BARRE, MASSACHUSETTS -- Here are some notes on a one-day session on Right Speech -- i.e., the Buddhist guidelines on how to speak in a way that helps and doesn't harm -- yesterday at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies here. Sharon Salzberg, one of the three founders of the Insight Meditation Society, just up the road from the BCBS in Barre, led the session.
A small flyer for the session drew a crowd of 90 from all throughout the northeast and, in my case, Minnesota. The morning was spent almost entirely in meditation, and the afternoon about half, leaving only about one-quarter of the time for discussion about Right Speech. But interestingly enough, that seemed like just the right amount. To have spent more time talking a would have seemed like chatter. That fact in itself, I thought, said a lot about Right Speech.
Simply knowing that the session was about Right Speech also made Sharon's meditation instructions resonate in a pointed way towards lessons about ethical speech, and how one might achieve it. There were even points of contact with specific journalism words and ideas. For example:
1. Pay attention to your breath, like a friend in a crowd.
2. Meditation is healing because it is centering of a scattered and distracted mind, and integrating
3. Mindfulness is awareness of the present moment without the intrusion of bias
4. Concentration is a platform for mindfulness
5. Meditation is about relationship, first of all our relationship with what arises within ourselves
6. The key to distinguishing positive from negative speech or action is intention, and we need mindfulness to know our intention
Then there was this four-point series of comments from Sharon to start the afternoon:
1. We cannot control what arises in our minds. But if we are mindful it's not after we send the email.
2. Being aware of what we are feeling is really important.
3. We blame ourselves for what arises in our minds, as though we can control it.
4. Relating skillfully to what arises in our minds is the whole project.
Sharon offered this interesting definition of mindfulness to set the stage for her analysis of Right Speech:
"We generally react in one of two ways to strong negative feelings that arise in us. One is to get lost in it, fixated with it. We can do 100 good things in a day, but that one bad thing that we did, we spend all evening or all week remembering it, dwelling on it, worrying about it, blaming ourselves for it. We can get fixated and obsessed with feeling. The other way to react to strong feelings is to have aversion which can take two forms -- anger, which is the outgoing, expressive form of aversion, and fear, which is the ingoing, frozen form of aversion. We can try to block out negative feelings, crazily trying everything we can think of to avoid it, block it out, not feel it. But there is a third way, which neither gets lost in negative feeling, nor becomes fearful and angry. That third way relates to negative feeling neutrally, neither pushing it away or getting lost inside it. That middle ground is mindfulness."
The key to Right Speech, Salzberg said, is "to know our intentions before we speak, and to know our intentions we need mindfulness. This middle ground I've described is very subtle, but it's a ground we cultivate in meditation." As an example, she asked people to imagine a time when they may have felt the urge to gossip. "You can feel it rising up inside you, right?" she said. The key then is just to notice that feeling but, at least at first, to neither act on it nor to piously push it away. Rather, just to be with the feeling for a while, noticing how it feels and what happens to the feeling over time. And as you wait, start a new line of thought along the lines of "will saying what I have the urge to say right now, really serve my goals in relationship with this person and in my life?" If the answer is "yes," go ahead, but if the answer is "no," you haven't said anything to that point so there's a gain to staying quiet.
That boils down to a two-step strategy to attempting Right Speech:
1. Pay attention to intention
2. Ask 'What do I want?'
Starting both the morning and afternoon sessions, Sharon made this point: "These questions are not easy. The moral dimensions are subtle and complex. It's not easy, and that's okay. One hallmark of the enlightened life is real engagement with things that are not easy. Remember, also, it can feel creative. If we can feel that we are using our lives as a creative medium, rather than 'I gossiped, I'm so bad,' that's a positive path, rather than a sense of right and wrong that is punishing.
"Speech is so powerful yet so ephemeral compared to action. A word said 20 years ago can still resound. These questions are a kind of training which implies imperfection."
She elaborated a bit on the notion of intention: "The reason it is so powerful is that its where the energy of a communication really lies. Intention contains the karmic seed of communication."
She said that the Buddha had summarized his instructions on Right Speech to a simple dictum: "Say what is true and useful."
I found her elaboration on the notion of "usefulness" especially interesting. Mindfulness usually implies a pause before speech in which to ask not only "What do I want?" but "What would be useful to say in this situation?" And this has two elements to it -- first, what is useful to you, and second, what is useful to the person you are addressing. Therefore Sharon said: "There is mutual inner and outer awareness at the same time in order to determine the best action or speech."
She acknowledged the difficulties: "Can you be mindful of every word? No. But we can be aware of the waves of emotion and feeling that relates to intention."
Then she said something really interesting: "There are three aspects to every action or speech. There is the intention behind it, there is the skillfullness of the action, and there is the immediate response to the action. We tend to ground our identities only in the third aspect, and to ignore the first two. Yet the first two are by far the most important. Plus there is also a longterm response to a communication that we also usually fail to take into account." Right Speech, she suggested, takes all these aspects fully into account -- at least as best one can under the circumstances -- ahead of each action.
She told a funny story about a group of friends who are working their way through reading foundational Buddhist texts, and recently had gotten to the section on Right Speech. It seems this material has had a kind of silencing impact on them, that it's made them scrutinize what they say so minutely, that they find they have less and less to say. "They are a bit worried," Sharon said, "that finally all they will be saying to each other is 'it's a lovely day, isn't it?'" I know what those folks are going through, or growing through. This Spring, at a retreat, I heard my teacher repeat a famous Right Speech direction: "Don't speak unless you can improve on silence." That's a damn hard standard to reach!
Sharon made an interesting comment about listening, which started with the standard thing people say but then became richer: "Listening is the key to good communication. When you listen well you are listening to yourself as well as them, especially to your reactions, thoughts, patterns and so on." To which I would only add, it's perhaps not listening so much, which suggests an auditory thing, as being aware, which opens consciousness towards all senses and in all directions.
I found almost the most fascinating part of the day was listening to the questions and comments that people made. They showed me conclusively that the grappling I'm doing with this topic in my professional life -- trying to figure out what in a journalist's life qualifies as Right Speech -- is equally shared by many people in all areas of life. Several people spoke about their constant urge to gossip, not knowing what to do with it. One woman says she often finds herself with her husband, wanting to share something gossipy with him. "Then I ask myself, do I tell him because I want my significant other to know what's going on with me, or do I want to tell him just because it's a juicy disaster? Or maybe I should just shut up about the whole thing?"
Another woman talked about wanting to gossip as being "an unconscious attempt to bond" with others and said if she stopped gossiping, she'd have nothing to talk about with her friends. Sharon then drew a distinction between gossip that was harmful, such as spreading rumors about other people, and idle talk, such as what was going to happen on a favorite TV show that night. And she acknowledged that sometimes, gossiping "is how our communities are formed." That last bit really intrigued me and I want to think about it further. On the one hand, I really understand it, and newspapers and journalism of many forms has long used gossipy items that become "water cooler" talk, social currency. But it's worth asking, what kind of a community is formed, when it's formed on the basis of malicious gossip or related forms of talk? Surely, not a healthy and positive community. This is one area for thinking more in a journalistic vein, combining ethical speculation for example with James Carey's discussion of journalism as the conversation of a democracy and, further, a kind of community-forming ritualistic speech.
Another woman presented this dilemma: "At home I live with people who talk constantly about the Bush administration in the harshest and most negative terms. Not that I disagree with that, but their talk is so nonstop, bitter, and toxic. I just want to scream. It wouldn't be so bad if once in a while they got up and did something, but they never do, they just bitch and gripe and moan."
And several people mentioned a kind of Catch 22 they had gotten into, vis a vis speech, as children, that decades later they are still trying to escape from as adults. One woman said she was the self-appointed truth-teller in her family, always taking pains to declare the elephant in the room that no one was speaking about. But she paid the price in terms of being ostracized, she felt, from her parents' affection and from the social life of the family, that left her out of talk and activities as a result. In discussion with Sharon, it came out that she felt anger at her parents for keeping important topics taboo -- things that were hurting the family every day -- and that this anger fueled not only her truth-telling as a child but also her attitudes and habits on communication to this day. "Anger is often a useful fuel for speech, such as truth telling, but there is some danger in being so close to that anger all the time."
At one point in the afternoon, I had what seemed to me a kind of epiphany that might help me escape the journalistic bind that I am now in, in which sometimes I don't even want to publish my best stuff, writing that I think -- that I know -- is really good, because I just don't want to add to the amount of verbiage in the world. Not to mention my concern whether my speech is ethical or not.
The epiphany was that I realized that in the story of the Buddha's life, in the days after he was enlightened, he seriously considered not saying anything about what he'd learned, to anyone. He knew that he was going to be misunderstood, or not understood, by most people, and he figured maybe it was just best to live out his days in enlightened, silent, peace. But he changed his mind when some higher spirit approached him and convinced him that some people -- a minority, but some -- would understand his message, so on that basis he should go ahead and speak. And so he spoke.
Not that I'm enlightened, that's for sure, but the Buddha's model for at least having pondered staying silent, but then deciding just to go forth and do his best -- knowing ahead of time it wouldn't always be enough and indeed sometimes would be direly misunderstood -- seems to me a great model to follow.
Especially considering the alternative, i.e. the biggest case of writer's block of all time.