What does it take to be honest? This question came to me on my walk along the Hudson River this morning.
Our guru, Neem Karoli Baba, taught to “Love everyone and tell the truth”. Our teacher, Ram Dass, said, “But the truth is I don’t love everyone.” To which the guru replied, “Love everyone and tell the truth.”
I am not so challenged by loving. Loving others has always come quite naturally to me. Maybe this is one of the unintended benefits of a childhood riddled with adults who did not take very good care of me – that I learned to love the essence of a person over their character expression in the world. This has not always served me, mind you, since my radar for bad behaviors has often been overshadowed by my desire and willingness to love, to see the best in, and to offer my heart and compassion. This is also not to say that my own behavior is always expressed or has been experienced as loving, but the truth of my heart has been to love. To understand. To be kind. It’s only been decades into adulthood that I have begun to perceive the bad-intent of others, the hurtful actions, the maliciousness and self-serving meanness as something I ought to avoid, as something even to be judged.
But honesty — now, here is where my teacher was ahead of me. He was able to be honest with himself and the guru about the fact that he really didn’t love everyone. Or, at the time, he was not having love-feelings for all. And for some reason, he was more willing to be honest than to love. (Funny that now he is one of THE living examples of BEING LOVE and GIVING LOVE and SEEING LOVE IN THE OTHER . . . ). In that retold dialogue above, when Maharaj-ji asks him – “Do you love me?”, Ram Dass cries. He breaks. He softens and let’s go. He can’t HELP but love everyone in the wake of the guru. It’s just not possible to close off your heart like that once it’s been opened. It’s difficult to accept this, somehow, especially when righteous anger and betrayals take shape in our lives, which they do for all of us at some point and in our own way. But still, to love . . .
The first year or so after a bad break-up, I was oscillating between this horrible state of pain and anger and this unknown place of love. By this point in my spiritual life, I KNEW that I had to stay in love – that there was no other way (even, that there is nothing else!) yet I just could not come to terms with being in love while processing the grief and anger and pain. And so I would jump back and forth between the two states. When I was in love, I would have these brief experiences of softening and shedding and letting go and opening up to the whole in a new and more compassionate and powerful way. But often these love-bursts would devolve into something else entirely and I would find my way into a state of grasping and aversion without the aptitude to pull myself back into the seat of love. This went on for some time. Too much time really, where I was seriously pursuing the awakened path but completely unable to reconcile with my own emotions and maintain a deep connection to the spiritual heart. It was as if I were living two lives, jumping between these primal emotional states and the abiding sense of the One.
I eventually came to understand that I was not willing to be honest.
Because the honest truth was too complicated for my make-up at the time. I could not accept the whole. I did not want the whole. All one – Sub Ek! I wanted, like Ram Dass before me, for some things to just be out of order. That somehow things were wrong and needed to be righted. “Don’t you see it’s all perfect” — No!
I was listening to a Here & Now Podcast talk from Ram Dass (transcript) where he was sharing about meeting his disembodied friend Emmanuel and his imploring Emmanuel about the “mistake” of him having taken a human birth. He said to Emmanuel, “What am I doing here?” and the disembodied friend replied, “You’re on Earth – why don’t you try taking the curriculum.” Now this language was perfect for Ram Dass, formerly, Richard Alpert, Ph.D. – someone who truly valued the institution of learning and the academic lane of curriculum. This turn of phrase was perfect for his mind to shift his perspective into a new experience of life. He got the teaching he needed to see his own incarnation as perfect. If the higher mind or the soul or karma or the guru was giving a class, he could now be a good student and follow along, do the homework, write the essays, recite the recitations, study, take the exams and eventually, learn it well enough to teach and guide us too.
For me, these turns of phrase have been permeating my mental and heart landscape through the reading and re-reading of Miracle of Love and my own “imaginary” conversations with Maharajji. He turns my mind in such bizarre ways that I have been forced to act and see things in completely new angles and light. It’s very strange and sometimes feels a little insane. It’s something that I have had to get used to, and to trust that ultimately, these odd insights and intuitions are more often than not leading me into a deeper understanding of truth, myself, and the nature of reality.
So today along the waterfront, this question – What does it take to be honest? came to me and I was truly stumped. You would think it’s just “telling the truth” or something like “willingness” or “courage”. But when I processed these answers alongside the deep knowing of my guru-self, they did not resonate. And so I sat here to write this out and see if I could, in attempting to share with you, find the answer to this mind-turning question: What does it take to be honest?
It’s a question for our time really. I mean, with the complete adherence to absolute untruths abounding. The attacks on any form of consensus reality. The undermining of news and presentations of real life. The absolute mess of mind-traps around who or what or where is truly happening and how and when and all the conspiracies and out-right denials . . . it is a worthy question!
Most of us, I assume, go through our day with the best intention of being truthful.
A white lie here and a white lie there, we may have grown accustomed to (ie. I only ate two cookies — I got up at 6 am —) but even these, in the practice of spiritual awakening, begin to seem unnecessary and the harmful effects of this kind of truth-manipulation start to present themselves while experience of unconditional love makes it easy to forgive and just love the seven cookies you ate and the 7:45 am rise from bed.
One answer that came to me for the question, What does it take to be honest? was to “give up anger”, another of Maharaji-ji’s teachings. Back to the example of the break-up: when I was in love, I could not be in anger and so telling the truth became complicated. I wanted to be angry! But if I was honest, there was still so much love and with that I could not have my anger too. The honesty was to BE IN LOVE but anger was more readily available and for the moment, felt a little better and more powerful.
Another answer that came to me was “faith” – it takes faith to be honest because one of the things that dishonesty can do is uphold the status quo. So being honest is a step towards the unknown and that requires faith because once you’re honest, the only next place to go is deeper into honesty and who knows where that leads? (to truth, likely!) But most of the time, we hardly even know if we’re being dishonest ourselves. I might even argue that those in power at this time have so distanced themselves from truth that they may not even see their lies as such. I may think that I went for a 40 minute run but when I really look at the time, I see how I had to wait at the light to cross the street, stopped to check my phone, paused to take in the sunset, took a picture of the sunset, posted it to Instagram . . . walked for a bit, stopped and pet a cute dog. I would not be lying to you if I said I went for a 40-minute run since I did put on my sneakers and head out the door to do so 40 minutes ago but it’s not really the truth of what happened either.
Ultimately what I came up with was “pain”. My best answer to date for the question what does it take to be honest? so far is ‘pain’.
Pain makes you honest, or maybe, said another way: “Suffering is grace.”
Suffering is grace because it brings you so close to God, as Maharaj-ji has said. That is the real “tapas” (the third of Patanjali’s niyamas – which comes from the Sanskrit “to burn” or “heat”). Discipline. Austerity. Burning away the impurities. I think it’s something like this that really leads to honesty. It’s something that comes from getting real which arises for looking clearly at yourself which is often more exercise than enjoyment. And, revealing what is actually happening can be less than ideal to the ego-mind.
There’s the worn-out 12 step idea of this called “bottoming out” – the idea that someone is not willing to admit they have a problem until everything goes to pot. But then, that’s not really being honest is it? Just surrendering to your own brokenness doesn’t make you honest. And, you really do know there’s something going on way before the bottom – you may not be willing to look but the truth is already present.
No, there is a whole lifetime of tapas. You get saved, one truth at a time. And, this truth C H A N G E S moment to moment, day to day, month to month, year to year. You’ve got be ALIVE to be honest. The “living truth” – as Jesus Christ himself is often called.
I am now living with this question – What does it take to be honest? Is there some better way to live?