The Haunting Truth of A Lie

I think we all know this. When we are less than honest we are more than likely to be haunted by it. But there is so much discussion today about lying, so many lies fill the headlines, we might stop looking at how our own lies affect us.

 

When we tell a lie, we know the truth. If we say something we think is true and it’s not, we’re just wrong or misinformed, not lying. When we lie, we split ourselves in two—the truth we did not speak and the lie we did. One we let out in public, one we keep hidden in a back room.

 

Sometimes, we feel there is a good reason for lying. We think it might serve the greater good or save someone from being hurt. We feel the person we’re talking with is not ready for the truth. 

 

Sometimes, we’re the one not ready for the truth. We lie because it’s convenient or easier for us to do so. It gets us something we want or it protects our image of ourselves.

 

But if we think a lie serves our self-image, than our view of ourselves becomes haunted….

 

This blog was published by the Good Men Project. To read the whole piece, click on this link.

Am I Good Enough Yet?

When I was teaching secondary school students, if I asked a class, “how often do you torture yourself by thinking ‘I’m not good enough’?” Students would laugh, smile with both embarrassment and familiarity, and then most would raise their hands in recognition. It was a good question to break open a group. But why is that?

 

Psychology gives us many reasons. We carry at least some degree of our past in our present. If people have said or done negative things to us often enough, we become conditioned to carry the hurt. If our parents and families have been dysfunctional, we can carry dysfunctional habits, guilt or blame. We hear other people in our heads—parents, friends, lovers, teachers, sometimes even strangers we meet on the street.

 

Evolutionary psychologists say we are born with a predisposition to look for faults. It is called a negativity bias. We are sensitized to look for any form of a threat as a way to actually protect ourselves from them. But this can lead to imagining we can ward off an attack by attacking ourselves first.

 

Our economic system teaches us to think of ourselves as our resume, as a list of achievements with a title above it, and as a marketable entity. Only those with a good resume are valuable—and we gain value by comparing ourselves to others and appearing better than them. So we think of ourselves as a continuing entity, as an independent being separate, distinct, and in competition with others.

 

But there’s even more going on here. Our mind plays a curious game with our sense of self. We see ourselves one minute as we imagine someone else might see us. And in the next minute, we see ourselves as this subjective, conscious experience. When we look at other people, they often seem consistent and stable in identity. From the outside, other people can appear as clearly defined, distinguishable, separate beings. They have the same basic face and figure, with a recognizable personality, tone of voice, and gestures. They, and we, respond to a name, a label.

 

But when we look at our selves, it is not so clear. We know we have different moods and emotions and that our thoughts about the world and ourselves can change rapidly. We know that we sometimes don’t know what to do and we can feel completely adrift. We know that when people ask us “How are you?” and we say, “I’m good,” that the reality is much more complicated and indefinable.

 

So we want to know how others think of us. We try to imagine how we look, how we seem to others. We expect our whole being to be as relatively unchanging to ourselves as other people usually look to us. We think we should be as clear on the inside as we imagine we are on the outside. As the Buddha and other thinkers have pointed out, we expect something from ourselves or from our notion of self that it can’t deliver, namely surety. This expectation masks who we are and makes us vulnerable to feeling something is wrong in ourselves, when nothing is wrong except the expectation. The view from the inside is obviously different from that of the outside. On the inside, it has to be at least somewhat mysterious, unknown, or we would always try to reproduce on the inside what has already been produced outside. To be alive and conscious is to face the unknown. To know what will happen is to mean it already happened.

 

Being conscious is a mystery, maybe the biggest mystery there is. ‘Con’ means ‘with.’ ‘Scio’ is from ‘sci’ or the Latin ‘scire’ meaning ‘to know,’ as in the word ‘science.’ ‘Conscious’ is thus ‘to know with.’ It is both an instance of knowing, and a knowing awareness knowing something. The philosopher J. P. Sartre said consciousness is always consciousness of something. Sartre makes the distinction between being-in-itself, being as an object, material, in a specific place and time, and being-for-itself, a constantly changing stream of awareness constantly new, as a relating or point of view.

 

And since to ourselves we are always partly unknown and indistinct, we try to do the impossible and fill the unknown with the already known, or fill the unknown with what we think others think. This is another reason why we might be so ready to judge ourselves negatively. It is easier to accept a negative image of ourselves than to live with no clear identity at all.

 

We are always both a whole, distinguishable being in ourselves, as well as a part in an inseparable, larger whole. It is the role of our senses to make us aware of the world, to show us the whole of which we are part. Yet, our sense of who we are shifts according to where we are and whom we are with. We rarely speak baby talk to an adult or sit unmoved when everyone around us is shouting. When we feel isolated, there is someone or something we feel isolated from. No other, no self.

 

We are constantly trying to place ourselves both in the position of the other and of our distinct self. We need at least these two contrasting viewpoints to allow the world to come alive. In order to speak sincerely and clearly, we need to hear and feel what is going on inside us, as well as understand how others feel—and hear and see us. At the deepest level, we feel most ourselves when we can be sincere. Yet, we feel most sincere when words come seemingly of themselves, spontaneously, unedited by ego concerns. In other words, we feel most ourselves when we aren’t concerned or worried about our self.

 

So, when we feel somehow not good enough, the first thing to examine is our understanding of what we mean by a self. Our sense of self is adaptable and ever changing. It allows us to harmonize with others and act appropriately in any situation we are in, to the degree that we recognize and value its shifting nature. We feel most ourselves, and feel good about ourselves, when its not “me” who speaks, but the world, the truth of the situation, the truth of “me” with “you.” And this is a verifiable type of truth.

A Story of Regret

Regret can be devastating. It can feel like an explosion, yet it is often set off by a seemingly tiny trigger. This happened to me just a few days ago. I gave an impromptu, short presentation to fill in for someone else and I felt that I didn’t do the best job. Suddenly, I had an explosion of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and images. I did a “good” thing, helping out a colleague, and then I felt “bad” about it.

 

So what do you do with regret?

 

I think the first step is analyzing what goes into the emotion—or any emotion. Sit with the question. Let your eyes relax, even close. Calmly breathe in, then out. Then ask: Why feel regret? How does the emotion help me? Emotions have real uses. If you experience an emotion, you say yes to it for a reason. There is something there for you. Regret is unpleasant. Regret makes you reconsider and re-evaluate something you did or thought. Or you can regret what you didn’t do or left undone. Generally, people turn away from what they regret. Or you can get angry about it, angry at yourself or at other people. Regret can thus serve an ethical purpose, so you learn from and do not repeat an action.

 

How is regret different from other emotions, like guilt, remorse, sorrow? Is regret as sharp as guilt or as deep as remorse? There is sorrow with regret. The Encarta dictionary defines regret as feeling sorrow or sadness “about something previously done that now appears wrong, mistaken or hurtful to others.” The root, regreter, from the Old French means “to weep much.”

 

What comes up for you when you think of emotion, in general? I think first of the power emotions can have. They can be overwhelming. We say things like “I was bowled over” or “floored” by some emotion. Emotions can seem solid, heavy. But they are not solid at all. I first realized this when studying the Buddhist teaching of the skandhas, which is a Sanskrit word meaning an “aggregate” of things or elements which make up how things appear. When you mindfully attend to the elements out of which emotions are constructed, the emotion loses its solidity and sense of continuity; it dissipates.

 

Imagine a time that you felt regret. What does the emotion feel like? When I go into regret, I first discover this sense of me isolated from others. I notice a group of sensations, sensations of a particular type and intensity, in a specific place. When I feel sadness, for example, my head and shoulders feel heavy and drop. They turn inwards, as if forming a shell. My mouth and eyes also drop and tense. My stomach feels heavy. With regret, there are sensations like sadness or sorrow but less demonstrative. There is also a touch of anger: a jumpy quality, a tension in my hands, a churning in my stomach. There is the sense of inward pressure.

 

Secondly, there’s a quality to the feelings. They feel pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When you feel something as pleasant, what comes next? Desire. You want it to continue. You want more. But if it’s unpleasant, you want it to end. If it’s neutral, you might want to forget it. Regret feels unpleasant. When I feel it, I don’t want to be seen, or to see myself.

 

Thirdly, images and thoughts stream through my mind. I replay the scene over and over and try out different interpretations of what happened. This is the part I remember the most, because memories and labels get added to the feelings. In my case, I interpret what happened at school. I come up with a story to explain what occurred. I become a character in my own movie with a particular but somewhat new identity, an identity I wanted to avoid ever being. The sorrow of regret is like mourning; it is mourning the loss of an image I held of myself. I previously felt insightful, ready for anything. Now, I feel exposed as I picture people saying, “He’s not as aware as I thought he was.” I feel afraid of my image being diminished or attacked by others. I am no longer a hero in my story.

 

Fourthly, a mental state is constructed out of all these elements producing a way of thinking and perceiving the world. And I plan actions to end the regret. However, since all that I perceive is shaped by my emotion, how do I stop the planning? I wish I could hire a spin doctor.

 

The fifth skandha is consciousness, awareness, the ability to know. It is a two-edged sword. It can lead to suffering. But because I feel the pain of regret, I can do something about it. The initial pain is enough; my response to the pain is something else. Awareness allows a gap between feeling the initial elements of the emotion and doing something because of it. Mindfulness and other practices allow me to expand that gap. The gap allows a recognition that it is my own mental state and my storyline of a distinct, continuing self that is regretted; it is that story that I want to end. The regret brings my attention not only to elements of the remembered situation. It brings my attention to the image I held up in the situation as myself and the shadow cast by that me, the shadow I feared being. The regret is the recognition of that shadow. I feel exposed only when I imagine I am being seen as something I don’t like. Only because I am invested in not being seen a certain way do I care about it.

 

So, when the regret lives on beyond its usefulness, intervene. Go to the gym or do breathing exercises. Get a massage. Or end the storytelling directly. Enter and sit in your own theatre of mind. Watch the play without pretending to be a critic. Recognize that the actor on that stage who bears a resemblance to you is just an actor in a play. Enjoy the show as much as possible. Thank the Shakespeare inside you. And this is really important, although not easy: appreciate even what you think you don’t like in you, even the shadows. Only then will you be able to perceive clearly enough to learn from whatever happens and let it go. So notice what is there for you. And then let it go. Or: breathe in, notice what it feels like to breathe in, notice whatever arises as you inhale. Then breathe out, let go, and return your attention to the breath.

 

Note: I made a correction in an earlier blog after it was published but did not point this out. Sorry. The mistake was in describing the location of the insula or insular cortex of the brain.