Precept 4: I Vow Not to Lie, But to Speak the Truth

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the fifth post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

“I will honor honesty and truth, I will not deceive.”

What is a lie? It occurs to me that there are myriad ways a person can lie. There are outright falsehoods that are clearly and factually wrong. There are “white” lies: Santa Claus, telling a person they look fine when they actually don’t, etc. There are exaggerations. There are lies of omission: under-reporting income on your taxes, leaving bad employment experiences off of job applications, etc. One can lie to others and to himself. Willful ignorance can be a form of lying to oneself. In a way, all the stories we have about ourselves are lies because they take us away from the direct experience, the direct truth of our lives.

I’ve always considered myself an honest and truthful person. But in thinking about all the ways that there are to lie, I realize that I do lie, and more often than I’d like to admit.

In some cases this takes the form of exaggeration. My father was a great exaggerator. No matter what our accomplishments were growing up, he would inflate them when relating them to friends and family. It drove me nuts. Nevertheless, at some point in my early twenties, I realized that I had internalized this bad habit. When relating things that would happen to me, I’d automatically hyperbolize the facts. 15 widgets became 100 and so on. At first this seemed perfectly natural and okay to me. It was good storytelling, I thought. I was just making the story interesting. But now I realize that undermining the truth, even in these little ways can be damaging. And, if I’m willing to lie about seemingly inconsequential things, what else am I willing to lie about?

Another way I found myself lying is when I started freelancing full-time. At first I really struggled in my communication with clients and in planning and making deadlines. Mostly this was driven by inexperience rather than incompetence or malice. But the result is that I would promise things that I couldn’t deliver and I would commit lies of omission by not communicating when I was running late on a project and by not asking for help. It took me really getting in over my head on a particular project to realize that being completely honest was the better route to take.

Now, if I don’t know how to do something, I say so. If I mess up on something, I immediately bring attention to it. If I’m running behind, I communicate that fact. As difficult as it can be to be honest, I’ve found that it’s much more difficult to endure the consequences when the truth arises, as it inevitably does.

Often, lying is rooted in fear. I exaggerate when I think that I will not be interesting enough on my own. I lie when I fear that some harm will come to me, be it loss of income, physical or emotional pain, etc. So one way that I work with this precept to examine what I’m feeling when I have the urge to lie. Most of the time I find that I want to avoid feeling something. I don’t want to be vulnerable or embarrassed, or I don’t want to experience loss. Once I’ve identified where the desire to lie originated, then I can make the choice to act truthfully (rather than simply react to this desire).

One of the reasons lying is so damaging an act is that it serves to destroy intimacy. I touched upon this a bit when writing about the third precept. There I mentioned that lies act as barriers. When we lie, the object of our lie becomes further separated from us. They become an ‘other.’

This aspect of the precept comes up for me when I am dealing with people that irritate me. I’ve noticed a certain habit I have wherein when I find someone abrasive, irritating, or simply have a difficult time connecting with then, I come to all sorts of judgements about what that person is like as a whole and how it’s okay for me not to like him/her and engage that person in friendships. At some point during the last year or two, probably as a direct result of my practice, I decided that instead of making up a story about these irritating people, I would engage them wholeheartedly. If and when I felt irritation, I’d simply note it and continue on rather than making up a story about it.

I’ve found that this is an amazing way to work with people. It allows me to connect with more people in a more genuine way.

I do think that there exist circumstances where lying can be appropriate. For example, when one participates in our judicial system I think that lies of omission can be acceptable. I do not mean lying under oath. I mean that one should follow the advice of their legal counsel and not reveal things that could be potentially damaging. Our justice system is relies on this structured revealing of information in order to provide the most amount of benefit to society as a whole.