The other day I told a totally stupid, unnecessary lie (not gonna say what), and afterwards I thought, "Why the hell did I do that?"
It bugged me for hours. Guess I'm just as dishonest as the next person, especially when it comes to fibs of the "You look terrific!" or "Sure I like your boyfriend" variety.
Lying is complicated, and it's stressful. Some do it pathologically. And often the untruths we tell others and those we tell ourselves get confused. But how terrible is a little deception?
What the experts say
"Buddha taught that honesty is one of the five precepts that also include not killing or stealing and refraining from sexual misconduct and intoxicants. The instruction is to be careful and notice when you're speaking and whether what you're saying is true or not. Later Buddhist practitioners considered that life is complicated, so there's a second doctrine, upaya, or "skilful means." This holds that there are conditions under which it's better not to adhere to the five precepts if you harm someone by doing so. The one thing that overrules precepts is compassion."
WILLA MILLER, lama, author, Everyday Dharma, Cambridge, Massachusetts
"From a Zen point of view, if we notice what's true for us, it's easier to be honest with others. Dishonesty is mainly about trying to manipulate others' opinion of us. The Zen view is that [who we are] is much more true and forgivable and lovable than who we're pretending to be. Everyone trying to impress is living a double life, even if only for 30 seconds. In meditation, you check in with your mind; you show up with yourself and aren't trying to be different than you are. There's an acceptance that comes with that and an honesty, as in ‘I lose my temper and I can accept that.' We can't pretend, because we're paying attention."
JOHN TARRANT, psychologist, roshi, Pacific Zen Institute, Santa Rosa, California
"People lie because it's effective in getting what they want. Often we spin things that will help us with our self-esteem at the moment. Everyone has been guilty of a little exaggeration of our accomplishments or the extent of our acquaintance with important people. There is research indicating that in order not to be depressed, one requires a certain degree of self-deception, and that depressed people actually have better reality testing than do the non-depressed. Put differently, we need to lie to ourselves to be happy. Very frequently we lie to others as a way to self-deceive, and we encourage other people to lie to us in order to feel better about ourselves."
CHARLES V FORD, professor of psychiatry, U of Alabama at Birmingham, author Lies! Lies!! Lies!!! The Psychology Of Deceit
"My work was focused on ‘Can we detect people who lie?' and the answer in most cases is no. There are no good lie detectors; the lie detector as a machine is a myth. One of the reasons is that lying is done all the time, to please others, to avoid punishment, to gain rewards. There's a fine line between a lie and presenting yourself in a good light or being polite. We get along by smoothing social relationships. Often, you start out lying, but over time you see it as truth. If you go through a red light and see a police car in the rear-view, you practise what you're going to say, and it doesn't take much to believe "The light was yellow." Life is an interaction; we're constantly negotiating with other people."
LEONARD SAXE, social psychologist, Brandeis University, Boston
"Lie-detector tests pick up [physiological] changes [caused by] lying. The heart rate speeds up; there's a cortisol fight-or-flight response. People who have issues with lying tend to have more episodes of high blood pressure, more headaches, insomnia and other stress-related responses. High levels of stress over time cause chronic inflammation that can lead to heart attacks, strokes, cancers. Holding the stress that goes with maintaining lies means being chronically on guard; it can affect your overall health."
SAUNDRA DALTON-SMITH, MD, author, Set Free To Live Free: Breaking Through The 7 Lies Women Tell Themselves, Anniston, Alabama