Is What You Know to Be True Really True?
In the Buddhist tradition, there is a beautiful discourse known as the Heart Sutra that delves into the essence of letting go of preconceived notions about how our life should be in order to embrace the wondrous nature of what our life actually is.
Its ultimate objective is to help us relinquish the deep, often unconscious suffering that dwells within us.
While there are many facets of this text, the following question particularly resonated with me: Are the beliefs I hold about myself and the world around me really true?
Understanding is honoring the truth underneath, and perfect understanding—another translation of this text—is only possible when we recognize the limits of what we know.
You see, in life, knowledge is often a barrier to understanding.
In the words of a Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh,
If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won’t want to let it in. We have to be able to transcend our precious knowledge in the same way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think that we are very high, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views. Understanding, like water, can flow, can penetrate. Views, knowledge, and even wisdom are solid, and can block the way of understanding.
Many times in my life, I’ve been in situations where the new, deeper understanding knocked, but I argued and bargained with it, rationalizing its merits and fighting against it because I feared this “new idea” would be harmful to me. (Even though I was the one who sought it out in the first place!)
I’ve clung to the identity my past experiences, knowledge, and beliefs had formed for me. While those past identities served a purpose once, they blocked the deeper understanding of who I am and what I am all about, and prevented life from revealing itself without anxiety, resistance, and fear.
In other words, by clinging to a particular truth, I prevented my bliss from coming into a full light, and caused myself suffering instead (even if I pretended this wasn’t so).
For example, for a long time, I believed that I should be a lawyer. Maybe I would have made a good one, but it’s not likely that I would have been writing this essay now. Nevertheless, I spent a great amount of time resisting the pull into where I am today, even fighting it and fighting others who pointed it out to me, because I believed this other thing was really me!
Or, think of a person who’d been married for 30 years, most of those years unfulfilled, but couldn’t or can’t break out of it because of the identity—a set of beliefs—they had built. But we’ve been together all these years, I couldn’t possibly start over! (Just ask millions who did and we’re glad for it.)
Or, take someone who’d had a rough, abusive, lonely upbringing, and spends many years trying to build the opposite, never realizing that nothing will ever be “good enough” as a replacement. We must build anew. Yet, they keep on trying because they believe this identity to be the truth even if, in the process, they pass on life.
I’m sure you can identify many examples of this in your own life, and I’d encourage you to do so. And then question them earnestly. But not because I asked you to, or some ancient Buddhist text said it would be wise, but because without deeper understanding, life will continue to lack.
Without perfect understanding, and brutal honesty, authentic happiness isn’t possible.
Is what I know to be true really true?
To help you in this quest, here are 10 Questions to get you going:
1) Is it really true that I was / am a victim of my circumstances (upbringing/relationships, etc.)? Did I have a say? Do I have a say today?
2) Is it really true that the love I seek hasn’t yet appeared? Or is it that my self-love isn’t enough to see it?
3) Is it really true that things never go my way? Is the glass really half-empty?
4) Is it really true that (fill in the blank) has to materialize in this way, or is that my past belief talking?
5) Is it really true that I screwed that (fill in the blank) up? Isn’t there a silver-lining?
6) Is it really true that due to genes, circumstances, etc. I need to be sickly, or non-fulfilled, or even that I’m incapable or stupid?
7) Is it really true that there are no ideal opportunities for me out there and that I’ll always be poor?
8) Is it really true that I am ugly, fat, mean, old, green, yellow, ... not worthy of authentic love?
9) Is it really true that I am responsible for all the things that happen to me, around me, and to other people, too?
10) Is it really true that I love myself? Is it really true that I am courageous? Or are these only pretty words that cover the wounded child beneath? Has the child healed?
There are many, many more of these questions. Some answers will come as a yes, some as a no, and some as a yes and no.
The trick here isn’t so much to give a particular answer, although that’s a good start, but to live the questions out and wrestle with them in the quest of going deeper, discovering that perfect understanding about yourself and the universe around you.
Only then, armed with perfect understanding, do we experience aliveness, and authentic love, joy, and peace in its most natural form.
Smile and dance,