03/20/2013 01:16 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

Tell the Truth, Beginning With Yourself

I have a confession: At times I have been a liar. I have deliberately said things that I know to be not true, usually to avoid embarrassment and chastisement, or to impress others. I have been particularly prone to exaggerations, in the hope that my exaggerations will make the story seem more interesting and impressive, and therefore make me seem more interesting and impressive. And when I do exaggerate I will often deny that I even told a lie, and will actually try to turn the exaggeration into a virtue. "It wasn't a lie," I'd tell myself. "It was a literary device; a way of making a point; the means of teaching a lesson." These are, of course, absurd justifications, which no one believed -- least of all me. Although I wanted to believe otherwise, I knew full well that I was not telling the truth.

I'm sure that I'm not alone in this confession. We all occasionally lie, and none of us tells the truth all the time. This is because the truth can be contrary to what you want. It can hold you to a standard that may undermine, or even destroy, your goals or your momentary desires. So when you don't like the truth you may decide to ignore it, or even determine that is no such thing as truth. But we know that there is a clear difference between truths and falsehoods -- between honesty and deception. We feel elevated and energized when we tell the truth, and corrupted when we do not. And we discover that truth is a reality of absolute goodness to which we ought to align. Finding alignment with truth is a core principle of all great spiritual teachings.

The Talmud states, "Truth is the seal of the Holy One." And from the Gospel of John comes Jesus' famous decree, "The truth will set you free." Spiritual development can only be built on a continual commitment to speaking the truth, and can never develop from deceptions or fallacies. Truth is God's signature.

Telling the truth is a fundamental spiritual practice, but it can be misunderstood and misapplied. We may believe that the commitment to truth means telling your unvarnished opinions about others, especially when you find something that they've done or said to be problematic. "I'm just speaking my truth," the person will proudly announce, after telling you exactly what's wrong with you. And yet this same individual will react with anger or resentment if you say something that they prefer not to hear about themselves. This is an ego hijacking of the idea of truth, in which one's brutal honesty becomes both a source of pride and of protection; claiming to honor the truth, while hiding behind it as a way to avoid looking inward. The remedy for this is to turn the searchlight of truth in the other direction -- away from others and toward yourself.

The ancient Greek aphorism "Know thyself" was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Greek mystics knew that self-knowledge is the essential "entry" attribute needed for anyone seeking wisdom. Self-knowledge comes from the commitment to unflinchingly look at yourself in all your details, including all the aspects that you'd rather not see. This is done with the desire to find out where you may need some adjustment and development so that you learn and grow, and with the faith that truth is always preferable to falsehood. Most importantly, this is done with objectivity -- without the immediate impulse to condemn yourself when you discover something that you had so adamantly avoided seeing. Truth is always rooted in courageous self-honesty.

We resist looking clearly and honestly at ourselves for fear that we will uncover qualities that are in conflict with the self-image that we created. We are afraid of uncovering exactly that which we most fear finding --that which we have determined to be "bad," and that would, we believe, make us a terrible person, a failed parent, a loser, worthless. That's why we tell lies. But the more we try to bury our real selves under self-image ideals, the deeper the shadow grows, and the more lies we tell. This can be especially true for those of us who have created a "spiritualized" self-image. Through this self-image we can try to convince ourselves that we have transcended such "lowly" qualities as anger, jealousy, deception, sarcasm and hatred. And so will not see these qualities in ourselves, because to discover these, we believe, means that we are not, in fact, "spiritual." And this discovery feels intolerable! But this is an upside-down, ego-self invented understanding of spirituality. A spiritual person is not one who is free of unwanted qualities, but one who fearlessly sees them in him/herself with the determination to heal the pain that caused them. Such a person accepts the presence of these qualities without assigning all kinds of terrible meanings to them.

Self-honesty requires that you put aside all your condemnations, and see yourself as you are, in love and acceptance. But this too can be misunderstood. Seeing yourself in love and acceptance doesn't mean that you don't need to address what you find -- that you simply live with your shortcomings as they are, and do nothing to change. And it doesn't mean that there are no right and no wrong, no better and no worse. We must know that gratitude is better than resentment, and that kindness is better than indifference. But you will not fully develop gratitude and kindness until you see your own resentments and indifference because you can't change until you admit that there's a problem to be addressed. The more you resist admitting the problem, the deeper it goes, and more difficult it is to unravel.

There is a lightness of freedom in being able to say to yourself, "Yeah, I can be insensitive, selfish, deceptive, angry, etc." -- all the qualities that are in conflict with how you've love to think of yourself. These can also be qualities that we typically label as "good," such as creativity, independence and strength, but that you had determined make you unsafe or unwanted. Then, in an instant, your heart opens to others who are struggling with the same things; who inwardly fear that they're a terrible person, and who have covered this fear in a practiced and fake veneer. You find curiosity, compassion and even humor, in this discovery: You find curiosity in finding how these qualities manifest and from where they came; compassion in seeing how these unwanted qualities arise from being a fragile and sensitive human being; and humor in seeing how you've blown this whole thing out of proportion, and how deadly serious you've been about it.

It's very sweetly funny to realize how defensive you've been about so little, and to look at all the drama that you've created around it. This is the birth of comedy, when we laugh in shared relief at the adorable human foibles that come from our own self-deception. Now that's a spiritual practice worth pursuing!