Honesty as a Spiritual Practice
Articles By Carroll Boone
"What I want most in this relationship is honesty." "I believe in being honest." "I want to be honest with you." "You can trust me to tell the truth."
I have heard these or similar words most often when someone wants to tell me what he or she doesn’t like about me. For example, a friend once said to me, "I must be honest with you. Your smile bothers me." Another honest person I know said to her partner, "To be frank, I think you are a terrible cook, even though you try really hard."
This kind of communication is sometimes called "brutal" honesty. Some people value it and consider it an advanced form of communication and even an advanced form of relationship building!
However, I call this kind of honesty "judgmental honesty" to distinguish it from a kind of honesty I prefer and choose as a spiritual practice: "heart honesty." I see "judgmental honesty" as a form of expression that separates me from my spiritual self (the self that sees the good/God in everyone and everything) and keeps me from connecting with my spiritual self and the spirituality in others. Even when I am praising or complimenting — a form of judgmental honesty that seems innocent and even positive — I express a belief in duality: good or bad, right or wrong.
On the other hand, heart honesty is a spiritual practice of connecting with compassion and loving-kindness. If I am living this spiritual practice of "heart honesty," I do not tell you what I think is wrong with you. Instead, I share what is true for me, leaving out words that judge, shame, blame, or criticize. The practice of leaving out judgment is hard, and takes commitment, persistence, and patience. As it gets easier, it also gives the gift of time — more time for heart honesty.
Heart honesty is the practice of being self-authentic. It starts with sharing my feelings and the needs underlying my feelings, without reference to you or your behavior as the cause of my feelings. This is different from the "active listening" method I once learned that taught me to say "I feel angry (or unhappy or upset) when (or because) you did (or did not) do (or say) something." Active listening is a very common and well-accepted kind of judgmental honesty. Heart honesty is based on a more current communication model, "nonviolent communication," developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
Using the practice of heart honesty, I share any request as a preference or a possibility and not as a demand. I know that my request is really a demand when I react with anger or upset to a "no" response. I do have judgments, and I do share them — sparingly, consciously, and responsibly — using words that show that they are mine: I preface my judgments with "owning" words such as "I believe," "I think," "I prefer," "I like," "I want," "I need."
I practice noticing when I am thinking or speaking "judgmental honesty" so that I can choose to shift to "heart honesty." This is not easy. If you want to shift from judgmental honesty to heart honesty, here are some examples to help you get started:
Instead of "Your hat is beautiful," try "I really like the color of your hat."
Instead of "Stop shouting at me," try "I think your voice is loud, and it scares me. Would you be willing to lower it?" Pause and listen.
Instead of "You never tell me what you think," try "I would like to hear what you think. Would you be willing to tell me?" Pause and listen.
Instead of "Why are you always late?" try "I like to be on time. I notice that you are often late. Would you be willing to talk so we could come up with a way that meets both of our needs around time?" Pause and listen.
Instead of "Of course there is a God," try "I believe that there is a God. I would like to hear about your belief. Would you be willing to tell me?" Pause and listen.
Instead of "You never take me seriously," try "I want to be sure that you hear me. Would you be willing to wait until I finish before you start talking?" Pause and listen.
Although using different words helps me shift from judgmental to heart honesty, I believe that my clear and constant intention is even more important. In fact, any words I use will sound judgmental if I use them while I am thinking "right/wrong" or "good/bad" when I am trying to get you to see or do it my way.
How do I keep my heart honesty intention clear and sharp in my mind? Every morning in the interim moment between sleeping and waking, and also any time during the day when I notice myself wanting to be "right" or "judgmentally honest," I affirm or confirm my intention by saying something like this to myself:
I am committed to heart honesty as a spiritual practice of authenticity, so that my beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions come from the same place, the loving-kindness and compassion of my heart, rather than the judgment of my busy and well-trained mind. I choose this as a spiritual practice because I want to value, accept, and respect differences, including my own uniqueness. For me, this includes being 100% responsible for knowing and meeting my own needs, without judging, shaming, or blaming myself or anyone else.
At the same time, I am committed to meeting others’ needs whenever it is not at my own expense. When I cannot meet their needs because to do so would be at my own expense, I am committed to saying so without judging, shaming, or blaming. When I notice myself judging, I will return to this statement of intention for guidance.
Coming back to my intention — the reason I am committed to heart honesty — helps to keep me from slipping into old and well-established habits of judgmental honesty. I notice that the clearer I am about my intention and the more I practice with patience and persistence, and without judging myself for judging, the more often my honesty comes from my heart and not my judgment.
I strongly believe that honesty is an important spiritual practice, a vital complement to the spiritual practices of prayer, meditation, and study — but only when it is the honesty that comes from the heart.
Carroll Boone, J.D., M.S.W., is a mediator, facilitator, and coach who brings people together around tough issues. Her next class, "Communicating from the Heart as a Spiritual Practice," will start in July. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (206) 527-6341.
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