writing on suffering and awakening

Finding truth in a post-truth world

How do we know what’s true?

This is always a good question, but it has taken on a special relevance of late. Our president seems to sincerely believe that reality is whatever he says it is, and has convinced millions of our brothers and sisters to share in his conviction. To spend any time on social media is to experience a neverending barrage of information that may or may not have any basis in fact. Outrages seem to pile up so quickly that we barely have time to take note of one before another comes along, demanding our attention.

Frankly, it’s numbing and exhausting.

Confronted with suffering, we want to help, on some level at least. That’s human nature. But standing in our way is often another question: how can we have any idea of where to make our stand when the ground beneath us seems to be shifting at such an impossibly rapid rate?

The traditional arbiters of truth—the media establishment, academia, the church, the government—don’t seem to be able to do all that much to answer that question. For those of us who want to live in an open, democratic society, this is worrying indeed. Such a society depends on educated voters choosing leaders through free elections. But how can we make choices if we don’t know who or what to believe?

Part of the problem is that we’re not just dealing with deliberate dishonesty—with authority figures lying to us—but an overwhelming flood of information. One example that has been both fascinating and painful to witness: the children taken from their parents at the border. A generation ago, this sort of story may well have defined a presidency and dominated headlines for months. But now, urgent and horrible though it may be, the suffering of those families is getting lost in the relentless churn of the news cycle, because there is simply so much coming at us.

We’re also faced with the understandable anger of millions of people who are tired of other people telling them what to believe. This includes folks of all backgrounds who are sick of hearing: your experience and your perspective doesn’t matter.

How can we reconcile all that? Honestly, it’s tempting to just bury our heads in the sand.

But I think we can do better. I see now as an opportunity to practice cultivating and honoring our own innate wisdom. The era of fake news, disinformation and alternative facts, unsettling though it may be, is also showing us the limits of relying on others to tell us how it is.

Indeed, I think our crisis of truth is happening because we’re ready to see that it doesn’t have to be this way—that the doors of the temple are open to all, not merely a select few. Truth is our birthright. The nature of reality is not only the province of authority figures, but something that exists in each of us.

One place to start exploring this is by considering the difference between relative and absolute truth. Relative truth is what we call facts. A fact is a bit of information that is true in a particular moment from a particular perspective. The color of your car is a fact—red now, maroon when the sun goes down and fading as the years go by. Your age, the boiling point of water, the speed of light—all these are facts. You’re older now than you were a heartbeat ago, boiling points change based on elevation or air pressure, and physicists suspect that even the fundamental constant of c may differ from universe to universe.

We’ve built our civilization on a backbone of facts and a deep understanding of how the external world works. But now, we’re bumping up against the limits of facts and relative truth. We’re starting to see that all the knowledge in the world doesn’t give us peace with our neighbors, ease within ourselves and compassion for all. The academy can be tremendously useful, but it can’t set us free.

By worshiping intellect above all else, which we do as a society if not always as individuals, we’ve come to point where we are asking more of facts than they can bear. Whether consciously or not, many of us believe that if we know enough, we’ll reach the point where it all comes together. We’ll achieve the power that we seek. But relative truth is an unreliable ally: incomplete, complex and ever-changing.

As Robert Evans memorably puts it: “there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying.”

We can’t stand on facts no matter how hard we try. Often, our knowledge even becomes a barrier, blocking us off from reality. Many of us can be so distracted by our rigid concepts of right and wrong, for example, that we fail to see the suffering in front of us, and lose touch with our natural compassion. We miss the forest for the trees—arguing over the legality of immigration while children cry in freezing cells.

This doesn’t have to be how we live. We can turn to the absolute truth of the here and now as a source of inner power and guidance, and the foundation of a better world. If relative truth is complicated and mutable, absolute truth is simple and always. Most importantly, absolute truth exists within us all, awaiting our attention.

What is absolute truth? You know already. Any writer knows it can’t be put into words, but I’ll do my best: the truth is that everything is okay. That we’re inherently connected and kind and our only real work is to get out of the way and let our kindness shine forth. That just being is enough.

How can we find this truth? That part of ourselves that we can never quite convince—that’s a good place to start. Practice honesty. Embrace our inner doubt and see where it takes us. Have faith that compassion is always the right choice, and dare the universe to prove us wrong.

If we get lost along the way, as I constantly do, we can remember: truth keeps it simple. If we get uncomfortable, that means we’re getting somewhere. When our fears come out to play—good! We’re making progress and they’re trying to get us to turn back.

The thing is, we already intuitively know all of this. We just need to honor our intuition. If it rings true, it’s worth investigating further.

Ramana Maharshi, an mystic who lived a century ago, famously asked the question: “who am I?” and used it to dig into himself ever more deeply. Eventually he found that there was no one home.

My belief is that the more we take responsibility for our own truth, the less dishonesty and division will hold sway over our society. I don’t think that we need to abandon facts—just loosen our grip and not ask so much of them. If we’re honest with ourselves, we will naturally support leaders with the same qualities. We won’t feel the need to cling to knowledge for a sense of stability, and we can relax more easily into the present moment. We will nurture power in ourselves and others, and use it skillfully and kindly.

As a drop of water flows, inevitably and with grace, so can we.

Ian Cooper