Monday, November 9, 2009

Mindful Speech, Part One: Idle Chatter

This is Part One of a series of articles on Mindful Speech. This piece focuses primarily on Idle Chatter, one of the unskillful or unvirtuous forms of speech according to Buddhism. Forthcoming articles in this series will focus on the role of Listening and Emotional Intelligence, and the Six Points of Mindful Speech taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Foot in Mouth

In my life, many of my most painful and confusing moments, my biggest embarrassments and regrets, have come about because of my own mouth: either I said something I shouldn't have, or I didn't say something I should have, or I said something but didn't say it the right way and so it was misunderstood. Of the remaining painful moments and embarrassments -- the ones that didn't come about because of my mouth -- most of them probably came about because of my ears: something significant was said to me but I wasn't really listening, or I flat out refused to hear it, or I heard only what I wanted to hear, distorting what the other person was saying to make it match what I thought they should be saying or what I wanted them to say. Recognizing this, I try to take the Buddhist teachings on Right Speech to heart. I don't always succeed: speech is still the area where it's easiest for me to fall flat on my face -- which I do, and frequently -- but it's a practice. In fact, it's my main practice, according to some of my teachers.

When the Buddha taught about the Ten Unvirtuous Actions, he was well aware of how much trouble our speech habits get us into. Four of the ten items on his list relate to various kinds of speech:
  • Lying or false speech
  • Harsh speech
  • Malicious or slanderous speech
  • Idle chatter and gossip
In Buddhism, an action is considered virtuous or unvirtuous not because there's a tablet of commandments somewhere that lays down the law, or an external deity who passes judgment on us based on how well we play by his rules. Rather, a virtuous act is one that leads to greater happiness and well-being for oneself and others, while an unvirtuous act is one that leads to greater harm and suffering. It's an ethical outlook based on an understanding of what actions are generally skillful and unskillful, rather than a moralistic outlook based on a concept of right and wrong or good and evil. In fact, from the Buddhist point of view, an act that is generally considered unvirtuous could be considered virtuous in certain cases -- it depends most of all upon one's motivation for doing it.

If we forget this, and interpret the concept of unvirtuous actions in a moralistic way -- like a parental figure wagging their finger at us, telling us not to misbehave or disobey the rules -- then we've missed the point of Buddhist ethics altogether.

It's not difficult to see why lying is considered unskillful speech: when we deceive other people we betray their trust, and we burden our own minds with trying to keep track of the lies we've told and the fear of getting caught. It's also not difficult to see how harsh speech and malicious speech are unskillful: when we yell at someone or insult them, their feelings are hurt; and when we slander another person behind their back, we create or reinforce divisions and conflicts between people. All of these forms of speech harm other people, and harm the one who engages in them.

But idle chatter and gossip -- we might wonder, what's so wrong with that? It's fun. Small-talk and chit-chat are part of how we build relationships and establish trust. And who does it really harm? If anything, it's like a victimless crime, isn't it?

Here's the probem: we resist recognizing the downside of idle chatter precisely because we're so addicted to it. If we were to acknowledge the extent of the problem, then we might feel compelled to change our habits -- and what would we talk about if we threw out perhaps 80% or 90% of our everyday speech?

The Search for Meaning

Everyone longs for greater meaning in their lives. Our connections and conversations with other people, and the intimacy we share with them, can be one of the channels through which we find meaning and fulfillment. But if the speech we share with one another is habitually devoid of meaningful content and unfulfilling, then it becomes little more than a distraction and a burden upon our awareness.

"What primarily keeps us feeling lonely and misunderstood -- and fuels our hatreds and prejudices -- is simply a lack of conversation. We all talk most of the day. We talk at work, at school, at home. But how much do we really say, and how often do our words get at what really matters to us?"

-- Zoketsu Norman Fischer, "Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up"

The issue of idle chatter and meaningful speech came up in two community meetings here at the Abbey within the past few months. In the first meeting, about 35 of us came together to address the topic of silence, a practice we work with quite a bit in the monastery. We talked about the various things that support our practice of silence and the things that hinder it, as well as the reasons why we practice silence in the first place. At one point in the meeting, I suggested that one of the most compelling reasons to practice silence is because most of what we say when we're talking isn't meaningful in the first place. This comment seemed to touch a nerve, because there was an audible murmur of dissent among several people in the room. One or two people in particular seemed to react quite strongly against it. (It's possible their reactions arose from the thorny, relativistic question of how to define what's meaningful -- one man's garbage being another man's treasure, and so on. But that's a whole other ball of wax that I'm not particularly interested in dissecting here.)

At the second meeting, we addressed the topic of friendship and how we can build more meaningful connections and real bonds with people in the community. Towards the end of the meeting, I raised my hand and said that since I've been living at the Abbey, I've frequently felt a bit put off by the superficiality of the conversations I typically hear -- and engage in -- in the dining room. Sometimes when we break a long period of silence, I find myself really looking forward to connecting with people again and engaging in good conversation -- but then when I get to the dining room and sit down with others, I discover that people are talking about the same useless trivia they were talking about the day before, and the day before, and the day before. Dismayed, I've found myself on more than one occasion wishing we could go back into silence again.

And this is not to let myself off the hook or to look down condescendingly on others' speech habits: very often, I jump right into less-than-meaningful conversations, and sometimes I too am the one who instigates them. But in a spiritual community of people committed to living a meaningful life, one might reasonably expect that the level of discourse at the dining table would be somewhat more elevated than what one might find among the people dining in, say, the average McDonald's or Burger King. Like anyone, I yearn for more meaningful connections, but I, too, have a hand in creating the situation; I don't always practice what I preach, and I don't always have the skills or even the self-awareness necessary to steer a conversation away from idle chatter and towards something more meaningful.

When I made this observation in the community meeting, it met with a mixed reaction. A few people nodded their heads in agreement; I got the sense that numerous people in the community were aware of this habitual pattern of idle chatter at the dining table and felt that something essential was missing in our conversational habits. But I also sensed that some people in the room heard my plea for more meaningful conversation as a request for more talk about Dharma -- which would be a good thing in itself, but is not necessarily what I meant.

Remember that in Buddhism, an action is considered virtuous or unvirtuous based not so much on the outward action, but on the intention and the state of mind behind it. So it's not only about what we say, but also about how we say it, and why. We can talk about random trivia from pop culture, and it can still be meaningful if we're really communicating from the heart. By the same token, we can talk about meaningful, spiritual topics like the Dharma and it can still be idle chatter if we're just trying to assert our point of view or make ourselves sound smart to the other person.

The Chatterbox Inside

As meditation practitioners, we also realize -- to our great dismay -- that idle chatter is taking place almost all the time, in our own minds. The distracting chit-chat we encounter in the outside world is usually proportionate to the distracting chit-chat in our heads. And there is a feedback loop between the two. The more discursive we are internally, the more compelled we might feel to ventilate our discursiveness in conversation with other people; and the more we do that, the more discursive we tend to become. We egg each other on towards higher and higher levels of internal and external chatter. At the end of the day, we might have been running our mouths off from sunrise to sunset without saying anything significant whatsoever.

Practicing what the Buddha called Right Speech or Mindful Speech is not easy -- it requires a tremendous degree of self-awareness and mindfulness, and a commitment to staying open and present with other people in a state of uncertainty and vulnerability. Often we chatter because we're uncomfortable with silence, and we feel compelled to fill up the empty space. Mindful Speech also means applying the crucial but uncommon skill of listening -- which is, or should be, the better part of conversation -- rather than just talking.

Refraining from idle chatter may be the most difficult part of Mindful Speech, for most of us. We've all engaged in lying, slander and bullying speech at some point, but chances are we don't practice those things most of the time, and we find them relatively easy to avoid if we even try. But idle chatter often gets the better of us. It can, and frequently does, occupy massive sections of our mental bandwidth, and it can, and frequently does, dominate our conversations with other people -- so much so that we may be blind and deaf to it, and unaware that we're even doing it.

Make a commitment to watch yourself for one whole day, and try to notice all your verbal interactions with other people. Pay attention to the content of your conversations, but also to the tone and the context, and also try to see how much you really listen. Pay attention to what is really being communicated -- and what isn't.

How much of your speech is truly meaningful?

-- Read Part Two: Listening --

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