Sunday, December 13, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing

I spent the past two-and-a-half weeks studying Madhyamaka with a great teacher named Israel Lifschitz, from Nitartha Institute. I'm grateful to Israel for sharing these insights with me and helping me understand the practical value of Madhyamaka, which often seems maddeningly dense and intellectual. If there is anything of value said in this essay, it's probably from Israel; I've just tried to put it into writing, and tie it together with some of my own feeble thoughts.

When the Buddha first attained enlightenment, he remained alone and silent for several weeks, uncertain that he could share with anyone else what he had realized. But eventually he decided that he had to try. His initial attempt, it is said, didn’t go very well. When asked about his realization by one of the first men he encountered, he said:

“I have found a mind that is pure, profound, luminous and free of stains.”

The man basically took a step back and said something like, “Okay...Well, good luck with that!” And off he went.

The Buddha realized that in order to share his realization with others, he would need to come down to earth a little bit more, and talk at a level that ordinary people could understand and put into practice. So he adopted a more practical style of teaching, relating very much to the everyday level of experience. But over the next 40 years, as a large following of disciples grew around him and practiced his teachings, he gradually moved closer and closer to his original revelation: in stages, he unveiled the depth of his realization, one step at a time. Each time his followers thought they’d arrived at a solid understanding of reality, the Buddha would pull the rug out from under them again and reveal a new, more profound way of understanding. The stages of the Buddhist path point, ever more directly, towards that pure, profound, luminous mind that is free of stains, which was the essence of the Buddha’s awakening.

The fact is that the Buddha’s realization was something that cannot really be put into words, and cannot be conceptually understood. It was dancing itself, an experience which no dance manual -- however well-written or illustrated -- can really convey. Over the past twenty-five centuries, however, Buddhist practitioners have developed a mind-numbingly complex and mind-bogglingly vast array of manuals and philosophical systems describing that dance and how we can replicate it in our own experience.

Many of these philosophical systems developed highly sophisticated, detailed descriptions and categorizations of the human mind and its experience. But among the most daunting, and most profound, of these philosophical systems is one that arose in India several centuries after the Buddha’s passing, which came to be known as the Madhyamaka school. Later, when Buddhism came to Tibet, the Madhyamaka system was enshrined there as the highest philosophical view; today, 1,500 years later, Tibetans are still arguing the same issues that were debated by Madhyamaka philosophers in India nearly 1,000 years earlier.

In fact, the Madhyamaka system is not much of a system, because it contains no elaborate descriptions of mind or of ultimate reality. That’s because the Madhyamaka philosophers don’t really hold a view or a position of their own. From the Madhyamaka perspective, there is nothing to say about the ultimate nature of things, because it is beyond words, beyond all reference points and concepts. The only way to conceptually approach emptiness, or the true nature of reality, they say, is through refuting everything that it is not. Through systematically annihilating every mistaken conceptual idea one might have about true reality, they aimed to create a space for the Buddha’s non-conceptual realization to arise. Thus, the Madhyamaka philosophers asserted no particular views of their own and had nothing to defend, but simply went about exposing the absurdity and contradictions of the views and positions held by everyone else.

Contrary to appearances, Madhyamaka is not a philosophical game or an intellectual exercise. Its purpose is not just to refute other people’s views, but in doing so, to uproot our ignorance and to expose the mistaken nature of our assumptions about reality. Like all Buddhist teachings and practices, the Madhyamaka method is intended to help us wake up; by demolishing our opinions with merciless logic, it aims to help us go beyond opinions altogether, to pure experience and a state of relaxation free of mental constructs. The irony of Madhyamaka is that it has nothing to say and points to a state of total simplicity -- the pure, profound, luminous mind beyond concept that the Buddha realized -- and yet the Madhyamaka philosophers produced a mountain of philosophical treatises that rival, in both complexity and volume, the output of any other philosophical system in the world.

The very center of our experience, the core of reality, what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” is a place where words and concepts cannot go. Madhyamaka deals with that core, that center, but it never says anything about it directly -- because nothing that can be said can possibly express the nature of that core. In a debate with a Madhyamaka philosopher, you have the right to remain silent, but anything you say can and will be used against you.

The Buddha taught that our ignorance and our clinging are the fundamental causes of our suffering. The aim of Madhyamaka is to uproot our ignorance of ultimate reality and expose our clinging to opinions and conceptual reference points. Holding onto our reference points and clinging to our opinions is the Madhyamaka definition of suffering; letting them go and relaxing into a space beyond concepts is freedom.

Consider how we cling to the past, and how much suffering this causes us. We feel that we are conditioned and programmed by our past experiences, and we hold onto the memory of them tightly -- even (or especially) the bad stuff. We cling so very tightly to the labels we put on ourselves based on what we did or what was done to us in the past, and who we believe those experiences make us today. I am such-and-such kind of person and that’s who I really am, because such-and-such happened to me. We resist letting go of these labels because they define who we think we are. Who would we be without them? Our fixation and clinging to the past is like trying to clutch at water in our fists; by the time we close our hands on it, it’s already gone. The past no longer exists, and yet we constantly try to cling to it and make it permanent.

Madhyamaka doesn’t refute the appearances of life; it doesn’t say, for example, that the past never happened, or that the objects appearing in front of us now are not appearing. But it refutes, relentlessly, every single concept or opinion that we might impute onto that raw experience. It shows us how the mistaken notions we impute onto our experience -- and the fact that we believe what we impute -- block our ability to see reality as it is, and cause us unnecessary suffering. The problem behind our suffering, according to Madhyamaka, is not a lack of thinking or logic; it’s bad thinking, and bad logic.

When we let our minds be permeated by the ultimate view -- that things and experiences have no enduring essence that we can cling to, and that the true nature of reality is neither this way nor that way -- then our clinging is reduced. What is there to cling to? We don’t, after all, have to take the whole thing quite so seriously.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wake Up, Wake Up!

This essay is a rework of a series of four shorter pieces published on this blog one year ago. It has been largely stripped of "Buddhist" jargon and rewritten to pass the mother test: hopefully even your mother could understand it.

Although enlightenment may be inevitable, and awakened mind itself may be our most basic nature, that doesn’t mean it comes naturally to us. We’ve been asleep at the wheel for a very long time — for decades, perhaps, or for countless lifetimes, depending on what you believe — and waking up from such a long sleep is not easy to do. Our sleep has a lot of momentum and energy behind it, like a train, and breaking that momentum also requires a lot of consciously directed energy. To stop a long freight train that’s moving fast, you don’t just slam on the brakes — you have to start applying the brakes a mile or two ahead of where you plan to actually stop.

The same is true on the spiritual path. Every once in a while, you hear about someone (like Eckhart Tolle) whose freight train came to an abrupt, unexpected stop, and there they were — suddenly wide awake. But that kind of person is as rare as a daytime star. For the rest of us, it’s a slow process. We have been hurtling forward, for such a long time, in the momentum of our confusion, that it takes a lot of consistent effort to even slow ourselves down. We apply the brakes by working with our minds and chipping away, bit by bit, at the momentum of our confusion. Eventually, we’ll be able to turn the train back towards its source, the primordial wisdom of awakened mind that is, according to almost every spiritual tradition, the origin of all things.

Count Your Blessings

The heart of the problem is that we take our lives for granted. We get stuck in complaining about all the big and little ways that life disappoints us, and we forget that, at the most basic level, we have it pretty good. We don’t have all the things we want, and we probably have other things we don’t want and can’t seem to get rid of, but in terms of having what we need for waking up — for putting the brakes on our confusion and turning the freight trains of our own minds back in the other direction — our circumstances really couldn’t be much better.

You’re a human being. You’ve probably been one all your life, so it’s difficult to imagine being anything else. But try to imagine it. What if you — whatever you call “you” — had been born as a horse, or a fish, or a dog, or a bug, or as some creature that humans have never seen and don’t have a name for? What kind of chances would you have, in such a life, to follow the path towards awakening? In the grand scheme of things, human beings are a pretty rare breed.

You have a body that works more or less well enough for you. Maybe it gives you problems — and, almost certainly, you’re not satisfied with your body the way it is — but consider, at the most basic level, how amazing and unlikely it is to merely exist in such a body. You are breathing, without even trying. You’re moving about. You probably have eyes, and ears, and hands. You can hold a book in your hands — a simple act that represents millions of years of evolution that resulted in the complex being that you are. But more than that — any monkey could hold a book, but you can read it. You have a mind that is capable of absorbing complex ideas and thinking in abstract ways; a mind, moreover, that is endowed with the blessing (or the curse, depending on what you do with it) of self-awareness. That is your human birthright, and it’s a power that many beings don’t have.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’re actually one of the luckiest human beings on the planet. Not only can you think and feel and move about, but you have the kind of circumstances, and the kind of mind, that has led you to seek out spiritual teachings in the first place. Imagine how many people in this world never have that opportunity. So many people are starving and struggling to survive, or born in places that are torn apart by war, or born with a mind that’s impaired; or they simply grow up in ways that only make them more confused and lead them further down the path of suffering. They never have a chance. But you’re one of the fortunate ones. If you’re like most people, you probably spend a lot of time complaining about your life circumstances, but in terms of your ability to progress along the spiritual path, your circumstances couldn’t really be much better. Wake up and smell the coffee.

Tibetan Buddhists call this kind of life a “precious human birth." They say it is incredibly rare, in the cosmic scheme of things, to be blessed with such a fortunate life; it would be a tragedy of cosmic proportions to waste such a precious gift, to not utilize it fully and meaningfully.

One of our most deeply rooted habitual patterns is self-criticism. Even when our situation is good, our minds always circle back to focus on what we lack, the areas where we perceive ourselves to be deficient — or the ways we perceive our outer circumstances to be unsatisfactory. This is especially true in the West, where our culture is steeped in the notion of Original Sin — the idea that we are, from the time we’re conceived in the womb, fundamentally bad, primordially corrupted, and we cannot be fixed without the intervention of a Higher Power to rescue us from ourselves. This is a far cry from the notion of Buddha Nature — the idea that all beings are fundamentally good, primordially pure, and that each being has the potential to awaken to its own true nature through its own actions and awareness.

Our compulsive self-criticism and discontent often blinds us to our own positive qualities and fortunate circumstances, making it difficult for us to relax with ourselves as we are, or to rest with what is happening in the moment. For example, we may be habitually speedy and impatient — always restless and eager to be somewhere other than where we are, doing something other than what we’re doing. I remember when I first caught this pattern coming up in my own mind, very vividly, in the midst of a weekend meditation training program. I found myself sitting there on the cushion, anxiously waiting for the bell to ring so I could get up and do walking meditation. Then, after a few minutes of walking meditation, I found myself anxiously waiting for the bell to ring again, so I could sit back down. When I realized the absurdity of what my mind was doing — always leaning into the next moment, the next activity, the next thought — I almost laughed out loud.

One of the roots of our discontent and restlessness may be residual, habitual feelings of shame, fear, deficiency and even self-pity that were ingrained in us early in life. If we let such feelings control our minds, they become a veil that prevents us from clearly seeing — much less utilizing — the opportunity for awakening that we have in this life. But through working with our minds in meditation, we can come to realize that these negative emotional habits have no inherent reality of their own. We're the ones who keep them spinning. We give them energy and soil in which to grow. Yielding to these ancient patterns frustrates our emotional well-being and stifles our spiritual growth.

Of all the infinite variety of situations into which we could have been born, we find ourselves now in this one — this very unlikely, slightly absurd human body, born into this very particular set of circumstances. In contrast to our habit of focusing on the negative, always feeling discontent over what our lives are lacking, we could, instead, turn our minds towards appreciating the precious qualities of this life, and making the best use of it — before it is gone. Part of what makes this human life we have so precious is that it is fleeting, and could totally disintegrate at any time, without warning. We should not take it for granted that our circumstances will always be so favorable; we should practice diligently on the spiritual path while we can.

At this very moment, all the necessary conditions have come together for you to be able to progress along the path toward enlightenment. Yet none of these blessings that you presently enjoy are guaranteed to you. Any of them could easily be lost, at any time, through your own death or through changing life circumstances. Wouldn't it suck to find yourself on your death-bed and be full of regret that you wasted your time in this life? What steps can you take to make sure that doesn't happen?

Time Is Running Out

In our modern Western culture, especially in America, we don’t even like to talk about death. It’s considered morbid to dwell on such things. We prefer to think about death as little as possible, until it absolutely can’t be avoided. We are like the ostrich that hides its head in the sand when afraid — it’s as if we imagine that by not looking squarely at the reality of death, we can somehow avoid being affected by it. When the death of a loved one happens, or when their own impending death comes within sight, most people are taken by surprise.

This attitude of denial and avoidance is, obviously, deeply unrealistic. We strive to keep the reality of death at arm's length, as if it were merely an abstract possibility — something that might happen to other people, but probably not to me. Of course we know intellectually that we will die at some point — yet, somehow, emotionally, the reality of it still does not entirely sink in. We coddle and cherish our bodies and pride ourselves on looking young, and we may take it for granted that our bodies will continue to serve us well into the distant future. But as we get older it becomes harder to live in denial of the body's gradual progression towards decrepitude and decay. Looking at photographs of ourselves when we were children, it's easy to see how quickly our lives are passing by. Buddhist scriptures compare our lives to a bubble, a dew drop, a bolt of lightning, and a torrent of water rushing down a hillside. A human life is so brief, even under the best of circumstances — and the older we get, the faster the years and decades seem to go by. How much time do you imagine you have left on this earth?

The human body is literally like a bubble — so easily ruptured, it might be here one instant and gone the next. If you nick an artery, you could be dead within minutes. From a spiritual perspective, it would be madness to place our trust and identification in such a fleeting and fragile mirage as the body — to believe that the body is what we are. And yet we do precisely that, don't we?

We deny death because we’re afraid of it. And we’re afraid of it because we’re in denial about it. This cycle of ignorance and fear of death causes us so much unnecessary suffering. Losing our fear of death — becoming more aware of it, more open to it — means living our human lives with a greater sense of urgency, remembering how little time we have left. Our habit is to put off until "tomorrow" what we should do today, thinking that "tomorrow" we'll have more convenient circumstances. When we get this or that thing, we think, when we get all our ducks in a row, we'll finally be able to really settle down and focus on spiritual practice. But what if our ducks never get in a row, and time runs out?

We spend our lives trying to fulfill our desires and passions. If we are single we may devote our thoughts and energy to the idea that if we only had a partner, then things would be great and we could really start living. We get caught up in pursuing sex and romance, thinking maybe that will bring us lasting happiness. There’s nothing particularly wrong with sex and romance. But looking at it from the larger perspective, isn't this just a distraction from what's really important? The clock is ticking, and when death comes for us, how are sex and romance going to help? When we’re lying there on our death-beds, is it really going to be enough to say to ourselves, “Yeah, I had a good time.”

At the time of death, we can’t take anything with us. Not lovers, friends, family, possessions, or our bodies. From the Buddhist point of view, the only thing we’ll be able carry with us into whatever happens next is the mind itself, which carries our karma (both good and bad) and our spiritual intentions. But the 'color' of our karma and the strength of the intentions we carry depend upon what we do and how we practice here and now.

With time running out, what is really most important to you? What could you be doing to make your life meaningful?

Everything You Do Matters

“Karma” is one of those Buddhist words that have entered the popular vocabulary, but its meaning is very poorly understood. It’s not a big mystical thing. Karma basically means that whatever we think, say or do produces an effect in our minds and in the world around us. Everything we do matters, because everything produces consequences that ripple outward and affect the whole environment. The way it works is very simple: when we do something positive, it plants seeds of happiness; and when we do something negative, it plants seeds of suffering. Sooner or later, when the conditions are right in the soil of our minds, these seeds will come to fruition and we will experience the results of what we have done. If you plant an apple seed, and the right conditions come together to nourish it, you don’t get an oak tree. You get an apple tree.

For those of us who grew up in a Western culture, the idea of karma may be a little hard to swallow. Generally, depending on our influences and our own inclinations, we are taught to adopt one of two standard viewpoints:

  1. Theism/eternalism: Someone else (God) is pulling the strings, deciding where we're born, how long we live, the experiences we have, and so on; and when we die, God decides the eternal destiny of our "soul."

  2. Nihilism/materialism: There's no rhyme or reason to our existence here; it's all random events taking place in an existential vacuum, and there is nothing beyond the flesh; when we die, our mind-stream ceases to exist in any form whatsoever.

Those two basic viewpoints represent two extremes, polar opposites on the spectrum of belief about how we got here and what forces shape our human experience. Most people believe in one or the other of those two extremes. It never occurs to them that there might be a third alternative somewhere in-between those two untenable opposites. Karma is the essence of that third, middle way: it means that our experience is neither random and meaningless (nihilism), nor is it being dictated by a creator god or puppet-master (theism). Rather, what we experience is the fruition of what we've created for ourselves — even if we're not always capable of seeing the connections between cause and result. Sometimes we can find evidence to support this view in our own lives: often the suffering or the happiness we experience is obviously self-created. Other times, it can be hard to trace the connection between cause and result because we may have planted the seeds so long ago that we don’t remember. (Do you even remember what you had for lunch on the second Tuesday of last month?) We therefore imagine that there’s no connection and that our experiences are just “happening” to us for no particular reason, but from a Buddhist point of view that is delusion.

At a metaphysical level, too, some people find that karma provides a better explanation of our existence than either of the more commonly held alternatives. If we reject both the theistic belief in a created "soul" that is eternally rewarded or punished for its actions in this life, along with the nihilistic belief that every aspect of consciousness dies with the body, it follows that some part of the mind will survive the death of the body, and that the force of whatever karma it has accrued in the past will go towards shaping its future experiences or lives.

Karma is not like a judge, doling out rewards and punishments for good or bad behavior — that’s the theistic spin again. Karma doesn’t care what we do, because it’s not an entity; it’s just the way things work, a natural law, the way water is always wet and fire is always hot. Karma is like a snowball: whatever direction we roll it in, it accumulates more and more mass. In each moment, we have a choice about which direction to roll the snowball: we can roll it towards further suffering and imprisonment, or we can roll it in the direction of freedom and ultimate happiness. What kind of karmic future are you creating for yourself? Do your actions sync up with your aspirations, or are they going in two different directions? Is there a disconnect between how you aspire to be in the world and how you actually are?

Here’s the good news: karma means that we have the power to create happiness and to stop creating suffering. It's not a question of waiting and hoping that things will work out in the end, or that some kind of savior will step in and make suffering go away and shower us with everlasting happiness. The power to create our future happiness is in our own hands.

Our "individual" experience also affects the people and other beings around us. When we suffer, we tend to make others suffer along with us, and when we are happy, we tend to make others happy too. So our personal karma is not as personal as we think it is; we’re all swimming in it together. Even if we don't say or do something, we can affect other people simply through the energetic quality or state of mind that we manifest in their presence. If they sense our tension and aggression, they become tense and aggressive. If they sense our love and compassion, they relax and open too. Without realizing it, we can have an impact on someone's life simply by the way we look at them in the subway, or on the street, and this too creates karma. Every single thing we do matters, and has consequences.

We normally think that there are some moments or situations that have moral implications, and others that don't. To contemplate the way karma works is to realize that every instant of consciousness as a human being has moral implications, because even thoughts and intentions have the power to generate positive or negative effects and thus to bring about happiness or suffering.

This is why meditation practice is so important on the spiritual path. Through meditation, we see our minds more clearly and develop calmness and insight; thus, we begin to dismantle the cognitive and emotional obscurations that have been leading us to sabotage our own happiness. Practice is what carries us along the path, and the path leads us to awakening.

Cutting Desire and Attachment

In our entire lives, when have we ever been satisfied for more than a few minutes? We are forever wishing we had more of something, or something better, or that we could make it last longer. We even bring this approach to our meditation practice, measuring ourselves against some ideal concept of the perfect meditator and coming up short, wishing we were better. Even when things are going well, the undercurrent of dissatisfaction, the sense that things are not yet good enough, is always there. This constant restlessness and desire for improvement is the basic suffering of human existence. We can never simply be happy with the way things are.

We live under the illusion that if we could just get the pieces of the puzzle lined up correctly — the right job, the right apartment, the right lover, the right spiritual state — then we would live happily ever after, and we wouldn't have to suffer anymore. But there’s a flaw in that logic. Even if we were lucky enough to get all the pieces together and all the ducks lined up (something most people never do), we still couldn't make it last. We'd still have the suffering of change, of seeing it all slip away, and the suffering that comes from the fear of that happening. The promise that external objects or conditions are going to bring us lasting happiness is a false promise, one that can never really be fulfilled. Even when we get what we want, we soon want more.

Just being alive brings suffering, because there is always the basic clinging to life and fear of death. Fear pervades human existence. We are afraid of so many things: death, illness, pain, ridicule, loneliness, heartbreak...the list goes on. But all these fears arise on the basis of desire and attachment. How could we be afraid of losing something to which we are not attached? From this perspective, the recipe for diminishing our fear and suffering is very simple: cut our desire and attachment.

The problem is that we constantly fail to recognize attachment and self-clinging as the causes of our suffering. When we are trapped in a state of anger and aggression, for example, we feel righteous and justified. We fail to notice the suffering that comes from being attached to our own point of view, which is being challenged by someone else. Similarly, when we are caught up in lust or poverty mentality, all we can see is the desired object and the happiness we believe it would bring us if we only had it. We fail to see that it is our own attachment to a concept that makes us unhappy.

Buddhism sometimes strikes people as morbid, because it talks a lot about suffering as a basic fact of life. Suffering, in fact, was the very first part of the Buddha’s very first sermon, after he attained enlightenment. But the Buddha wasn’t being morbid when he talked about suffering; he was just calling it like he saw it. He taught that human life is riddled with three basic kinds of suffering:

  1. All-pervasive suffering: The basic quality of dissatisfaction and fear that pervades human existence

  2. The suffering of change: The experience of unwanted change, pain or loss

  3. The suffering of suffering: The added suffering that comes from struggling against the first two sufferings and trying to deny or avoid them, which only makes things worse — in other words, the suffering that we bring upon ourselves

All the material comforts in life in which we normally put our hope and trust — homes and wealth and pleasures, being liked, being respected, getting what we want — are shot through with these three types of suffering. No matter how much of them we get, we always want more; they don't last; and we're always worried about losing them.

Cutting desire and attachment doesn’t mean that we have to wall ourselves off from the world and go live in a cave and practice meditation 24 hours a day. It’s more a question of whether we put our faith and trust in temporary, material comforts, whether we honestly believe that our ultimate happiness depends upon them. It's okay to enjoy material comforts when they come along, but getting caught up in attachment to them and craving for more of them only leads to suffering.

The challenge is to find a middle path, a balanced way of being in the world that avoids both the extreme of ascetic renunciation and the opposite extreme of materialist indulgence. This means being open to the experience of whatever comes to us in our lives — without spending too much time worrying about keeping things a certain way. There is nothing inherently wrong with the search for happiness; the problem is that our search has been misdirected outside, rather than inside. Cutting desire and attachment means cutting our tendency to put priority on mundane activities, and returning always to the true priority: waking up.

Ask yourself: Recognizing the incredible opportunity I have to wake up in this life, and knowing that time is running out and every single thing I do matters, how much of my life do I want to spend pursuing temporary pleasures that come from outside, and how much do I want to spend pursuing genuine freedom — which can only come from inside? What are my real priorities?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stinking Thinking

The Trance of Negativity

“The power of positive thinking” is one of those phrases that probably makes you cringe when you hear it. It sounds Pollyannaish and naïve -- like one of those well-meaning clichés one sees printed on motivational posters hanging in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, beneath a heartwarming photo of kittens or rainbows or some small, delicate flower triumphantly asserting its existence in spite of great obstacles and hardship. A greeting-card sentiment.

Chances are, you don’t have the same trouble relating to it if we substitute the word “negative” for “positive.” One doesn’t have to look far to find evidence of the power of negative thinking. Its proof is all around us, sometimes to such an extent that we have trouble seeing how completely negativity dominates our minds. Simply open a newspaper or turn on the news on television and you will be bombarded by negative stories, negative images, negative thinking: you will see tragedies both large and small, an endless litany of angry faces and people doing horrible things to one another. As you absorb these messages, you will slowly, almost imperceptibly, begin to worry and experience fear. At a somatic level that you are perhaps not aware of, you will experience physiological changes as you sit there: an elevated heart rate, and the release of stress hormones.

One might argue that the media is simply showing us how things are these days, and if negativity is their stock and trade, well, it’s because the world really is full of suffering and tragedy and they’re just telling it like it is. But the media have made negativity their stock and trade because they’ve discovered that it sells more papers, and draws in more viewers. People want to know what they should be afraid of, what they should worry about. In fact, most of us these days are addicted to negative thinking, and the more bad news and foreboding information is shoveled into our minds, the more deeply ingrained and natural our tendency towards negative thinking becomes. It has finally come to seem that a negative frame of mind is simply a realistic one, the only view to be held by mature people who know the ways of the world. Positive thinking, in the face of so much tragedy and degradation and so many ominous trends, seems more and more like a pitiful anachronism, one of those misplaced and outdated motivational slogans that makes us cringe when we hear it.

The problem with this view is that it lacks a basic awareness of how our thoughts shape our reality -- of the cause-and-effect relationship between the two. If the world appears to be going to hell in a hand-basket these days, well, perhaps that has something to do with the collective trance of negativity and fear in which we’re all caught. As we think, so we become. The mind, once it’s rolling in a particular direction, accumulates more and more evidence to support its basic outlook: the snowball effect. Eventually, as the mind’s tendencies towards negative thinking become more and more deeply ingrained, that outlook hardens into a pair of dark glasses that one forgets one is even wearing, coloring and distorting every experience.

In the Dhammapada, one of the earliest and best-known Buddhist scriptures from the Pali Canon, the Buddha taught that both positive and negative thinking have equal power to shape our reality:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.”

Our human experience is shot through with a curious paradox: our thoughts and emotions have no form or substance that we can point to or isolate (though they have correlates in the brain and body that science is edging closer to identifying). And yet our thoughts and emotions have, in many cases, overwhelming control over our experience and our actions. When a sequence of similar thoughts occurs in a chain, those thoughts become habits of thinking; they acquire a momentum whose force is difficult to resist or steer. Habitual ways of thinking solidify and define how we see and interact with the world; they become what Chogyam Trungpa called “styles of imprisonment” -- prisons whose walls exist entirely in our minds. Thoughts create emotional ripples as well as storms that disturb our whole mental and physical ecosystem; they shape both how we speak and the things we choose to speak about; they color our dreams and what we dream about; they influence our relationships and the people with whom we have them. It is possible for us to fall, without much effort or awareness, utterly under the spell of what people in Twelve Step groups call “stinking thinking.”

Yet how is it that something so ephemeral and ethereal as thought can have such a controlling impact on us? How can we be so thoroughly under the power of something so ghostly and insubstantial? And if thinking is by nature so insubstantial, why do we find it so difficult, once we are under its spell, to change course?

What Damns a Marriage

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of a scientist named John Gottman, who has spent nearly three decades studying married couples and trying to understand what their interactions reveal about the couple’s chances of staying together or getting divorced. Gottman gradually developed a sophisticated method of analyzing a typical conversation between spouses and looking for certain cues and trends that reveal the underlying emotional dynamics and habits of thinking. Gottman’s method allows him to listen to an hour of conversation and predict, with 95% accuracy, whether the couple will still be married in 15 years.

Gottman discovered that for a marriage to survive, there must be at least a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotion in the couple’s interactions. He also discovered that the presence of certain key emotional indicators is a sure sign that a marriage is in trouble and unlikely to survive. The most damning of these indicators is contempt: if either partner in the marriage expresses contempt towards the other, the couple’s chances are extremely slim.

Gottman’s work demonstrates that there is an underlying pattern in any marriage that can be very quickly identified and analyzed, and that by correctly discerning that pattern one can foresee with tremendous accuracy the future outcome of that marriage.

The patterns that Gottman identifies in a couple’s interactions consist of the emotional dynamics and the habits of thinking that define the two individuals’ ways of relating to each other. The couples that aren’t likely to make it are the ones who’ve become trapped in unhealthy patterns, where the amount of negative emotion in a given interaction crosses the magic threshold of 16.5% and moves into a style of imprisonment that carries the couple inexorably towards increasing conflict and eventual divorce. Once that river is flowing, it becomes almost impossible to resist being swept along by its current; it is difficult for the couple to see their own patterns in operation or to step back and correct the course of their marriage by steering it in a more positive direction.

The dynamics that Gottman identified have implications that reach far beyond marriage counseling. Patterns of negative thinking and negative emotional habits can adversely impact every area of our lives. Negative thinking can destroy not only marriages but careers, families, friendships, and one’s own mental health – it can even corrupt and pervert the spiritual path.

During my first six months at the Abbey, there was a fellow monk (I’ll call him Chodzin) who experienced many difficulties in relating to other residents of the Abbey. Chodzin was a very clever person, with the kind of sharp, critical intelligence that allowed him, among other things, to identify and describe problems that he saw in the social structures around him. He was forever pointing out issues with the way the Abbey was managed or the way various people or groups interacted, and often his criticisms were very on-point and perceptive; it was often difficult to disagree with what he was saying. But he also exuded a great deal of negativity and had a pattern of expressing himself with a tone of anger, verbal aggression, and, occasionally, outright contempt. This pattern led others at the Abbey -- myself included -- to withdraw from Chodzin, since our own emotional resistance and underlying issues were often triggered by his displays of anger, aggression and contempt. This group dynamic repeated itself many times, and escalated to the point where Chodzin obviously felt isolated and withdrawn, and many people hardened in their mistrustful reactions toward him and developed dysfunctional patterns of avoiding contact with him as much as possible. The situation gradually built toward a series of increasingly hostile confrontations that culminated in Chodzin being asked to leave the community quite abruptly -- an outcome that was all the more tragic since Chodzin had expressed a desire, early in his stay, to remain at the Abbey for life.

Gottman’s work with married couples helped me understand some of the reasons for what had happened with Chodzin, and why I had intuitively -- from my very first encounters with him -- doubted that he would last very long at the Abbey. The ratio of positive to negative emotion that was observable in Chodzin’s interactions with others was tipped too far into negative territory, well past the 16.5% threshold that signaled trouble ahead. But even more ominous was his occasional way of speaking to others with a tone of contempt, which is Gottman’s strongest indicator of a doomed marriage. Early on, I had sensed these things, but I lacked the vocabulary to articulate them; yet I knew, without knowing how I knew, that Chodzin’s marriage to the Abbey would be short-lived. The storm of negativity under which Chodzin finally departed -- the bitter divorce that it represented -- left many people feeling raw and wounded; despite whatever resistance they had felt towards him, they were also saddened by his departure and by what was clearly a lost opportunity to transform a pattern of negativity (on both sides) into something more positive.

In The Myth of Freedom, Chogyam Trungpa said that negativity by itself is not particularly a problem. In its basic energy, it can be a sharp, discerning faculty that sees the flaws in things and wants to find remedies. The problem, rather, is what Trungpa called “negative negativity,” which is (among other things) our tendency to spin out our negative thoughts and feed them so that they snowball into neurotic patterns that take control of our lives in subtle or gross ways.

In perhaps less dramatic ways, each of us has the same potential as Chodzin to cloud our own experience and poison our lives and relationships with habits of negative thinking and expression. Sometimes, at the Abbey, when we get together in groups we have a tendency to complain and harp on the little things that bother us about Abbey life -- living in such a small container, like a submarine, and rubbing elbows all the time, we are bound to find many things that challenge our egos. Sometimes even monks and nuns slip into a pattern of complaining about such things, in much the same way as co-workers at most companies get together in the break room and complain about their bosses or their work. When this happens, one can almost watch the neurotic snowball effect rolling through the group as we sink deeper and deeper into a mindset of complaining and criticism and identifying with the problem. Sometimes a threshold is crossed and a hardened sense of negativity, what Trungpa would call negative negativity, begins to emerge in the group.

Once, I was at a meeting where one of the other monks saw this happening and suddenly cut through it with a sharply worded rebuke. He reminded us, in no uncertain terms, how fortunate we are to be in a place like the Abbey, what a rich opportunity it is, and how positive and beneficial the circumstances at the Abbey actually are for our spiritual paths. The effect of his rebuke was to pop the bubble of negativity that had begun to swell in the group, and to show us how our own thought patterns had been coloring and clouding our experience in that very moment. With the bubble popped, fresh air was suddenly able to flow into our minds, and with that relaxation we realized how we’d been trapped in our own negative thoughts. We’d backed ourselves into a corner, and suddenly someone came along and informed us, bluntly, that it was an ugly corner -- dark, smelly, and full of trash -- and there was absolutely no reason why we should stay there. Sometimes a gentle and friendly slap in the face is precisely what we need to snap us out of the trance of negativity and allow us to see ourselves and our world with sudden clarity.

Though it may sound Pollyannaish to our modern ears, there is tremendous wisdom in an old song by the Carter Family (who are credited as being the first recorded “country” music band):

There's a dark and a troubled side of life.
There's a bright and a sunny side, too.
Though we meet with the darkness and strife,
Yet the sunny side we also may view.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way
If we'll keep on the sunny side of life.

-- The Carter Family

What the Carter family said in those lyrics is not very different from what the Buddha said in the opening verses of the Dhammapada. Our thoughts and our attitudes determine our destiny.

The Wolves Within

There is an old Cherokee tale about a young boy who receives spiritual advice from his grandfather. The boy comes to him, troubled by some conflict he has experienced, and the old man explains to the boy that within every person there are two wolves. The first wolf, the grandfather says, represents love, serenity, faith, kindness, truth, compassion, and so on; the first wolf lives in harmony with those around him, and only fights when it is right to do so. The second wolf represents anger, lies, envy, greed, self-pity, pride, and so on; the second wolf is constantly picking fights, at the slightest provocation. Inside every person, these two wolves are locked in an epic battle, with each wolf trying to dominate one’s mind.

The boy thinks about this for a moment and asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

“The one you feed,” replies the old man.

To the extent that we feed our negative thought patterns, they grow stronger and stronger, and eventually they can overpower us and destroy our happiness. But we are seldom lucky enough to have a perceptive monk around who will catch us in the act of descending into a negative loop; more often than not, we are the only ones who can perceive it and stop it before it gains enough momentum to begin eroding the foundations of our happiness. It is up to each of us to be that monk and to compassionately (which sometimes means fiercely, with enough force to puncture the bubble) call ourselves, and others, on our stinking thinking when we see it. As the Buddha taught, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” If we want happiness to follow us, like a shadow that never leaves us, we must take hold of our inverted thought patterns and turn them right-side-up.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spirituality or Religion?

The Lone Ranger

These days, everybody wants to be spiritual but nobody wants to be religious. Religion is a dirty word. Religion, we think, is for people who've bit the hook, who've gone in too far, who've drunk the Kool-Aid. Religion, we think, means giving up your autonomy, ceding control to someone else, becoming a sheep in the flock. Religion, we think, means abandoning your critical intelligence and adopting someone else's ideas and codes of behavior.

Our modern aversion to religion, our mistrust of it, is not unfounded. So numerous are the abuses, absurdities, hypocrisies, lies and murders that have been perpetrated in the name of religion, that to attempt to describe them accurately would fill an entire library. Sadly, the faces of the religious are too often exactly the faces of those sheep we do not wish to become.

These days, we feel more drawn to the Lone Ranger archetype of the spiritual seeker, the adventuresome and independent philosopher who pursues justice and truth wherever he may find it, without getting bogged down in the bureaucracy and laws of religion. Yet there is something a bit suspect about this archetype, as well. Without the guidance and structure of religion, the Lone Ranger too easily falls into a habit of spiritual snacking: munching potato chips of wisdom here and there, but never really sitting down to eat a proper meal. This mentality is encouraged by the modern spiritual scene, a multicultural smorgasbord where anyone can, with a little effort, endlessly sample teachings drawn from this tradition and that, putting together a personalized mash-up of little bits of spiritual wisdom from here and there, and dabbling now in this practice and now in that one. There is nothing wrong with exploring the range of wisdom that is out there. But we would be mistaken to think that the Lone Ranger strategy of spiritual snacking is really going to nourish us in any meaningful way. However tasty they may be, potato chips are not the same thing as a real meal, and we can make ourselves sick if potato chips are all we ever eat.

Within every religion, there are always two dimensions: the outer, more superficial dimension, and the inner, more profound dimension. (In academic terms, we would call these the exoteric and esoteric dimensions, respectively.) The inner, profound dimension carries that religion's genuine spiritual teachings, while the outer, superficial dimension carries its forms and its traditions and its cultural accretions, its outward observances. At the birth of every religion, the inner, profound dimension is dominant, and runs strongly towards mystical, transcendent experience; but over time, this inner dimension is encrusted and hidden within the outer, superficial layer that grows thicker and thicker as the years and centuries pass. The inner, profound dimension never entirely disappears, but it may become hidden to such a degree that only someone who has diligently penetrated through the outer layers and engaged with them fully can really get to the inner core of wisdom that lies at their center.

All Paths Lead to God

Oddly enough, it seems to be the case that the inner core of wisdom within every religion puts forward a set of essential teachings that sound strikingly similar to the essential teachings of every other religion. It is usually the outer, superficial layers that look very different from one religion to the next. When you get right down to it, there isn't a whole lot of difference between the esoteric teachings of mystical Christianity, mystical Judaism, mystical Hinduism, mystical Islam, and mystical Buddhism. The formless Dharmakaya of the Buddhists sounds a lot like the formless God of the Christian mystics, and like the formless G-d of the Kabbalists, and like the formless, non-dual reality of the Advaita-Vedantists. All these systems attempt to describe ultimate reality using different words and cultural references, but they are all fingers pointing to the same moon -- there can, after all, be only one moon, regardless of where on earth you stand. But there can be many fingers, and many ways of pointing, and many disagreements about fingers and ways of pointing -- and in the end, there can be genocide to prove that this finger is pointing to the moon more correctly than that one, and genocide can take place beneath the light of that very moon.

So we are right to be a bit wary of religion. Over the centuries, or millenia, religions have a tendency to become too heavily encrusted in their own exoteric forms, to get too caught up in their own bullshit and forget the meaning of the essential teachings that lie at their core. Religions are human institutions, after all, and are subject to human corruption and ignorance and greed and avarice. And sadly, many decent people who embrace religion -- even with the best intentions -- do so only at the outer, superficial level. They embrace the forms and the traditions without comprehending their meaning -- because nobody explains it to them -- with an overly simplistic belief that by doing so they will somehow be saved. Lacking the proper training to interpret the mystical, symbolic descriptions of ultimate reality that often appear in religious texts, they take these descriptions literally, at face value, and in doing so they become blind to the true meaning of the teachings. They become fixated on the finger, and forget all about the moon -- like dogs, who simply stare at your finger when you point at something. Instead of looking where you're pointing, dogs wait for the snack, the reward for being a good dog, which they are convinced is hidden within your pointing hand. The majority of religious people, too, are simply obeying the rules of behavior while staring at the hand and waiting for their reward. If you have any doubt about this, turn on the TV and watch the news, and see what religious people around the world are doing to each other. If they had any idea of the meaning of the teachings they claim to be following, it would be impossible for them to do such things.

The difference between spirituality and religion, says the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, is that spirituality begins with questions, whereas religion begins with answers. The outer forms of religions tend to be full of answers; many religious people are looking for easy answers to life's questions, and are therefore quite content to cling to the outer forms. Wear certain clothes, say certain words, avoid certain behaviors, and perform certain rituals, they're told, and you'll be guaranteed happiness and salvation. That certainty is so comforting and seductive, like a warm, fuzzy blanket on a cold winter night. But the inner, esoteric dimension of religion -- what we think of as true spirituality -- is full of questions, and questions are not warm and fuzzy. To really engage with those questions, to go into them, is to engage in a process of waking up that can be profoundly unsettling, because it provides little or nothing in the way of certainty or outward forms to which one can cling. Neither waking up, nor being born, nor being truly born again, are necessarily pleasant to go through -- they all involve leaving our comfort zones and entering a scary, unfamiliar world with harsh lighting. Few people have the stomach for such an undertaking; most would rather stay in the womb, in the dream, for as long as possible. Thus, the comforting, external forms of religion -- the ones that provide all the answers -- are much more appealing to the masses.

But for all of religion's glaring faults, and despite our modern way of distancing ourselves from religion's outer aspects, we are still drawn to its inner dimension. We are drawn to spirituality, and we yearn for meaning and for greater understanding and happiness. Although we are still attached to the comforts of the womb and the dream, we also long to finally be born, to finally wake up. And we feel a tremendous, instinctive revulsion towards the nightmare of materialism and nihilism and negativity that surrounds us today. Intuitively, we know that there has to be a better way. There has to be more. Something essential is being overlooked, and is in danger of being lost altogether. The inner, esoteric core of meaning that lies at the heart of religion calls to us, and we know it has something to teach us. And we know, too, if we're honest with ourselves, that the modern Lone Ranger strategy of holding ourselves aloof from religion while still trying to dabble in spirituality will give us broad coverage but probably not much depth.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are three dimensions of spiritual experience: in addition to the outer and inner, there is also the "secret" dimension. It's called secret because no one except you can really understand it or experience it. It is the innermost dimension of your own experience and your own nature -- in other words, it is the moon itself, beyond all fingers and pointing. It's also called "self-secret," because it can be staring you right in the face (and it is, by the way) and you still won't see it if you don't know how to recognize it.

In an ideal world, all the forms of religion, and all our ways of engaging with them, are aimed at helping us learn to recognize our awakened nature -- and, once recognized, to fully wake up and help others wake up from the collective nightmare we are having. If, on the other hand, we have convinced ourselves that we're actually having a pleasant dream, and that having pleasant dreams is what life is really about, then waking up (and all the effort it requires) may not sound very appealing. Why bother? But people generally don't come to spirituality -- or religion -- if they are happy and content with things as they are. They come because they are unhappy, and malnourished, and if they know what is good for them, they will come seeking more than potato chips.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Hypothetical scenario: Your best friend, Sally, has become infatuated with a new boyfriend, Bill, and you're about to meet him for the first time. Sally can't wait to introduce you to Bill, and has been extolling his virtues to you at great length, priming you to see him in the same rosy glow as she sees him. Bill is the best guy she has met in a long time, she says -- and you have to admit, he sounds great. You feel excited for Sally, and genuinely prepared to accept and like the new gentleman in her life. But when the moment comes and you're sitting with the two of them, some small detail about Bill immediately strikes you the wrong way, and in a flash you see that the relationship is doomed, that Sally is fooling herself. But how do you know this? What makes you think so? All you really saw was the subtle way Bill glanced away, a couple of times, when Sally began to speak -- or maybe it was something about the way he dresses or cuts his hair that makes him look a bit self-involved and superficial, a dandy, someone who probably has no qualms about lying to his girlfriends to get what he wants. Maybe you're not even sure how you got the impression you did -- that is, you don't consciously register whatever clues might have given you this impression -- but you see it as clearly as if Bill himself had told it to you.

But you swallow the knowledge and stuff it down, you ignore it, because obviously Sally doesn't see Bill that way -- she's crazy about him. And she knows him a lot better than you do, doesn't she? She has spent a lot more time with him than you have, and much more intimately -- so she must see another side of him, she must know the real Bill. You're just being paranoid and focusing on the negative. Besides, look at how happy she is with him -- you should be happy for her. Your conscious mind kicks in and provides all these good reasons to brush aside your bad first impression of Bill. And how could you explain it anyway, even if you tried? Would you tell Sally that your ominous feeling about Bill was based on his haircut, or the way he glanced at the floor? How would you react if someone told you the same thing about your new love interest? It would sound like nonsense, and it might even create a rift between you and your friend. So you keep it to yourself -- but it refuses to completely go away. Somewhere in the back of your mind, it is always there, nagging you. When the moment finally comes for Bill to reveal his true colors and break Sally's heart, you realize that your initial impression of Bill -- formed in a few seconds, from one or two petty details that couldn't hold a drop of water in a court of law -- was right all along. In those first few seconds, an intuitive knowledge arose in which you saw Bill more accurately than Sally did in all the months she was dating him.

How is that possible? How could you see something clearly, in such a short time, that Sally couldn't see despite having the advantage of lots of exposure to Bill?

(Full disclosure: I have been the friend in this situation, more times than I can remember, and I have rarely dared to open my mouth and tell the Sallys of this world what I saw in their Bills. I have also *been* Sally, more than once. My friends have seen similar things about the Bills in my life -- sometimes I could see it on their faces -- but even if they dared to try to tell me what they saw, it didn't do me much good. Like Sally, I was infatuated, and I had to find out for myself -- the hard way -- if my hopes were misplaced.)


Malcolm Gladwell has a term for what happens with your impression of Bill: he calls it "thin-slicing," a way of drawing very rapid conclusions about something based on what may seem like very little information. I'm currently in the middle of reading Gladwell's book "Blink." For a long time, out of nothing more than stubbornness and snobbishness, I refused to read this book. There was a whole year, around 2006, when I couldn't get on a subway car in New York City without seeing at least one person reading "Blink" -- and possibly two or three such readers in the same car. I couldn't walk into someone's apartment without seeing "Blink" on the nightstand beside their bed. It began to feel like a conspiracy, a hostile takeover, something out of "The Stepford Wives," and I developed an irrational aversion to the mere sight of this book. As a reader, I tend to assume that I'll have an allergic reaction to any book that attains a near-Beatles level of mass-market popularity. But at the recommendation of a friend here at the Abbey, I finally took the plunge recently, and although I'm not yet halfway through it I will come clean and admit right now that I was wrong about "Blink." Its fame is justified: it is a fascinating read, well-written and thoughtful, and has got me reflecting in new ways about topics that have long been near and dear to my heart.

Thin-slicing is what Gladwell calls "the power of thinking without thinking," which is another way of saying intuition. Through stories and scientific studies, he explores the origins and the meaning of all those little moments like the one with Sally and Bill, in which some kind of knowledge that isn't entirely conscious arises very quickly or subtly -- often so quickly or subtly that we are not even aware of it, and we don't know how to explain it. But we know it.

Take Gladwell's story, for instance, of the Getty Museum's acquisition of a very expensive Greek statue that turned out to be a forgery. The Getty's curators, lawyers and scientists spent months examining the statue and methodically proving its validity, and they were all fooled by it; but several visiting art experts who saw it had told them, after taking one glance at it, that it was a fake. The Getty, in this case, was Sally, and the statue was Bill -- and the Getty's curators were as mortified as Sally would be by the assertion that Bill wasn't a worthwhile investment. But how did the visiting experts know, at a glance, that the statue was fake, when the Getty's entire team of experts believed it to be real, and had scientific studies and forensic reports to prove their claims? Just as with Sally and Bill, it was an intuitive impression that formed within seconds of seeing the statue, and all they could pin their impressions on were little details: something about the fingernails didn't look right, for instance, or the statue's overall appearance seemed too "fresh." Such fleeting and evanescent opinions didn't hold much weight next to the hundreds of pages of reports from the scientists and lawyers that seemed to prove the statue's validity, but in the end these rapid intuitive judgments turned out to be correct, and the lawyers and scientists were wrong.

The Getty story illustrates Gladwell's argument that, sometimes, a flash of intuition can offer a more direct path to the truth than even the most thorough and methodical, rational analysis. In some cases, rational analysis, for all its virtues, can even blind us to the truth that is right in front of our faces -- particularly if our analysis is unconsciously applied towards the goal of proving the existence of something we hope is true. (Think of poor Sally.)

Wisdom Seeking Wisdom

By now, those who read this blog regularly may be wondering: what does all this have to do with Buddhism or spirituality? It so happens that Buddhism has been very much concerned, for about 2,600 years, with questions of truth and illusion, and how we know the difference.

Intuition, as Gladwell shows us, is a powerful and valid way of knowing things that the conscious mind can't necessarily figure out on its own. It is another way of getting at the truth about a situation -- but it is a way whose workings are poorly understood, and easily misapplied. Our culture doesn't encourage us to trust our intuition, and doesn't regard intuition as a reliable form of knowledge: we implicitly lump intuition into the same camp with things like astrology and UFOs and ESP, things that smack of pseudo-science and aren't really taken seriously by mature thinkers (although ESP may be little more than intuition on steroids). Instead, we favor rational analysis and the scientific method, and we assume that the more we have studied and thought about a subject, the better we understand it. Buddhism, too, encourages this emphasis on rational analysis: the Buddha said that we should not accept his teachings simply because they came from him, but instead we should apply our own intelligence and analyze the teachings to see if they really make sense and are in accord with our own experience of reality. If, through analysis, we find that's the case, then we should accept the teachings and try to live by them.

But the powerful effect of intuition is not limited to mundane situations such as meeting Bill or evaluating a purchase. Intuition can also play a crucial role in our experience of the spiritual path -- it may, in fact, be the motivating factor that leads us to pursue the spiritual path in the first place, and guides our decisions along the way. Despite the countless arguments for materialism and nihilism presented to us by our culture, we feel intuitively that those positions are inadequate -- that there is something more to be experienced, that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that life has a greater purpose and meaning than what we have been conditioned to believe. If we follow our intuition, it leads us on a quest to discover that purpose and meaning and to integrate it fully into our lives. Our own innate wisdom leads us to seek our own innate wisdom.

Wisdom, in fact, is the Alpha and the Omega, from the Buddhist point of view: it is both the goal and the path; it is where we came from and where we are going; it is both our original nature (now hidden from us) and the nature of the final unfolding of Enlightenment with a capital "E." We talk a great deal about wisdom in the study and practice of Buddhism. We also talk a great deal about ignorance. Ignorance is what keeps us from seeing our true nature, and it is the root of all our mistaken views and emotional afflictions, the primary cause of all our suffering.

But we don't often talk about the role of intuition as a form of wisdom: we tend to think that wisdom or "prajna" operates primarily at the level of the conscious, reasoning mind. Intuition is even regarded with a skeptical eye; to take something as valid we generally require a higher standard of proof that can only be provided through reason and conscious thinking. Because we are afflicted with ignorance, the logic goes, intuition -- which is murky and mysterious by nature -- is therefore untrustworthy; it is as likely to be polluted and mistaken as it is to be correct. And there is some truth in this: our prejudices, our likes and dislikes, our ego-centric comfort orientation, our wishful thinking, can all masquerade as intuition if we don't know how to tell the difference.

However, when we completely exclude intuition as a valid form of knowing, we are embracing a lop-sided epistemology (sorry for using a big word like that, but it was necessary). We are utilizing only one side of our minds -- the conscious side, the thinking, rational self -- and saying that only this side has the power to know, to recognize truth, to mitigate reality. We are correlating wisdom with that five percent of the iceberg of the mind that sits above the surface of the water, and excluding the ninety-five percent that resides outside of conscious awareness or control. Yet experience shows us again and again that many valid forms of knowledge arise -- quite mysteriously, we think -- from that ninety-five percent. Our responsibility as spiritual practitioners, then, is to recognize and listen to our intuition, and learn to distinguish between what is authentic and what is not. More often than not, it is when we ignore our intuition that we get ourselves into trouble. Ignoring our intuition is, in fact, one way of understanding ignorance, the root of all our suffering.

On the spiritual path, we often have flashes of intuitive insight into the true nature of things -- insights that are sometimes more genuine than anything we could cook up through rational analysis. But these intuitions, though they feel quite authentic, are fleeting; we are not quite sure how we arrived at them, and we would probably have great difficulty in explaining them to another person in a way that would make sense. Just as with Sally and Bill, we don't know what to make of a more spiritual intuition, and so we might ignore it. Our reasoning mind kicks in and we begin to talk ourselves out of it, just as we did when we saw something ugly about Bill. We can actually waste a lot of time on the path this way, stuck in the quicksand of doubt, undermining our own wisdom by refusing to take it seriously.

But a glimpse of truth is simply that. A glimpse. Of truth. For an instant or two, the veil that obscures our vision was casually brushed aside and we caught a glimpse of something much too large for us to wrap our minds around -- so large that we lack words to describe what it was. We couldn't even see it clearly -- all we know is that it was bigger and truer than anything we've known before. But because we lack words for it and cannot frame it satisfactorily in the language of the thinking, reasoning mind, we don't trust it -- and we know, therefore, that others would not trust it, either. So we blow it off. Keep it to ourselves. Forget about it. And in doing so, we ignore the truth that was right in front of our faces.

In this way, each of us is Bill, and each of us is Sally, and each of us is Sally's friend -- all rolled into one. The fact that you're even reading this means that, to some extent, you have already seen through your own Billshit and that you are consciously seeking out "spiritual" ideas and information to help you make sense of what you have seen, to get at the truth behind the facade. The question is whether you will take the matter seriously enough to let poor Sally in on it.

How good of a friend are you to yourself?

How much do you trust your own intuition?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mindful Speech, Part Three: Witchcraft

This is Part Three of a series of articles on Mindful Speech. Part One focused on Idle Chatter, and Part Two looked at the art of Listening and the role of Emotional Intelligence in authentic communication. This installment examines the incredible power of human speech, and the Six Points of Mindful Speech taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.


Speech is magical. It is witchcraft. From within the formless realm of the mind, a thought arises. Because it arises in the mind, the thought, too, is formless by nature, but it takes on the vivid appearance of form. The form of the thought represents a concept, or a tangle of concepts, which, again -- in themselves -- have no form but nonetheless find expression in the mind. As that expression of formless thought and concept in the mind grows swollen with significance and perhaps urgency, we say that the person's face becomes "pregnant with expression."

Through some voodoo of embodied mind whose mechanics we don't even begin to understand, this formless thought hurtles toward the realm of physical expression. The mouth opens, and air begins to flow from the lungs. At a level that is only partially under the control of the conscious mind, a complex orchestra of muscles and organs -- the tongue, the lips, the vocal cords, the jaw -- begins to play in unison, their combined efforts creating a particular series of sounds as the air rushes out from the lungs and exits the mouth. The sounds produced are in no way random or improvisational, but are recognized and intentionally selected by the mind as symbols or signs that, alone or in particular combinations and patterns, represent specific concepts. Concepts that have arisen formlessly in the mind have now found physical expression in the form of sound.

The sound waves emitted by the speaker travel through the air and strike the delicate organs of the listener's ear. If the speaker and listener share an agreed-upon system of signs and symbols -- if they speak the same language -- then the sounds are interpreted and an image or a concept (which may or may not resemble what the speaker is trying to communicate) begins to arise in the mind of the listener. This image or concept in the mind of the listener, like the image or concept in the mind of the speaker, is formless by nature, but arises vividly with the appearance of form. As it arises in the mind of the listener, it is already being evaluated, and instinctive reactions begin to form: the listener may like it or dislike it, or agree or disagree with it, or may feel neutral about it. Waves of positive, negative or neutral energy begin to radiate out from the listener: emotional ripples created by a conceptual stone tossed from one pool of mind to another.

All of this happens so quickly, and so automatically, that we are largely unaware of it. Whether we know it or not, every single time we open our mouths to speak to another person, we are practicing witchcraft, casting a spell of formless thoughts and intentions that generates powerful and lasting effects in the person upon whom we work the magic of speech. We are all casting these spells upon each other, all the time. Sometimes they are love spells, and sometimes they are black magic. Every one of us is like a sleeping sorcerer, unaware that he is mumbling incantations and conjuring angels and demons all around him.

Our words have the power to cement marriages and to start wars; they can melt our hearts with tenderness and they can provoke a murderous rage. No wonder the Buddha placed so much emphasis on practicing Mindful Speech.

"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will."

-- Shakyamuni Buddha, AN 5.198

Truly practicing Mindful Speech, however, requires more discipline than simply avoiding the four kinds of unvirtuous speech (lying, harsh speech, malicious speech, and idle chatter). It means bringing an intensity of mindfulness and awareness to everything we say and how we say it. This is a 24-hour practice at which we are bound to stumble and fall, repeatedly -- but one that we cannot afford not to undertake, once we have grasped its importance.

Six Points of Mindful Speech

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche also placed a lot of emphasis on practices of Mindful Speech -- often to the dismay of his American students. In the 1980s, he began to teach a rigorous program of elocution training to many students, putting them through seemingly endless drills and pronunciation exercises that sometimes felt like grammar school (and a British grammar school at that, since he was teaching them to speak proper Oxonian English). I imagine that some students had trouble understanding what these pronunciation drills had to do with Buddhism. Carolyn Rose Gimian, one of his close students and the editor of many of his books, describes being brought to the point of tears one night during a month-long retreat with Trungpa, as he kept asking her to repeat the word "thoroughly" over and over. The point, as Gimian explains it, is to bring an intensity of awareness to one's own speech and how it affects one's mind and the minds of others, and to recognize and fully embrace the incredible power and meaning that words hold.

In conjunction with these sometimes torturous elocution lessons, Chogyam Trungpa presented teachings on six ways to deepen our practice of Mindful Speech -- six aspects of speech on which to focus our awareness. They are a series of tremendously helpful and practical reminders that can help us separate and bring attention to the different layers of mind and body involved in any act of speech.

Six Points of Mindful Speech

  1. Precision: Enunciate your words clearly.
  2. Simplicity: Choose your words well.
  3. Pace: Speak slowly, without speed or aggression.
  4. Silence: Regard silence as an important part of speech.
  5. Others: Listen to the words, texture and quality of others' speech.
  6. Self: Focus mindfulness on your speech.

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Precision: Trungpa's elocution lessons emphasized the importance of precision. When we don't enunciate our words clearly, it creates barriers to smooth communication. A pattern of clipping our words or not projecting our voice so that others can hear us may symbolize a lack of confidence in what we are saying. I tend to be a quiet talker, and I have often noticed other people get frustrated when they can't hear what I'm saying -- but it's a pattern that runs deep, and I am often unaware that I'm doing it. And the frustration it causes in others comes full circle: because others can't really hear me, they might be more inclined to interrupt me, which then ticks me off. It's bad juju all around, and my own speech patterns are the main culprit. When I am able to bring a degree of mindfulness to the tone and volume of my voice as I'm speaking, I see much better results.

Simplicity: Often we don't need very many words to get our point across, but we ramble in circles or drone on and on because we don't choose our words well. If this is our habitual pattern, other people begin to tune out our monologues and think of us as blowhards. Few things are as universally irritating as someone who habitually talks too much, and doesn't know when they've said enough. A company I used to work for had the business slogan, "Simple is smart." That could be a good slogan to apply in the practice of Mindful Speech. When we slow ourselves down enough to choose our words strategically, with intelligence and discernment, we don't need to ramble on. The simplest way of getting our point across is usually the smartest.

Pace: When we talk too quickly, there is a quality of aggression that may come across in our speech -- it may be unintentional, and we may be unaware of it, but others can pick up on it. I think of this as a neurotic pattern from which New Yorkers, in particular, suffer a great deal. The general atmosphere of speed and aggression that permeates New York life -- which many New Yorkers cannot particularly see because it is the element in which they live and breathe, just as a fish cannot see the water in which it lives -- makes everyone feel impatient and edgy. In addressing each other on a daily basis, New Yorkers often speak incredibly fast, with a brusque attitude of barely concealed aggression.

Bringing mindfulness to this area of our speech means, again, slowing ourselves down enough so that we can pay attention to the tone and quality of our speech. When I think of a former colleague who habitually spoke with a tone of anger and aggression that made other people recoil from him, I can see that part of his problem was that he couldn't slow himself down enough to realize how he sounded.

Silence: Gandhi said, "Speak only when you can improve upon silence." Often, though, we speak in order to cover up the silence -- to make it go away. Silence makes us nervous, because it is too intimate -- we are forced to look at our own minds, and we are simultaneously confronted with the living, breathing reality of the person across from us. We feel awkward and exposed in the silence, and it is easier to just say something, anything -- idle chatter -- than to remain there, alone with ourselves or with another person, in that open space. But the open space of silence is the birthplace of creativity and inspiration, and without it speech could not exist -- just as the planets and stars and galaxies could not exist without the vast stretches of unseeable, unknowable dark matter that lie in between. The composer John Cage is perhaps best-known for his experimental piece 4'33", in which the pianist goes to the keyboard and does *not* strike any keys for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. For Cage, silence was the basis of all music, and the space in which all form and sound could manifest. When we regard silence as an important part of speech, we leave space for creativity and spontaneity and freshness to enter our conversations. We leave room to breathe.

Others: Listening to the texture and quality of others' speech is as much a part of mindful conversation as listening to ourselves. Sometimes we notice that the texture and quality of someone's speech is saying something different than -- or in addition to -- what their words are saying. Sometimes the body language that goes along with verbal speech tells us more than what a person is saying (the missing body language in Web-based communication is one of the reasons that emails and text messages are so easily misunderstood by the receiving party). If we see that a person's manner of speaking is bringing a higher degree of neurosis and emotionality into the situation, then we can choose how to respond in the most skillful way, in order to defuse the tension and restore sanity. If we remain unaware of it, then it's more likely we'll be drawn into the emotional subtext of the person's speech, and clear communication will be further obscured. Again, being able to pay attention to the texture and quality of others' speech means slowing ourselves down enough to step back from our own reactivity; if we're half-listening but half-caught up in mentally planning our response to what they're saying, for example, then we are less likely to perceive more subtle cues of emotional tone, pace, precision, and so on -- all the markers that point to what the person is really saying, beyond their mere words.

Self: The sixth point is like the culmination of the previous five. When we bring mindfulness and awareness to the totality of our own speech -- not only what we're saying, but how we're saying it and why -- then we can use speech much more skillfully, and wield it as a force for good. We can use it to strengthen our bonds with other people, rather than undermining them. We can use the magic of our speech to increase happiness and sanity in the world, rather than contributing our words to the witches' brew of neurosis and suffering from which so many beings are already drinking, spellbound and unaware.

Each of us is like a little Harry Potter, imbued with tremendous magical power, but shaky and uncertain about how to wield it and how to avoid getting ourselves in trouble with it. The process of coming to terms with our speech habits and developing Mindful Speech is like Harry's process of growing up and coming to terms with his own power. Like Harry, we face an array of dark forces -- both within ourselves and in the external world -- who would like us to employ the emotional sorcery of speech for less wholesome purposes. It is up to each of us to resist the darkness and bring more light into the world through the magic that comes out of our mouths.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mindful Speech, Part Two: Listening

This is Part Two of a series of articles on Mindful Speech. Part One focused on Idle Chatter. This installment looks at the art of Listening, and the role of Emotional Intelligence in authentic communication. Part Three will examine the Six Points of Mindful Speech taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Listen Up

I heard a story about Mother Teresa. Once, during an interview, a cocky young reporter asked this great spiritual leader -- whom most people considered to be a saint, even while she was still living -- about her daily prayer habits. "What do you say to God when you pray?" he asked.

"I don't say anything. I just listen," was Mother Teresa's reply.

The reporter's curiosity was piqued, and he ventured a further question. "So what does God say to you?"

Mother Teresa replied: "He doesn't say anything. He just listens." I imagine she watched the reporter for a long moment, and let this point sink in. She then added: "And if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you."

I draw several lessons from that story. One is that there may be less difference between prayer and meditation than we commonly imagine. Another is that prayer itself -- perhaps the highest form of speech, from a spiritual perspective -- does not necessarily consist of what we think of as "speech" at all. In fact, speaking -- which probably involves carrying our little agenda into our meeting with the Divine, and spelling out for Him or Her what we think He or She should be concerned with -- is somewhat beside the point. For Mother Teresa, authentic, two-way communication with the Divine was based first and foremost upon listening -- on both sides.

The same principle applies to our "ordinary" conversations with other people. Authentic communication can only take place when all of the parties involved in a conversation are actually listening to each other. But this happens, in our human realm, far less often than any of us would like. When real listening is present and authentic communication takes place between people, it can feel like a form of prayer. Through listening, we recognize and respect the divinity with each other. And when our listening is absent or eclipsed, we essentially say to the other person: I don't recognize or respect you.

Lately I've been watching our conversations at the dining table, here at the Abbey -- trying to step back and observe, somewhat impartially, what kinds of things we're talking about, and how we're talking about them, and even speculating on the reasons why. As I mentioned in a previous article, it seems that we get involved in a lot of idle chatter at mealtime, and that quite a few people share a wish that we could have more meaningful conversations. Some people have taken this to mean that we should be talking more about Dharma at mealtime -- which makes sense in a way, since Dharma is what we came here to the monastery to study and practice. This has even led to the creation of a new, twice-weekly "Dharma discussion group" during the dinner hour -- which is great. But my observations lately have reinforced my conviction that merely talking about a meaningful topic doesn't make a conversation meaningful. What makes it meaningful has less to do with what is being talked about, and more to do with the how and the why.

Emotional Intelligence

We're often not fully aware of how we speak, and how the way we speak affects others. I used to work with someone who is very sharp and intellectually perceptive, and always has compelling things to say. But because he habitually speaks with an angry tone, other people have difficulty hearing what he says -- they primarily hear the "how," and their negative reactions to the "how" keep them from really hearing the "what." Trapped in a vicious cycle, he ends up feeling like no one listens to him, which only makes him more angry, and on and on it goes. What seems to be missing, on his part, is some basic awareness of how his speech habits are affecting other people; lacking this awareness, he constantly undermines his own happiness and increases his feeling of alienation from others.

This kind of thing happens more than we might imagine. A person who speaks in a loud and brassy voice might make other people cringe and recoil from her, but remain oblivious to the reasons why people react that way. A person (like me) who often speaks in a timid, quiet tone and forgets to project his voice adequately might make other people grow frustrated and give up trying to listen, and they might then speak over him, causing him to feel frustrated too.

Being aware of the "tone" and "feel" of how we speak -- and how others speak to us -- is a basic skill of emotional intelligence, and a fundamental part of the practice of Mindful Speech.

Recently, on an open day here at the Abbey, I was sitting around the table with several people at breakfast. We were talking about various Dharma teachings and ways of practicing the teachings in our own lives. After having been frustrated with encountering a lot of idle chatter during mealtime, I was delighted that the conversation didn't stray into trivial things, but stayed with topics that felt, to me, by comparison, fairly significant. But as the conversation went on, stretching towards an hour, I began to feel that, somehow, it was starting to sour. At one point, someone interrupted me and spoke over my words, raising her voice to assert her viewpoint and eclipse what I was saying. And I noticed myself wanting to do the same thing.

Sensing that the conversation had gone off its axis, I began to withdraw. I grew more quiet and tried to pay attention to the emotional dimension of the dialogue. Somewhere, it seemed that we had crossed an invisible line and now there was less open listening and responding taking place, and more assertion of prepared statements. I felt my own frustration at having been interrupted by the other person, and my feeling that she wasn't really listening to me but was just upholding her own conversational agenda. In observing the emotional dimension of her communication, I sensed a feeling of insecurity on her part, which may to have led her to interrupt me -- and then I saw the same insecurity reflected in myself. I saw my own ego's involvement in the conversation -- my need to be heard and my need to be right, a vulnerable feeling that showed up as an urge to react impulsively to what other people were saying. I realized that what I was frustrated with another person for doing to me, I was also doing: I wasn't really listening to the other person, and I was starting to cop a resentment that she wasn't listening to me. Somewhere along the way, a meaningful conversation had deteriorated into idle chatter -- a dialogue in which listening and authentic communication had been lost, replaced by a competition of viewpoints, a meeting of egos, each one of us dragging his or her own emotional baggage into the conversation.

"Speak only if you can improve upon silence," said Gandhi. That morning, I realized that my own more dubious motives for speaking had crept into the conversation, and my own speech was no longer an improvement upon silence. It was time for me to shut up and listen. In AA, old-timers often advise overly talkative newcomers: "Take the cotton out of your ears, put it in your mouth, and just listen."

Listening Is the Better Part of Conversation

There is a traditional teaching about how to listen to the Dharma properly -- how to hold one's mind so that the truth that's conveyed in the teachings can actually reach us -- which I've written about here before. The same principles apply equally to the art and practice of authentic conversation between people. For meaningful communication to take place, our minds need to be like a clean, sturdy, upright container or pot that's ready to receive whatever is placed in it.

If the pot is upside-down, nothing can be put into it: this is what happens when we don't really listen with an open mind, but instead we assume that we know what the other person is going to say. Our minds begin to wander distractedly while the other person speaks to us. Caught up in our own internal chatter, we may be thinking about something else altogether, or mentally preparing our response to what they're saying before we've really heard them out. And we forget that other people can usually tell when we're not really paying attention; if they have any emotional intelligence at all, they pick up on the subtle cues in our expressions as our minds wander to other things or begin preparing a response prematurely, and this undermines their trust in us. They may feel disrespected because we're not really listening, and we may not even be aware that we've made them feel that way. To really listen to another person, we have to be open-minded and humble of heart, and drop our assumptions and our prejudices in the moment that we're listening.

If the pot has holes in it, then even if it's right-side-up, whatever you put in it will leak out and be lost. This is what happens when we don't actually absorb and remember -- accurately -- what the other person is saying. We may think we're remembering it accurately, but if we're challenged to repeat it back to them, our memory is patchy and full of holes, and may be distorted in important places. If we repeat to someone else what was said to us, our distortions and omissions are carried to the next person, and then that person distorts it a bit further. When it finally gets back around to the person who originally said it, her words may have been completely changed and people think she said something she didn't say at all.

If the pot is contaminated with something poisonous -- maybe it's really a container for food, but somebody has used it as a mop bucket -- then whatever is placed in it will also become contaminated. This is what happens when we listen with a mind that's caught up in its own emotional reactivity. We hear something that the other person has said and it triggers a reaction in us -- anger or jealousy or fear or lust, whatever it might be -- and it's like we can't hear anything else they say after that, because we're so consumed by our own emotions. If we don't possess a certain degree of emotional intelligence and self-awareness in the moment, we may be largely unaware of this process as it takes place; and if we're reacting to what the other person is saying, we may be reacting more from this emotional mind than from a place of understanding and listening.

"Conversation is a give-and-take," writes the Zen teacher Norman Fischer. "If we don't listen, we don't hear anything, and real conversation is over before it begins. We haven't taken anything in, and so we are just beaming our message at the other person."

The next time you have a conversation with someone, watch your own mind and try to notice when you are really listening to the other person and when you are not. Are you daydreaming while they talk to you? Are you mentally preparing your response as soon as they've begun to talk? Will you be able to actually remember what they are saying? Are you getting caught up in emotional reactions? What effect does this have on the conversation and on your relationship to this person? What role does Listening play for you in the practice of Mindful Speech?

I would love to hear about your experiences with this.

-- Read Part Three: Witchcraft --

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 --