The 3 Levels of Truth
I recently read the book “Blue Truth” by David Deida. One of the chapters – entitled “Live Your Heart’s Truth” – offered such a well-articulated insight, that I had to put the book down and start laughing (while my wife looked on, puzzled).
It was the laughter of relief… the relief of realising that I’m already overflowing with ‘truth’. I should probably explain. As someone who reads and reads and reads for the sake of growth and learning, it was a joy to finally grasp that my problem wasn’t any ‘lack’. I wasn’t suffering from a lack of wisdom, knowledge, or advanced spiritual secrets.
Deida helped me appreciate that my attitude was actually the rate-limiting step in my personal development – specifically, any reluctance to integrate the truth into my way of being.
As he says in the book, knowledge is easiest. It’s much harder to live the truth than to feel it, or know it. Everybody knows the truth about something, but moving from abstraction to action is a leap of faith. This movement is the space in which truth can finally blossom in the world.
Here’s a direct quote from the book, so as not to dilute his words any further:
“The mind is more malleable than the emotions or the body, and so the mind is relatively swift to change.
After your mind has grasped the truth, your emotions are next to change over time. Yet even highly developed emotional intelligence—your capacity to feel the truth with great sensitivity and nuance—is not sufficient for real growth.
The last part of you to be transformed by truth is your body. Being more solid than your mind or emotions, your body changes last. Your body’s habits—the motions you go through—are the most stubborn, the most rigid, and the least yielding to truth.”
I’ve heard this process referred to as ‘awakening down’. True personal and spiritual growth are less about reaching up – to higher levels of wisdom or intellectual understanding – and more about bringing the abundant material you already have down into the fibre of your being. Down into your body, perhaps via the conduit of feeling the truth in all its richness.
The invitation, then, is to shift our orientation to truth from an acquisitional frame to an embodied one.
Where to begin? I believe a good place to start is with clichés. In fact, the more they make your eyes roll, the more I suggest you examine them; aversion and contempt may signal an inner battle being fought against the truth on intellectual grounds.
For instance, here are a few clichés you’ve probably come across:
- Focus on the journey, not the destination
- Actions speak louder than words
- Live in the moment
Notice, this isn’t complex material. To grasp these sayings intellectually, you don’t need a degree in theology, or to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. In fact, they’re unsophisticated; it might feel like they’re insulting our intelligence.
Or maybe you read the above three statements and simply feel numb to them. That makes sense too. We become desensitised to significant truths, having heard them countless times. Sometimes in the trivialising, cheapening context of cheesy television commercials.
But ultimately, I believe many truths are relegated to cliché-status precisely because they contain kernels of insight so radical that it would be easier to mock or repress them, than to face them. To do so might shake up our comfortable status quo, and involve bona fide transformation (read: contact with internal fear, anger, grief, and so on).
For the rest of this article, I want to explore each level of truth – thought, feeling, action – through the lens of perhaps the ultimate cliché – one which is beginning to percolate down into my own emotional core, and is thankfully being reflected in more of my actions over time.
It is this – life is short.
Level 1 – Thought
In the abstract, the idea that “life is short” isn’t a difficult one to grasp. Approached from an intellectual frame of reference, there’s no shortage of evidence for the brevity of our existence.
For instance, one of my favourite thought experiments is the ‘Cosmic Calendar’, a method of visualising the chronology of our universe. If you condensed its 13.8 billion years down to a single calendar year, there would be 38 million years per cosmic day, 1.6 million years per cosmic hour, and 438 years per cosmic second.
At this scale, anatomically modern humans came into existence on 31st December, at 11:52pm… which means your own lifespan represents the fraction of a second before midnight.
So yes, in comparison to everything that came before, your life is mind-bogglingly short. And yet this information-level of truth may still never touch you at a level sufficient to prompt any inquiry about what you might choose to do differently as a result.
In fact, I believe that if this abstract knowledge remains at the level of ‘thought’ (in other words, you refuse to stop and confront the emotional implications), it may end up spawning all sorts of distorted, unhelpful thinking:
“If my life is such a short speck in the grand scale of things, I guess my life must not have any significance at all.”
When I worked as a doctor, I quickly came to realise that information does not equal transformation.
In fact, it often felt that the more I used information to try and educate people into eating healthier, or smoking less, or doing more exercise, the less likely I was to see any substantial change. Real, lasting change only seemed to come about in those people ready and willing to receive the truth at a deeper level.
This goes for all of us. It’s only when we relax and open to the truth, that we create the space to accept it, without judgement. In this space, we can develop the capacity to dance more intimately with the truth, allowing it to descend into deeper levels than cognition alone.
Level 2 – Feeling
I remember lying in bed one night as a 5 or 6 year old boy – ever the night owl, my mind was racing with thoughts and questions about life.
On this occasion, having watched ‘The Jungle Book’ earlier in the day – and crying at the scene where Baloo almost dies – I found myself wrestling with the concept of death. I experienced wave after wave of intense fear and sorrow on imagining that one day my parents would die, along with my sisters, friends, and of course, myself.
The idea of the love between us being simply snuffed out by the passage of time conjured feelings of grief that I didn’t know how to contain… and so I ran into the living room, tears flooding down my eyes. I wailed at my parents, “I don’t want you to die!”
Over the next two decades, I gradually lost touch with that tender sadness within, as happens to so many of us. We get hardened to adult ‘realities’. Few of us conduct our lives while remaining connected to the startling reality of how short they are. And in our hyper-masculine world, stopping to feel/express emotion is branded a sign of being weak, self-indulgent, or even hysterical. To cope with this, we repress emotions.
Consider this: what would be your likely reaction to a child coming to you in tears about dying, as I came to my own parents all those years ago?
Would you seek to reassure them with “there there, it’s ok… there’s no need to feel upset”? Would you (on a subtle level) mock or belittle, perhaps chuckling at their childish naiveté? Or would you open to that child fully, staying present with their emotions and allowing yourself to recognise painful emotions within your own psyche?
Real truth doesn’t necessarily feel ‘pleasant’. It has equal potential to provoke existential dread, as it does to bring forth bliss, joy, and revelation. I think the difference is in how we learn to work with the emotions we discover in ourselves.
Awareness of one’s emotions, and the emotions of other people, is a great start. But it takes bravery, commitment, and the cultivation of inner space. With all the demands on our attention, it can be much easier to focus on our daily errands, what our colleagues think of us, or some other trivial thing. It’s easier to repress grief and anxiety, deferring them to a later moment.
Unfortunately, that moment usually doesn’t arrive until something disturbs our cosy equilibrium in a big way; a beloved family pet has to be put down, or an old friend is diagnosed with metastatic cancer out of the blue. We begin to feel the truth of our impending mortality. With new openness, we’re now grappling with truth at the deeper level of feeling.
But as Deida warns, feeling the truth is no guarantee of growth. We can even become addicted to it; the fireworks show of our emotional landscape can bedazzle us for years on end.
Ultimately, there’s no substitute for heeding the call to take authentic, aligned action, which is the hardest part of all.
Level 3 – Action
We can philosophise about life being short until we’re blue in the face, and feel it deeply, but so what? Based on the truth, what are we committed to changing? Or an even better starting point, should we do anything differently at all?
It’s the rare person who acts from an enlightened place of truth. To this person, the resonant thoughts and feelings associated with “life is short” perhaps become signals to make a commitment: “I choose to live each day to its fullest.”
Consider the many possible implications of this commitment; just by putting this stake in the ground, you would generate enormous self-respect. You might reset your priorities, improve your boundaries, and make wiser decisions from a place of inspiration rather than fear or guilt.
Walking to the beat of your own drum would irritate plenty of people to be sure – but you would have the self-assurance to swim upstream, knowing that you’re totally aligned with your deeper purpose of “living fully”, which in turn is based on authentic truth.
When we actively live our heart’s truth, the potential ripple effects are almost limitless.
Personally speaking, my decision to leave medicine came from this place. Not everyone approved of it, or understood it, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the truth – I was unhappy, and I was headed towards further unhappiness. I felt it in my bones. What more was there to think about?
At the time, leaving this career behind was one of very few actions I’d ever taken based on an awareness of how short my life is. It was a scary move, as action based on authentic truth often is. But it catalysed a reconnection with both my boyhood sorrow, as well as a newfound sense of gratitude for simply being here at all. After all, doesn’t the brevity of life make it a precious resource, rather than something to squander?
This became a domino effect – acting in line with the truth has been reshaping my relationships with exercise, food, work, nature, loved ones, and many other things.
Unleash The Truth
While thought and feeling alone are not sufficient for our growth, they do have an important role in triggering action – as long as we’re courageous enough to follow them wherever they lead.
In the confused, distracting society we live, this can be challenging. But we can make our lives easier – here are a few ways I’ve attempted to remain in-sync with my own truths throughout the ups and downs of everyday life:
1) Daily Meditation
The faster we move, the more we diminish our capacity to hear the truth calling. Meditating each day slows me down, and reconnects me to the truths – starting with the truth that I am a human being, not a human doing.
2) Being In Nature
I recently stumbled on a passage in the book “Freedom from the Known”, by Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. It’s about a religious teacher who used to talk every morning to his disciples:
“One morning he got on to the platform and was just about to begin when a little bird came and sat on the window sill and began to sing, and sang away with full heart. Then it stopped and flew away and the teacher said, ‘The sermon for this morning is over.’”
Truly be with nature, and you’ll realise how much there is to learn. Eckhart Tolle puts it like this:
“Learn from nature. See how everything gets accomplished and how the miracle of life unfolds without dissatisfaction or unhappiness.”
3) Purposeful Reflection
I also make an effort to journal sporadically, whether for the sake of self-discovery, or reaffirming the truth as I currently understand it. As I do so, I pay attention to the sensations in my body – how am I feeling about this? Is there resonance?
One of the most important reflections pertains to my life purpose, as well as my core values. I repeat this at least annually. These foundational truths become my compass, showing me the way to an authentic, fulfilling, aligned life.
4) Mindful Conversation
Mindful conversation can be another fruitful avenue for maintaining the truth in your field of awareness. Personally, I draw so much enjoyment and satisfaction from long, winding conversations around themes like freedom, authenticity, death, isolation, identity, and truth itself. What do these things mean? How are we to live our lives?
Of course, this could be in the context of a family gathering, coffee with a friend, or in the office of a therapist. Regardless, discussing the truth keeps it top of mind and alive in my body.
5) Conscious Consumption
Conscious consumption comes in two parts…
First, it means deliberately consuming books, media, and works of art that deliver profound insights. This isn’t about acquiring knowledge or wisdom – i.e. more shiny things to gain dust in our mental cabinet. Rather, it’s about reminding ourselves of the truth and reinspecting it from different angles. This is why I regularly reread and rewatch books and movies that ground me in spiritual truths.
Second, conscious consumption means purposefully avoiding sources of stimulation that run counter to my basic understanding of life, and my core values. This means carefully moderating the flow of certain news, advertising, and social media into my field of awareness.
6) Conscious Creation
Just as I consciously consume in order to feed my soul with truth, I strive to create consciously too. This article is one of those fruits.
As David McCullough says, “Writing is thinking – to write well is to think clearly.” This resonates with me; I’m always seeking to refine the quality of my thinking, in order to banish distortions and align with reality. For me, writing becomes yet another path to the truth.
But of course, creation is much broader than writing; you could create visual art, a single lyric, an entire musical, or a business. As long as the intention is there, any medium can be used as a vehicle through which to convey the truth.
7) Clear Commitment
Most important of all, I maintain a running list of all my commitments and review it weekly. Each one is linked to a clear purpose, which is based on what I know to be true about myself and the world.
As Deida says:
“Knowing the truth is nearly useless. Feeling it is profound. And living it makes all the difference.”
In this post, I’ve described the 3 levels of truth – thought, feeling, action – and explored how they might work in unison to transform our lives for the better.
To finish the article, I want to make an invitation: be bold enough to allow the truth in, and watch as your life transforms.
That said, here are two questions to reflect on as mindfully as you’re able to
- What do you already know (or feel) to be true?
- To what degree do your actions reflect that understanding?