What Is Truth?

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2005 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bland, Betty. "What Is Truth?." Quest  93.5 (SEPTERMBER-OCTOBER 2005):164-165

Theosophical Society - Betty Bland served as President of the Theosophical Society in America and made many important and lasting contributions to the growth and legacy of the TSA. Many truths, accepted through the ages, are not as strong and formidable as they may seem. From time to time an intellectual storm of explorers—philosophers or scientists—can shake our certainty and expose the faulty core of our suppositions.

The famous Albert Einstein, still in his mid-twenties, broke beyond the boundaries of thought in his time. He had not been a good student because he would not learn by rote, but had to explore the questions in depth for himself. Of course he had a penetrating intellect, but it would have done him little good without the willingness to explore outside the accepted paradigms. In 1905 he published four papers—two explaining how to measure the size and speed of molecules in a liquid, another how light is composed of photons (the foundation of quantum physics), and finally the Nobel Prize-winning theory of the relativity of time and space. Only a few months later he published a paper on the interchangeability of matter and energy with his famous equation of E=mc².

Science is still reeling from his discoveries, uncovering new implications every year. Einstein's theories are an extreme example, but they illustrate how far-reaching a few new ideas can be when they become a part of base knowledge for subsequent truth seekers to build upon.

Whether in the outer world of scientific discovery or in the explorations of our own consciousness, an open mind is the essential vehicle that takes us on our journey. Our finite minds can relate only to very small corners of the truth, and because of that our observations can be distorted and our conclusions faulty. Consider, for example, the story of the blind men studying an elephant: one examining the trunk proclaims the animal to be like a giant snake; another posted at its leg declares it to be like a tree; and yet another at its side vows that any intelligent person can tell that it is not an animal at all but a giant wall. The picture can be expanded to whole nations or cultures standing in the place of each of the blind men. Partial truths can be very entrenched and very misleading.

In his earliest writing (At the Feet of the Master) J. Krishnamurti, who was known for his efforts to free our minds from preconceptions and attachments, spoke of the need to distinguish truth:

in thought first; and that is not easy, for there are in the world many untrue thoughts, many foolish superstitions, and no one who is enslaved by them can make progress. Therefore you must not hold a thought just because many other people hold it, nor because it has been believed for centuries, nor because it is written in some book which men think sacred; you must think of the matter for yourself, and judge for yourself whether it is reasonable. Remember that though a thousand men agree upon a subject, if they know nothing about that subject their opinion is of no value. He who would walk upon the Path must learn to think for himself, for superstition is one of the greatest evils in the world, one of the fetters from which you must utterly free yourself.

"There is no religion higher than truth," the inspiring motto of the Theosophical Society, means that at all times, no matter how wonderfully coherent our theories are, the flexibility to accommodate new understandings is a necessary component of spiritual growth. When new knowledge or insight sweeps through like a summer storm, we can use it to nourish our spirit as we journey into new areas of maturity. If we deny a truth's presence, we create a blockage that will obstruct the source of our nourishment. It is this kind of rigidity that causes people to become frightened believers, rejecting change and debasing science and religion into a kind of superstition. As the saying goes, "They do not want to be confused by the facts because their minds are already made up." People can be deeply wounded by the winds of encroaching knowledge contrary to their belief structures.

This was a major theme throughout the writings of Madame Blavatsky. She wanted to debunk the gross materialism of scientists and the narrow superstitions of the religious leaders of her day. Her desire that humanity might be freed from these fetters echoed the purposes of the teachers who stood behind her. In her dogged dedication to truth she urged all to cultivate an open mind and an eager intellect in order to move toward spiritual maturity.

Later in his life Einstein rejected an early pet theory—the idea that in order for the stars to stay in place, moving relatively so slowly through space, there must be some kind of antigravity. When Hubble's discovery that the universe is expanding at great speeds eliminated the need for this theoretical force to keep stars from collapsing into each other, Einstein decided that his antigravity theory no longer fit. He was willing to let go of a cherished idea. Interestingly, however, years later the rejected idea of the repulsive effects of antigravity, now called dark energy, might be the cornerstone for understanding the force that is driving our ever-expanding and accelerating cosmos.

The fluctuation in the perceived verity of Einstein's theories reflects the path to truth for each of us. Open-mindedness is required for useful exploration and discrimination at every step. Sometimes a realization of a truth may have beneficial reverberations through the years, and these instances are to be gratefully nurtured. Sometimes as the data trickles in, we may realize that we were operating under faulty conceptions and we need to move beyond them. And sometimes in our growth we may reject a thing as untrue but later have to consider it as a truth on a new level. Even ideas we have discarded for good reason at one time may be discovered to be valid in a different context or at a deeper level.

Some of our religious background may fall into this category. Even though our early religious training may have been dogmatic and constrictive, the faith idiom underlying those teachings may yet have powerful mythic meaning that can speak to the depths of our psyche. In such a case open-mindedness includes being willing to modify judgment on discarded truths if that is found to be useful.

What ideas might we be clinging to that we need to open to fresh understanding? Are there any things we have discarded that we may need to reexamine? Can we look at our inner and outer worlds with new eyes so that the storms of life nourish us rather than break us? If we are willing to explore our worlds based on experience, study, and meditational insight, our life-roots will reach deeply into wisdom and truth. In this context truth seems to be a product of the search rather than any static reality. We might even loosely translate the Theosophical motto to be: "There is no better way to seek union with the divine than to be earnestly searching for it."