Thursday, June 19, 2008

Help fight truth decay

In my reading this morning I stumbled across the phrase "truth decay," and my husband and I began discussing what it might mean in different contexts.

I thought first of Rumors, that old party game where everyone stands in a circle, one person whispers something to the person next to them, and in passing the phrase around the circle it evolves into something completely different.

He saw truth decay as a function of time, in the context of technology, while I visualized it as a function of hierarchical distance in organizations. But the original context of the phrase, in Essential Spirituality, was describing what happens when religions move from compassionate ethics and transformational practices into conventional moralism and mindless ritual.

In the Tao Te Ching the process is explained this way:

When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith...
Therefore the masters concern themselves
with the depths and not the surface.

Cynthia Bourgeault illustrates this principle with an Isak Dinesen story. Walking in the bush, Dinesen spotted a beautiful snake, its skin glistening with color. She raved about it so much to her servants that one of them killed the snake, skinned it, and made the skin into a belt for her. But of course the once glistening skin was now just dull and gray, "for all along the beauty had lain not in the physical skin but in the quality of its aliveness." How could they not have noticed that?

I think we as a whole society are suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. We don't notice the truth of things but only the surfaces. We don't pay attention. Instead of being conscious of our immediate surroundings; instead of focusing on the task at hand, we allow ourselves to be seduced by an endless parade of distractions. Remember those "labor-saving devices" of the Fifties, that whole concept that began with the industrial revolution, and was supposed to free us up both to be more productive and to have more "leisure time?"

Well, now we all have them: microwaves to cook our fast food, cars and planes to speed us to our destinations; computers and telephones to speed our computations and communications. And what do we do with all that leisure time? We watch reality TV, soap operas and talk shows, or play video games; we're hooked on the appearance of reality, not reality itself. What news we get is tainted by the media's desperate competition to provide more stories, more lurid, more quickly; what exercise we get happens in a mindless cocoon, accompanied by the TV we watch in the gym or the Ipod we listen to as we walk or run.

In our rush to acquire the latest news, the latest technology, the coolest new thing, we have become obsessed with the glitter of appearances and lost sight of the reality that lies beneath. And it's a relentless cycle: the more obsessed we become with the sparkling illusions, the deader they seem when they are in our hands; like the toy endlessly promoted in the commercials that loses its luster almost immediately when unwrapped from under the Christmas tree. It just leaves us dissatisfied, wanting more.

We have gone from mindfulness to mindlessness, and the result, sadly, is a serious case of truth decay. Just as tooth decay happens when we get hooked on sweets and don't pay attention to that which allows us to savor them, truth decay happens when we get hooked on appearances and don't pay attention to what actually feeds us, the innermost aliveness and quality of life.

And then, as I said yesterday in that quote from Cynthia Bourgeault, we keep trying to fill the hunger in our hearts with our own needs, not with the divine need, and creation itself is paying the price: global warming, crime, drug addiction, environmental pollution, war -- all can be traced to our relentless quest for more and our reluctance to focus on the truth that is here and now.

What can we do to stop the inexorable course of truth decay? It would be impractical for most of us to completely abandon our present lifestyles: to grow our own food and cook it over a fire; to travel everywhere on foot or by self-powered vehicles; to communicate only in person. But we could, I think, make a significant difference if we paid attention to what we are doing, saying, eating and hearing when we are doing, saying, eating or hearing it; if we paid attention to what comes into our lives, our heads, our hearts and our mouths, and to what flows out of our lives, heads, hearts and mouths.

Okay: I'm just gonna go there. The punster in me just has to say it:

You know the drill!

The most effective way to fight truth decay is by BRUSHING UP on your spiritual practices. And if, like me, you grew up watching TV commercials, this final observation should sound pretty familiar:

Meditation has been shown to be an effective decay-preventive practice that can be of significant value when used in a conscientiously applied program of spiritual hygiene and regular professional care.

As my dear mother-in-law used to say, many a truth is said in jest...

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