Near Enemy #8: Speaking your truth

What are ‘near enemies to the truth’?  Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.

Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.  

Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this month's Near Enemy. 

NEAR ENEMY #8: 'Speaking my truth'

In 2018, 'truth' is a slippery concept indeed. Many people are proudly 'speaking their truth' which seems like a difficult thing to do without first establishing what truth is. I propose that truth is, by its very nature, inarguable. Unfortunately, this definition doesn't help matters much, because most people are unable to accurate discern what is inarguable from what is not. 

There are two types in inarguable truths: subjective and objective. Objective truths are those we can all agree on if we bother to check: like the speed of a falling object in Earth's gravity, the number of minutes between sunrise and sunset, or whether the number of reported violent crimes has increased or decreased in the past decade (FYI, it's decreased by an astonishing 16.5% in the US). Subjective truths are by definition known only to the one experiencing them (like what you dreamed last night and whether you have a pain in your knee right now) and are inarguable on that basis. (While anyone might be lying about their subjective experience, we can't know for sure that they are lying, and hence their testimony remains inarguable [but often, for that very reason, not very significant].) 

Surprisingly, though the difference between these two is very clear, people mix them up all the time. This often happens when the subjective experience in question is a thought that is believed by the one having it. Instead of reporting the truth of the matter — e.g. "I'm thinking that you don't want me here, and I'm finding that thought difficult to disbelieve" — we tend to simply speak the thought as if it's an objective truth, something we have objectively observed: "You don't want me here." See the difference? The first statement is inarguable, and the second is not, as abundantly proven by the fact that upon uttering it, your interlocutor (usually) disputes it. This is hugely important for interpersonal relationships: if we can speak in actual inarguables, we rapidly get to the heart of the matter and have a productive conversation instead of wasting mental-emotional energy on disputing arguable interpretations. As a guideline for successful relationships, this comes out tops in my book.  Here's an example of a statement full of inarguables that is likely to result in effective communication and human connection:

When I walked into the kitchen this morning and saw the stack of dirty dishes in the sink (objective inarguable), my heart sank (subjective inarguable). It's so important to me to walk into a clean kitchen in the morning (subjective statement of value, also inarguable), and I began to worry that that need wasn't likely to be met (subjective inarguable). Would you be willing to commit to do your dishes before bed every night?

Let's contrast that to how these conversations usually go down. 

A: What's bugging you?
B: I'm tired of living with someone who doesn't care about my needs, that's all. 
A: What are you talking about?
B: You're always leaving the kitchen a mess! Why are you such a slob? Don't you care about other people? Can you please have some f***ing consideration? 
A: Jesus, you're one to talk!  You're always on my case! Why don't you stop being such an anal clean freak and consider the fact that I might have a need to be left in peace for once?

They could not be more different. Notice how using inarguables results in a much higher likelihood that one's needs get met. This is because of the Satya principle, which states that truth is always the most effective strategy — if only one can discern what truth actually is. In some alternative spirituality circles, a kind of solipsism is confused and conflated with nonduality. When this happens, a person becomes unable to clearly distinguish between subjective and objective truths. Witness this example, which I received via private message (using the plural pronoun in place of the singular to obscure gender): 

[So-and-so] had their "intuition" based on what they felt about me, and that became absolute, unquestionable truth. In other words, THEIR truth about MY truth was the only thing permitted to be THE truth—otherwise I was questioning their truth. So if they felt X, and decided they were feeling that because I felt or wanted Y, then the only possible truth was that I felt/wanted Y. It was a fundamental inability to distinguish their truth from either other people's subjective truths or the objective truth. . . . It's difficult to describe what it's like being in a relationship with someone who believes they're the only ones allowed to define reality, including your reality. . . . . it kinda scrambled my brain for awhile.

So let's get down to some brass tacks. To save yourself enormous heartache (and headaches), get obsessed for a few months with clearly differentiating objective and subjective truths, and making sure both are expressed using inarguable statements. (And don't even think about telling someone else they should do this unless you're already doing it perfectly all the time, for reasons that will become obvious if you ignore this advice.) Test your statements out on a friend who's in on the game before using them with the person they actually concern. Remember, objective truths are things everyone can agree on. Subjective truths fall into the following categories: sensations, feelings, needs, desires, and values. Click the links in the previous sentence (and pull up your laptop's dictionary app) to develop your vocabulary around feelings, needs, desires, and values, without which you are likely to express a judgement when you're trying to express a feeling or need. (And thanks to the late great Marshall Rosenberg for developing the most effective languaging for this realm of discourse.)

And here, indeed, is the very nub of the issue. Since English, like many languages, possesses something call the past passive participle (PPP), which functions as an adjective, any judgement of another person can be disguised as a first-person statement of one's own feeling or experience, such as in the statement "I feel disrespected", where the participle disrespected denotes not a feeling but an evaluation of what you think the other person has done. Note that this is not an inarguable, so is very likely to get you into trouble. It stands in for the inarguable truth of the matter, which is probably something like "I feel sad and angry, because I want you to give greater importance to my feelings, needs, and values than you currently seem to be doing". I say 'probably' because each judgement disguises and obscures the underlying reality, which is always specific to each individual case. 

So let's be clear: if you want to communicate and connect effectively, whenever you say "I feel ______", for god's sake put an actual emotion in the blank, not a disguised judgment. Because here's the thing: you can articulate truth from a first-person perspective ('I'),* but not a second-person perspective ('you'). A statement beginning with the word 'you' presumes to characterize, label or classify someone else's subjective experience, which none of us has the right to do, with some rare exceptions.** It's not really about whether one has the right, of course; more to the point, it's just not truth when you're characterizing your evaluations of someone else's subjective experience as anything other than what they are (thoughts, guesses, speculations, etc.). 

Therefore, judging, diagnosing, labelling, or pathologizing another person is not 'speaking your truth' (NB: the link leads to my controversial and soon-to-be-revised Facebook post on the subject). Characterizing another person's experience, feelings, needs, or values is not speaking your truth. Your truth, by definition, is precisely that arena which is unknowable to others: your sensations, feelings, needs, desires, and values. Now you might lay claim to your thoughts, and argue that whatever opinion you hold is also "my truth", but there you make a crucial and all-too-common-in-the-21st-century mistake. Since thoughts & opinions relate to and impinge on our shared experience, every single one of them, without exception, is up for debate. And some opinions can be shown to be more valid than others, because they are better supported by factual evidence. So it's not at all true that 'everyone's entitled to their opinion.'  Everyone's entitled to think what they like, but as soon as they express an opinion, they are offering it into the arena of cultural discourse and it becomes part of our communal struggle to find intersubjective truths.*** Your opinion, once expressed, is not your truth but part of our collective search for intersubjective meaning. 

In conclusion, I invite and implore all readers to pause, breathe, and reflect before speaking anything of significance, especially anything that carries an emotional charge. What can you actually know to be true about the situation? What are the objective inarguables and the subjective inarguables? And what are your thoughts, intuitions, and suspicions about the other person?  It's okay (meaning, not harmful) to share the latter, as long such thoughts are honestly labelled as what they are. For example, you might say, "Based on behaviors X, Y, and Z (objective inarguables), my mind's telling me the story that you don't really care about me, and right now I'm having a hard time believing it" or "You haven't told me how you're feeling, but my intuition tells me you're mad at me—can you tell me if that's true?" So many arguments are avoided if we cultivate the necessary humility to avoid assuming that our thoughts, intuitions, and suspicions are necessarily correct, and actually get curious about the other person's inner world, how they perceive and interpret things (while suspending judgements about the validity of such interpretations).

Of course, if it turns out later that your intuition was correct and the other person lied to you, you might want to step back from or sever that relationship: absolutely nothing damages human relations more than lying, and one of the most harmful forms of lying is gaslighting -- where you make the other person distrust their own accurate intuition through systematic denials and statements that imply they are delusional (but don't get me started about the current social media trend of labelling counter-arguments as gaslighting to avoid engaging with them and to demonize one's interlocutor). 

Satyagraha! May we all have the moral courage to be loyal to truth, and the humility to admit how much we don't know for sure. Satyāgraha! May we speak the truth we do know, while remaining soft and open to hear the other person's experience. Satyāgraha! May we believe the person we're listening to, over and above our story about them. Satyāgraha! May we engage in nonviolent communication in every area of our lives. And may all beings benefit. 

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* Or, if you're a trained professional such as an employed scientist or a licensed psychologist, you are qualified to articulate truth from a third-person perspective within your field of expertise. 
** Such as a well-trained, licensed mental health professional who offers a diagnosis with the aim of helping the individual so diagnosed. Even in that case, one would hope that the professional in question is aware that most mental health categories are cultural constructs that are designed to serve and help suffering people, and have no reality or utility outside of that context. 
*** Recently one our foremost intellectuals, Yuval Harari, has written and spoken about our collective difficulty in distinguishing fact from fiction. He pointed out that the human brain is equipped to distinguish between what is objectively true (that which we all agree on if we bother to measure it, like the speed of a falling object) and what is subjectively true (one's individual thoughts, sensations, dreams, etc.) but is almost wholly unable to escape this binary and discern a third category, the intersubjective. This category is exemplified by our shared fictions, like money, nations, religions, race, human rights, and corporations. These things are intersubjectively true because the vast majority of human beings agree to treat them as true and real, and those who don't becomes social outcastes (at best). When everyone agrees to treat something as true and real, it acquires tremendous power, even if it is wholly fictional.  Now things get really complicated when we talk about intersubjective realities that pertain only to small groups of people (like cults) or micro-groups like a group of friends or even a couple. <<MORE HERE>>

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Since it's so relevant, I append here the discussion from the first post in the Near Enemy series; if you haven't read it yet, please do so!

on the importance of truth in spiritual inquiry

We now live in a social and political climate rightly described as ‘post-factual’, which means that people are not clear on what facts are, and/or suspect they don’t exist in any reliable fashion. The primary reason for this is the Internet, which since its privatization in 1994 has given people access to an enormous amount of information and an staggering amount of misinformation. In combination with our failed education system, which still does not require students to take classes in critical thinking skills (such as understanding the basic logical fallacies), this means that the vast majority of citizens cannot skillfully separate fact from half-truth from outright fiction (or finds those distinctions meaningless; more on that in another post).

Let’s briefly review the difference. A fact is something everyone can agree on: for example every single human who bothers to measure it will find, like Galileo did, that an object dropped from a tall building will fall at a rate of 9.8m/s squared (with slight adjustments based on latitude to account for centrifugal force). So that’s a fact. Facts also exist in other disciplines as well as science: for example, a massive amount of evidence demonstrates that a passenger liner called the Titanic sunk in 1912, such that no reasonable person who looks at the evidence could doubt it. Facts don't change over time, they only seem to change in the eyes of the general public because collecting more data makes scientists revise earlier conclusions (prematurely released to the press) in light of the expanded and more detailed data set. But facts themselves don't change; rather, our ability to describe them slowly improves, which sometimes entails the realization that an earlier effort at description was off the mark.  

Now, by contrast, a fiction or untruth is a statement for which no careful observer can find sufficient evidence (such as ‘dogs can fly’ or ‘aliens built the pyramids’ or ‘vaccines cause autism’), assuming that the observer is not already committed to a specific conclusion when she begins her observation (that's super important: only inquiry motivated by curious openness, without a foregone conclusion, can produce truth). 

There is also a special kind of scientific fiction called a hypothesis, which means something that very well might be true but for which there is not yet sufficient evidence (“the jury’s out”). Now here’s where it gets slightly more complicated. In science, it is well understood that nothing can be proven with 100% certainty (because the scientific method is mostly inductive): something can be disproven, or something can be proven with anything up to 99.99999999999999% certainty (yes, that is an exact figure, from quantum electrodynamics, the most well-proven of all scientific models). When a hypothesis reaches a very high percentile of likelihood (usually, from 97% to 99%), it is called a theory in science. This confuses the general public, because nonscientists use the term ‘theory’ to mean ‘hypothesis’ or even ‘guess’. But the Theory of Relativity and the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection are called such because they are more than 99% likely to be right, after more than a century of testing. How do we establish that likelihood? When countless experiments using a hypothesis successfully explain past and present events and accurately predict future events.

Now, a theory is a successful mental model, so in the terms of an earlier blog post of mine, it is part of second-order reality, not first-order reality. But what is hugely important to recognize is that some mental models are far more accurate than others (because they stand up to repeated testing and make accurate predictions). If the theories developed by science didn’t work consistently, you wouldn’t be reading this right now, because computers wouldn’t exist.

But we can go even farther. If there weren’t some fundamental truths about human beings that we all have in common, we would never be able to understand one another. These truths are harder to articulate, because though there is such a thing as an accurate generalization, it’s very difficult to phrase it in such a way that entails the least number of exceptions (and critics will always point out the exceptions as if that invalidates the generalization). However, we can try an example from social psychology: I think we can all agree that all human beings have an indeterminate number of mental/emotional needs, such as the need for a measure of autonomy, the need for a sense of safety or security, and so on. These are impossible to quantify, but we can all agree we have them. And with a little reflection, we will probably all agree that most people most of the time are trying to get their needs met in the best way they know how. Insofar as we all agree about these propositions, we can call them facts; or at least, truths.

But how does this apply to spiritual philosophy? Doesn’t spirituality belong to a different domain entirely? No, I argue. If it does, it is not spirituality but fantasy. Wishful thinking. Any spiritual philosophy (SP) worth its salt offers propositions (hypotheses) that can and must be verified in your direct experience, that is, empirically. An SP (as opposed to mere religion) implicitly argues “If you apply yourself to these awareness cultivation experiments for a certain length of time, it is likely that you will come to agree with many of these propositions we offer you, even if they are counter-intuitive at first.” Of course, for this to work, it’s important that you are not emotionally or personally invested in that SP being right, and yet at the same time are fully open to the possibility that it might be right about some of its key tenets.

SP, like science, develops hypotheses, a few of which become theories. Still, spirituality does not equal science, because many of its propositions are not falsifiable, meaning they cannot be proven wrong, which is a requirement in science. But some of them are falsifiable, such as the proposition that “we’re all connected” (more precisely, in the language of physics, the universe is entangled, meaning that you can’t act on one part without affecting all the parts, or at least inseparable, meaning that no part of it can be permanently closed off from any other part). Lastly, unlike science, spirituality offers propositions that can only be verified in subjective conscious experience, not in objective public space. Still, many of them can be verified (by anyone patient enough) with a reasonable amount of certainty.

Lastly, we must of course note that any verbal proposition in SP can only approach the truth, because subjective conscious experience by its very nature is nonverbal. Otherwise, you would describe your feelings so perfectly that every listener would know every time exactly what you meant, and that’s clearly not the case. But some spiritual teachings approach the wordless truth more closely than others. And some approach the truth as close as it can be approached in words. When spiritual philosophies have worked to refine the languaging of these teachings over centuries, why should we be satisfied with 'Near Enemies' or even 'Temporary Allies' instead of the best of what they have to offer?