Monthly Archives: April 2011

Spacious Speech

What does the word ‘spacious’ add to our understanding of Wise or Right Speech?
It creates space for a gentle loving inquiry to occur as the desire to speak arises. There are specific Buddhist questions we ask: Is what I want to say truthful? Is it kind? Is it timely? Spaciousness provides us with the feeling of sufficient time and space to ask in before speaking. We can notice whether our words arise from a deep sense of connected awareness and compassion, or from deep seated insecurities that make us feel a need to define and prove ourselves to others.

On a silent retreat there is a palpable since of spaciousness in the practice of being quiet. When I mention silent retreats sometimes people shudder at the thought of not being able to speak for an extended period. Anyone that knows me knows I love to talk, but perhaps it’s an even greater gift for a talker to rest in quietness for a period of time.

On retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, we not only don’t speak, we don’t make eye contact. Sign or body language would be regarded as speech as well, so what we are doing is letting go of active involvement with others. We no longer need to strategize about what to say and when to say it, how it will be received, how we will be perceived, whether we will be misunderstood, and all the other concerns that come with the responsibility of speaking and interacting in the world. When we enter silence and turn our attention inward to the workings of our mind and outward to the patterns in nature, it can be very liberating and relaxing.

But it is not always very quiet! What we notice right away is that although we are not expressing our thoughts we are still thinking them. With the pressure off as to which thoughts to share and which thoughts to refrain from sharing, we can simply notice our thoughts as they course through our awareness.

With our intention to be present in the moment and to be compassionate, we notice the patterns of our thoughts, the phrases that rise up and repeat, the judgments, the churning of self-doubt, the second-guessing, the fantasies, the ‘if only’s that find flaw in the way things are and perhaps the underlying fear that drives them. On retreat we have little else to do but notice our thoughts and emotions as they course through our awareness. We return again and again to physical sensation when we have lost our intention to be present. Part of what is present is thought and emotion. Through meditation we are developing an ability to notice our thinking process as a part of our overall experience of this moment. Our thoughts are not to be avoided but to be noticed, not to be judged but to be held in an open embrace that is increasingly spacious.

As the retreat continues, the spaciousness may grow so that the running commentary of our thoughts takes up less space and the sense of awareness of what is occurring in any given moment becomes more prominent. This may be experienced as a sense of surrendering to the simple state of being, a sense of understanding ourselves as a natural part of life in this moment, not a bystander but a burst of being as simple an expression of life as any lizard, frog or butterfly. We are life loving itself. All the inner chatter is simply a part of the human animal experience, the electrical and chemical activity in our brains. We don’t need to judge it. We simply accept it as part of the nature of our being. This awareness is the gift of silence and a temporary withdrawal from involvement in the world.

But just as a fast is not a long term diet plan, silence is not a long term answer for Right or Wise Speech. But a period of silence with insight does give us the ability to notice so that when we begin to speak again we recognize how challenging it can be, and how much time we speak unnecessarily, simply because we are uncomfortable with silence. Through the retreat process, indeed through a regular practice of meditation, we are developing a comfortable relationship with silence and with our minds.

We no longer feel we must fill the quiet spaces in a conversation, and we can begin to see that when we don’t leap in to fill the space, we give ourselves the chance to sink more deeply into a sensory awareness of the moment, our surroundings and the person or people we are with. This creation of spaciousness provides an opportunity for others to share from a deeper connected place because we are fully present to really listen. When we do speak, our words are much more likely to be responsive, caring and connected. And if they are not, we are able to see that more readily and recognize how we caused harm through our speech. This ability to recognize gives us an opportunity to amend at once, before further misunderstanding occurs. We can feel in our bodies the discomfort of having spoken unwisely. Without the practice, we might not notice this dis-ease for what it is. We might not be present enough to see the effects on ourselves and others of our words, and we would continue on unwisely, and probably even compound the problem, because now, even if we don’t recognize it, we are speaking from this dis-ease.

The practice of meditation is not a cure-all, but it does offer spaciousness and thus provides more clarity. Each individual meditator has the opportunity to develop this spaciousness if their practice is about being fully present, not about drifting off into a dreamy void. Remember we are developing spaciousness, not spacy-ness! We are developing an awareness of the sensations of the body to anchor ourselves in this moment, not going for out of body experiences of transcendence. We are meditating in order to be skillful in life, not to find an escape route from living.

So let’s focus on those three traditional ways of determining whether our speech is right or wise, and how adding the word ‘spacious’ enhances our understanding of each one.

The questions are whether what we want to say is true, kind and timely. If it doesn’t meet all three of these criteria, then it’s better to leave it unsaid, to find a more honest and kind way to say it, or to wait to say it until the time is right.

Spaciousness offers us the time to reflect on the truthfulness, kindness and timeliness of a statement we may feel prompted to make. “Is it true?” we ask ourselves. If it is a fact that has been fully and fairly researched, not just parroted from something we read online or heard on the radio, then it is fairly simple to determine. But even in that case, it would be wise and useful to site our sources, thus giving others some context for the statement.

If what we want to say is our opinion, then the addition of ‘It seems to me,’ ‘I believe, ‘I’ve noticed’ or ‘I feel’ can be helpful in making a statement more truthful. Of course these additions can be overused, making our speech awkward and dull. Noticing how often we need to use these qualifiers, we may want to question our need to express our opinion about so many things. What are we afraid will happen if people don’t know ‘where we stand?’

We have talked in the past about the ‘don’t know mind’ and how liberating it can be. Speech is enhanced by the acceptance that none of us knows all that much. We all have so many filters of distorted perception that we must peer through in order to see the world. Each of our views of reality is relative. Understanding this makes it easier to let go of our need to be right, to get everyone to see things our way in order for us to feel safe in the world, to be heard lest we disappear, etc.

So spacious speech not only aspires to be truthful, it acknowledges how little truth we actually are privy to at any given moment. If we frame our words to incorporate that margin of error we leave space for others to differ in their opinion without feeling negated or threatened by ours.

The second test of Right or Wise Speech is whether our words are kind. We all have very different views of what is kind. For example, some may feel it is kind to correct another’s errors in order to help them perfect themselves. When we hold this point of view, it’s difficult for us to understand why people bristle so when our intention was to be helpful. We might question our assumption that we are not enough just as we are, that there is some idealized perfection that will make all things right.

We can use spaciousness to notice if our words are the expression of a habituated set of judgments, or if we are trying to change someone, to get them to do something they are reluctant to do. Kindness is honoring another person’s process and freedom of choice.

If this person has power over us, if they get to decide what we do or don’t do, then perhaps there is some room for persuasive speaking. But as adults the perception that someone else has power over us is usually a misperception that needs revisiting. Most of us have a lot more power over our own lives than we believe we do. If we are unhappy we do not have to grumble under our breath like feudal serfs who can be tossed out of our humble cottages by the baron. If we can skillfully craft our concerns into words using wise speech, we have to power to change the conditions and the conditioning of our lives. Directing our words to the right person, gathering information by asking the right questions, and finding others who share our concerns empower us to co-create the world we live in instead of simply tolerating it. This gets us back to the topic we discussed last week about accepting our seat at the table.

Unkind speech often comes from a misperception of boundaries. While we are all one in the most fundamental sense, in relationships we learn to honor the space between us, allow for the natural and necessary process of individuation. If we refer to the deep interconnected core, our Buddha nature, for our sense of who we are in the world, then we do not need to have those around us mirror us. We do not need for everyone around us to agree with us, nor do we have the right to enforce our ‘truth’ on them. This forced invasion into another person’s space is very unkind, to say the least. Again, imagining that vast expansive table and fully inhabiting our place, and using our table manners!

As parents of young children we take the responsibility of skillfully guiding another being into autonomy. Because this is a 24/7/365 kind of relationship, our children get the best and worst of us in full measure. But mindfulness can make us much more skillful, helping us as well as our children to live with awareness and compassion. Parents may think of children as extensions of themselves, and if they are insecure in the world, they may force the children to fill in the gaps, to fulfill unmet goals, to be their best face in the world. This is a role children can never fill and should never be required to do.

I mention parenting here because so much of the unskillfulness in parenting comes across in speech. So many of the negative words we tell ourselves as adults are phrases, names or limiting labels that our parents said to us. If in our noticing we keep coming up with phrases our parents said, or find we are trying to fill the gaps where longed-for words were left unsaid, then we have the power to be the parents to ourselves that we need now. We can hold ourselves in tenderness and compassion. We can give ourselves the nurturing we need. We are not dependent on anyone else to provide our happiness. If we are waiting for that, we are wasting our lives. If we as adults are still looking to our parents to give us a sense of completion or, if they have died, mourning not just our parents but the missed opportunity to hear the words we long for, then we are not understanding the incredible power we have to self-nurture. Perhaps our inner child is still hurt and crying, but it is up to us, not our parents, to comfort that child and to meet its needs skillfully. For our own healing, we accept that our parents did the best they could, even when what they did or said was unskillful. We return to the ‘don’t know mind’ to allow for some spaciousness in our tight expectations and disappointments around the parent-child relationship. We don’t know what they were going through. We don’t know how they were parented. We don’t know what it is like to be them. We only know they loved us as best they could.

When we recognize internalized statements our parents thrust upon us, we don’t have to demand a retraction. Instead we can be grateful for the recognition and we can begin a loving inner dialog with the aspect of ourselves that believes that statement to be true.

We can also learn from the experience the truth of how powerful words can be so that we will be more mindful in our speech, taking the time to be sure that our words are kind, coming from a sense of connection and compassion.

You might wonder what happens when our desire to be kind comes into conflict with our desire to be truthful. One student in our sangha recognized that when these two are in conflict, then the wise thing is to wait until the kind way to say our truth is clearer and the time is right and the person we wish to speak to is in a more receptive place. This brings us to our third factor of Right or Wise Speech: Timeliness.

If we pause in spaciousness before speaking, we can certainly notice if this is the right conversation for this moment.
Really? You want to talk about that now? asks someone who is in the middle of preparing a feast and the guests are arriving in ten minutes. We’ve all been in that situation in one form or another. It’s not that we don’t want the conversation. It’s that this is not the time for it.

Timeliness can be determined easily if we are fully in the moment. Demanding to speak about something when it is not a good time for the other person usually means we are caught up in the past or the future and are ignoring this moment. If the person is not telling us in their words or body language that this isn’t a good time, we can always ask if this is a good time to discuss the subject. If not, then another time can be planned.

Clearly, spaciousness does have a valuable role to play in the exploration of true, kind and timely speech.

A caveat: For some of us, the invitation to be aware of our thoughts and to pause before speaking sparks an inner censor. This inner censor is not grounded in kindness as it sits in judgment of every word, making sure that it appears to be kind. The censor is more concerned about our being seen as kind than about being kind. There is a potential for getting caught up in being a good Buddhist. There is no such thing as a good or bad Buddhist. But there is such a thing as a spiritual striver who feels they are not enough as they are, that they must alter themselves beyond recognition, and that Buddhism is a way of suppressing or rejecting the parts of themselves that are hurt, angry, hungry or fed up. With spaciousness, we open to all aspects of our nature and begin to see them more clearly as transient threads rather than the fabric of our being. We have room for all of who we are and all the world’s seeming imperfections when we hold everything in a spacious open embrace.

Getting Things Done – Spacious Action in Action

Wherever we are in any given moment we can remind ourselves of our intention to be fully present and compassionate. It’s simple but not always easy to remember, but it is so rewarding that we can soon develop a habit of doing so.

But how does being present and compassionate get things done?

Meditation practice fosters within us a sense of generosity and creativity. Spacious action arises out of those skillful impulses in whatever form is the clearest expression of our natural talents. Do we have the patience and persistence to sit until we are ripe and ready for skillful action? Do we feel we have the time and the permission to do so? Probably not! In our culture we are encouraged to ‘go for the gusto,’ to be goal-oriented, to plan for the future, to dream big, to ‘not stop ‘til we get enough,’ to ‘go for the Gold,’ ‘be all that we can be,’ etc. etc. Where in all these prompts to perfection, all these indications that we are not enough as we are, would be find room for simply sitting? And we come back to that question of how would we get anything done?

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

How I wish I had heard that quote back in the early nineties when I went through an extended lapse from regular meditation practice because I felt I didn’t have the time! Thus destabilized from my foundation of awareness, I paid no heed to my body’s call for a respite, for a time of silence and sitting. Instead I kept my nose to the grindstone and honored every commitment I made to others, but did not take the time to honor a basic commitment to take care of myself. At that time there were no well-publicized local retreat centers that would provide me with the simple life of sitting that I clearly needed. So what did I do?

I got sick. Illness is the one long-accepted form of retreat in our culture. Get sick in the body or mind and we will be forced to rest. We will become so unskillful or disabled that others will insist that we stop what we are doing and go away and don’t come back until we are well enough to pick up our burden again. Maybe we end up in a mental ward, a cancer unit or a prison cell. And there, if life were fair, the healing would begin. But instead chances are we get caught up in yet another intense culture where we feel threatened and overwhelmed…unless we are able to recognize the opportunity to let go and simply be.

I was heartened to read recently that in an Alabama prison there is an ongoing meditation retreat program for inmates who choose to participate. I wasn’t surprised that it has been extremely successful and that the recidivism among the members of that incarcerated sangha is much lower than the rest of the prison population.

When I was diagnosed with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) I felt fortunate that my illness was not life-threatening. All I had to give up was a career with which I’d had a love/hate relationship, half our family income, and the ability to do more than one thing a day beyond feeding my family and cleaning our home. Suddenly my overwhelming array of choices was eliminated.

Imagine that! If you could only do only one thing a day, what would it be? It became so clear to me who and what nourished me and who and what drained me. That was the deciding factor for any social encounter, any outing or any activity. The foods, films and people that put me into a tailspin of weariness were off the list. Television and novels that had been my days-end vacation were off the list! How had I not noticed that all these things were draining me? How had I not noticed that my nice corner office at work had been abuzz with freeway noise that I couldn’t hear after a while. How much energy had it taken for me to provide an inner muffle for that sound?

This discovery of what nourished me and what drained me was the product of my return to meditation, the one thing I could do as much as I wanted during my illness. In fact, for nine months I experienced a physically-enforced personal retreat. Through meditation I touched that deep connected mindfulness that creates the possibility of skillful spacious action. Until then I paid little attention to the many decisions and choices I made during any given day. I did what I had to do to get things off my plate, to get past where I was and onto some more tolerable future place. No wonder I got sick!

Now, thanks to the widespread practice of meditation and the development and appreciation for emotional intelligence, we have greater access to and greater acceptance of the knowledge to recognize when we are on autopilot, when we are becoming unskillful. We also have the resources available in the form of meditation instruction and retreats that can provide us with the ability to stay present and compassionate. Yet many of us are still not giving ourselves permission to let go for even a half hour a day and give ourselves what we need.

In the state I had been in working up to my illness, I was so disconnected that I didn’t feel deserving of anything for myself. I also felt that it was not something I could ask for. At some level I hoped that someone would give it to me, but I didn’t speak up and let it be known that I needed it. When my doctor told me I needed to quit my job, I went on half-time. But it wasn’t until I used that freed up time to meditate and get in touch with the inner wisdom that each of us has access to that I got it that I needed a complete time out in order to heal.

So what is it that kept me from asking for what I needed? It was a sense of unworthiness. Imagine sitting at the dinner table, feeling you have no right to ask someone to pass the salt. When I began meditating, I recognized that I was an intrinsic part of the universe, deserving what every being deserves, no less, no more. With that awareness I could accept my seat at the table and if I needed something, I understood that if I couldn’t reach it, it was reasonable to ask whoever was closest to it to ‘please pass the salt.’

I could also begin to recognize others who also felt undeserving of a seat at the table and I began to see that the table is infinitely expansive and there is plenty of food for all, so part of being at the table was inviting everyone to take their seat, their rightful seat that for whatever reason they had vacated or hadn’t been told was theirs.

What does it mean to you when I talk about accepting your seat at the table? What does it mean to you when I say ‘Feel free to ask for what you need?’

When we talk about skillful action we also talk about unskillful action because it helps us see more clearly. In this imaginary table we have constructed, we might see that there are those who see the seating and the food as limited, who look like they are sitting at a poker table and accruing chips instead of at a dining table with plenty of food and delightful conversation.

We can look at our own actions at the table. Are we eating off someone else’s plate? Are we telling others what they should and shouldn’t eat? Or are we allowing each other the full reign of our own seat and table setting?

How are we relating to the plate in front of us? Is it full or empty? Is it enough? Is it too much of one kind of thing and not enough of another? If we are looking longingly at another person’s plate or wishing we were in another’s seat, we can return to our mindfulness and skillful inquiry to ask what is driving that desire to unseat someone else or take what they have when there is plenty at the table and we already have a seat?

What are we afraid of? It always comes back to that when we get to a place of scarcity and contraction.

On a silent retreat at Spirit Rock a while back I realized that ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to prove, nothing to hide and something to give.’ It wasn’t the first time I had realized that, but somehow phrased in that way, it was something I could write down and pin to my bulletin board where I can see it every day. It still informs me, and sometimes surprises me.

Once we begin to see that, even though we still have habituated patterns of fear-based beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to rest in awareness. We can really appreciate what is in front of us, even when it isn’t all chocolate pudding all the time. We can learn to look around and see what needs doing and understand what it is we bring to the table, what we have to offer from our set of skills and gifts and interests. Through the practice of meditation there is a natural shift of focus to what we have to offer, what is upwelling inside us from our natural generosity of spirit without any sense of agenda or recompense, just a joyous love of life and gratitude for this experience, even though it is sometimes painful and challenging.

Since we are not monks or nuns, since we are not on retreat constantly, we have options and challenges. Our needs are not taken care of by others. But in some deeper sense, we are taken care of. For those who believe in God, there is the personified understanding of being children of God, held in a loving embrace. For those for whom this personification doesn’t resonate, there is the scientifically based understanding of the interconnectivity of life, that we are all stardust, one being, and that each of us, even those suffering and struggling with outrageous misfortune, are intrinsically valued.

Maybe we feel we are not valued by some specific other – a parent perhaps — against whom we may rail, feeling abandoned or brutalized. But if we continue to come back to our intention to be present and compassionate, we will shift from feeling dependent on the permission, admiration or love of others. They don’t own the table. They don’t have to pull out our chair. We begin to see we are already seated, already here, at the table of life, nourished by the wholeness of being, accessed at any moment through awareness of the present and a willingness to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

So this is the way we get things done. We accept our seat at the table and we maintain the clarity and compassion to enjoy the interactions with others around us, to pass the salt to whomever needs it, and to not be afraid to say, “Could you please pass those sweet potatoes? They look mighty tasty!”

The Five Precepts – Intrinsic to Right, Wise or Spacious Action

We’ve been exploring the Action aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, with the specific focus of how using the word ‘spacious’ affects our understanding.

No exploration of this aspect would be complete without discussing the Five Precepts. These are the vows we take at the beginning of a retreat, but they are also commitments we make as Buddhist practitioners.

The first is to refrain from harming or killing. At first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no wish to shoot or maim. But of course as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be causing harm or even killing without intention to do so. We use the skillfulness and wisdom that we have developed through our practice and through life experience to help us see more clearly. We accept that sometimes our actions will be unskillful, momentarily unmindful and operating out of life long habits, or simply unable as yet to see the harm we may have caused. We use each experience as a lesson to learn from, to increase our sense of connection and understanding. We make reparations as best we can, and then we let it go.

The second precept is to refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given. Again, at first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no urge to rob a jewelry store. But as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be taking from others without their having offered it. This is more often true with the people who are closest to us, where we may assume the right to take or even feel they have the obligation to give to us. Our expectations about what constitutes an intimate relationship get in the way of seeing clearly that we are taking what has not been freely given. This is a valuable area to observe. For some of us there may also be a gray area around theft when it comes to large corporations or faceless institutions. In a state of disconnect we cannot see how what we are doing hurts anyone. But as we look more closely we begin to see all the ramifications of our actions, and see that even ‘minor’ theft has affected us all. The fabric of trust is broken and, for example, safeguards to prevent such activity create hassles to deal with for everyone.

The third precept is to refrain from misusing our sexuality. Perhaps we have been careless, hormone driven and hard-hearted, harming others and ourselves through our actions. Sexuality can also be used to lure, promote and satisfy an agenda, and all of these uses are unskillful.

The fourth precept is to refrain from speech that is unkind or untruthful, and we will be covering this when we discuss the Speech aspect of the Eightfold Path.

The fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind and judgment, thus making it more likely that we will break the four previous vows. Intoxicants also inhibit our ability to end the very suffering we are trying to escape from by using intoxicants.

For each of these precepts, at first they may seem simple but then seem more complex and challenging, but ultimately each becomes a key to liberation. As we let go of behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and others we are freed from the guilt, shame and anguish caused by unskillful, mindless or habitual behavior.

Yes, this is clearly a list of ‘don’ts’ or ‘thou shalt nots’ but it’s also more importantly a list that helps us to clarify how we create suffering and how, at the very least, we can refrain from doing so.

Our meditation practice helps us to develop an understanding of connection, and to be responsible for how we impact others, as well as how we respond when the unskillfulness of others impacts us. Do we give others the power through their actions to cause us suffering? Do we feel the need to make sure others are taking and living up to these precepts? It is important to remember that these are vows we take for ourselves, not to enforce in others and not to become self-righteous, which is surely a cause of suffering. So those are the precepts. If you want to commit them to memory, you could make a simple list of them to have with you to ponder, and to set your intention. As people living in the busy world of infinite interactions we have many more opportunities to err and rededicate ourselves to these vows, so it helps to keep them close.

Or perhaps you are not interested in another set of ‘commandments’ and the precepts are not of interest to you right now. That’s fine too. When you are ready for them, they will definitely be available for you!

Meanwhile, we are wrapping up our Spacious Action discussion. As I’ve been experimenting with adding this word ‘spacious’ to Right or Wise Action, I have found it to be very useful. I suggested to the class that each meditator take a specific area of action to focus on for the duration of our exploration. I focused on my challenging relationship with food. I had come to a place where I recognized that the marshal law that I had to lay down in order to keep my weight down was not meeting my intention to be compassionate. So I was searching for a way to be conscious and healthy, while appreciating Bobby McFarrin’s line ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time but it’s painful.’ This addition of the word ‘spacious’ seems to be helping me. For example, I have learned I can simply make more physical space between food and me, as well as more space (time) between the impulse to eat and the actual action. I can make more space between bites, thus slowing down my habitual speed-eating. And I can also have thoughts of food take up less space in my life. Noticing a food thought, I visualize it in a bubble in the space of my mind and allow it to come into a more proportional relationship as I watch it shrink down to a much smaller. This last one seems especially helpful, as part of my resistance to past marshal plan type diets is how all-consuming they become, so that conversations stray off into discussions of diet techniques, life is measured by the bathroom scale, and I’m suddenly all goal-oriented and checking myself out in the mirror every two minutes. I’m just not interested in going through all that, and my body agrees as it has firmly resisted rewarding me with sustainable weight loss on any diet I have tried over the past few years, whereas in younger years shedding pounds was as easy as …well you get the gist.

With spaciousness we can pay kind attention to how we react or respond to any person or situation, and notice our patterns of behavior. And if we find they are unskillful, we return to our intention to be present in this moment – not dredging up the past as an excuse for present behavior – and our intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others. As much as we are able in this moment, we act out of these intentions.