Truthfulness

Editor’s Note: The following is the ninth in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each.

“If you find the truth, what are you going to do with it?”

I’ll never forget the night four years ago when I was asked that question. I was having dinner with two friends and Chris Leith at the casino on Prairie Island. Chris, who passed away in 2011, was a revered elder, spiritual leader, and hereditary chief of the Dakota, Minnesota’s oldest indigenous nation. He had accepted my invitation to talk about possibilities for non-tribal and Dakota people to work together toward truth-telling and healing. I didn’t know Chris well, but the two fellows who dined with us that night were close to us both. Their presence did not diminish the nervousness rushing through me as I threw out some ideas.

The land we call Minnesota today is land stolen and carved from the Dakota homeland. The Dakota were exiled from Minnesota in 1862 after the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Today the Dakota hold four small reservation communities, including Prairie Island, representing less than one percent of their original land. Whether your ancestors came here because of famine in Ireland like mine, or if you stepped ashore more recently, say from Poland or Peru, everyone who is non-Dakota in Minnesota benefits from this historic land grab. Yet, for the most part non-tribal people don’t acknowledge this truth about our state’s land base and the harm it has cost the Dakota Nation.

Truthfulness, or sacca, is the seventh parami that the Buddha encouraged us to practice in our daily lives. So what in the world do you do when you realize that your home is literally grounded in deceit? That’s the truth that faced me at Prairie Island. Chris stared directly into my eyes and asked, “If you find the truth, what are you going to do with it?” I didn’t have a good answer that night; in fact, I’m still trying to answer Chris. But today I can see that truth-telling is relevant in another area of my life—not the world of politics, but the world of the heart-mind.

Turn out, I lie for a living. Just like our state, I live in exile from freedom and love.

Jump-started by the Monday night Buddhist Studies class on the Five Hindrances at Common Ground this spring, my mind has revealed many truths that I’d prefer to keep hidden. I’ve discovered it is steeped in layers and layers of greed, aversion, torpor, restlessness, doubt, and lots and lots of delusion. So now that I’ve been hit square and center with this truth, what am I going to do with it? And if my own mind is clouded by untruths, then how in the world can I see and act with clarity in the world?

Being willing to look truthfully at the subject matter seems like a good first step.

In the case of the heart-mind, I’m trying to acknowledge just how often I convey untruths. For instance, am I exaggerating when talking to friends, family, and colleagues, like embellishing a story to make myself appear intelligent or understanding? Or, am I overemphasizing the challenges of being a single mom to get sympathy? Sometimes even small untruths like these leave a bad taste in my heart.

While meditating, can I observe how the mind traps itself in delusion? For instance, I’ll catch myself thinking, “Wow, I am so concentrated and one with the universe, how cool is that?” Am I really, I ask? If I look closely, truthfully, underneath that thought I discover a really painful tightness in my throat, like a child who’s afraid of getting caught in a big lie. And because we intuit deep down that there really isn’t a separate self, all this lying and clinging is really exhausting to the heart-mind. I try to look squarely at this exhausting battle. It’s humbling.

Once we own up to our deceptions, what’s the next step?

The Buddha suggests we should train ourselves to live, speak, and act with truthfulness. That is, just seeing the deception is not enough. We need to take the next step of acting with truthfulness.

Cultivating the previous paramis—morality, generosity, renunciation, wisdom, energy, and patience—is one way of putting truth into action. But let’s remember, it took Gautama Buddha 100,000+ eons to perfect them.

We can start our truthful actions by turning toward the painful deceptions that invade our heart and our land. With this open stance, what will arise next? A solution? More questions? Hard to say. It seems that each moment reveals its own truth. We can’t predict ahead of time what truth will arise, can we? But we can try to stay open and clear. We can pause and listen. If we get scared, close up, and turn away from the truth, well that’s okay, too. We take shelter in the protective arms of the skillful intention to move toward, not away from, the truth.

When Santikaro came to Common Ground in March, we talked about our work as socially engaged truth-tellers. I confessed feeling overwhelmed by all the hindrances and delusion in my own heart-mind that I wasn’t sure what to do in the wider world anymore. He agreed saying he’d come to a similar conclusion. Then Santikaro pointed to his heart and said, “Eventually we come to see that it all starts right here, doesn’t it?”

So for right now Chris, wherever you are, this is what I want to do with the truth. I want to tell the whole truth with a truthful heart. That doesn’t mean that giving up truth-telling about our land or not supporting Dakota organizations that are rebuilding their nation. Not at all. It just means that along the way, I want to keep training my mind to be truthful so I don’t have to live in exile from the inherently wise and loving heart that unites us all.

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