Take a moment to play with this brief thought-experiment: imagine that you have found the “truth”; that you have accomplished your spiritual search and have completely attained the “truth”. What emotions and feelings follow this image of accomplishment? Close your eyes and experiment.
If you’re like most of us, your brain has probably produced a sense of deep relaxation, like a final rest in an uninterrupted state of bliss. The fragrance, most likely, is that of coming “home” after a long and arduous journey.
The image and the feelings that are arising in you may be… well, true, but only to some degree. In the same breath, they are quite misleading. It is already a well-established fact – shown in Daniel Kahneman’s researches – that our brain is biased to associating a good feeling with truthfulness. Because our brain would naturally prefer a state of “cognitive ease”, if something feels familiar, good, effortless, and evokes in you good mood, it would also “feel true”. For example, if a spiritual teacher tells us “just do nothing; only effortlessly be and relax”, or “you don’t need to search at all”, or “you are already free”, such statements “feel true” because they support our brain it its search for a state of cognitive ease.
Of course, when our brain forms such a close association between truth and good feelings, we’re no longer really searching for truth; it’s just a feel-good in disguise. Few years ago I greatly disappointed one woman, when I told her that the statement she so dearly cherished, that “all is God’s will”, is not necessarily the truth, but only a concept. Annoyed, she exclaimed, “But whenever I hold on to this thought, it gives me calm and peace. Why would I drop that?”
Too often the sensation of calm and peace becomes inseparably mixed with the revelation of truth. This goes as far as thinking that truth is meant to make us feel better about ourselves. Therefore, it should always be on the calming side, never agitating or disturbing our peace, never leaving us sleepless at night. But one of the implications of this is that we are then exposed to the danger of losing touch with truth as a great disturber, as a great awakener that can help us leap beyond ourselves.
A good example is the unquestioned “truth” of self-acceptance. When our brain hears “just accept yourself”, it immediately responds with a good feeling that also “feels true”. But what if our frustration with ourselves is a very sober realization which holds the power to help us grow beyond our current measures? Lately I advised a woman who reported such a frustration: “Don’t turn it off; don’t just accept yourself. Use this frustration as a springboard, as a great energy of life that is pulling you forward”.
It is highly questionable whether “truth” should always evoke in us good sensations or even harmonious sensations. If this is our expectation, this is no longer an unconditional and genuine search, in which we are willing to boldly enter into our inner world as well as the concealed layers of reality. It was Carl Jung who dared to doubt the religious association of “God” with “perfect goodness”. Who said, he wrote, that God is necessarily only good? What if God had a terrible and merciless aspect, a shadow side so to speak? Perhaps, thought Jung, because we fear this evil side so much, we constantly pray to God’s “good” side to save us.
Any true seeker is an unconditional seeker. Perhaps “truth” is ugly, or at least sometimes ugly. Perhaps what awaits us down the road is a truth which will evoke in us unpleasant, even terrible feelings. One needs to at least accept this possibility. But this is quite hard – unpleasant, really – to accept. And who can blame us? As Nietzsche complained, ever since the days of Plato, the “true” has philosophically become intertwined with the “good” and the “beautiful”. Plus, any spiritual teacher would tell us that truth is bliss. So we have learned to expect that, and so when we feel good, we feel closer to “truth”.
But what do we mean when we use the term “Truth” anyway? Well, ideally this would mean realizing something that is not a projection of our brain, or a matter of subjective experience; that we have touched something which is not just “our perspective”. To find such a “truth”, one needs first to remove what one hopes to finds, or wants to find. Otherwise, all we can ever find is the image that we have already expected to find. This can distance us from life, since life is both wonderful and terrible, beautiful and ugly.
So truth is, simply, seeing things as they are, whether this seeing is pleasant or unpleasant, transcendent or realistic. It’s like seeing with one’s naked eye, without an obscuring lens. A fundamental condition for such a seeing is freeing “truth” from the feel-good trap. And the awesome thing about that is that when one no longer resists seeing everything just as it is, a totally new type of happiness emerges from within: it is the happiness of true learning. We also feel free, truly free, since we do not resist the unpleasant feeling that sometimes follows our clear seeing.
This was one of the greatest gifts the philosopher and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti gave me: during my early 20’s I had encountered his teachings, and had found them remarkably disturbing. He had guided me to see the ugliness of my egoistical self and the emptiness of my heart. That had shocked me at first, but then became a source of profound liberation. Thanks to him, I have seen, but not only light, also darkness, and that seeing too is an extraordinary illumination.
To put this into practice, try this: sit quietly for some time and ask yourself if there is any “ugly truth” in yourself, or even in life in general, which you would rather not to see. Is there anything that you have removed from your range of seeing only because you have preferred not to be challenged by unpleasant feelings? Now, would you agree to look into this truth, knowing that this truth too can set you free?