my heart, I’ll feel its beat, and I’ll determine if what I’m about to say feels true.