Monthly Archives: November 2013

Wise Speech Depends on Engaged Listening

The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.

– Henry David Thoreau
Last week we explored the various qualities of silence and learned how to develop a deep loving connected sense of silence that allows us to hear the patterns of our own thought processes. This gives us two useful skills as we begin to interact with other people: First, we are developing an awareness of the repetitive nature of our thoughts. When we see them for what they are, we also see that we do not need to say them out loud. They are just the flotsam and jetsam of our brain’s synaptic processes. If we’re not aware of the repetitive nature of our thoughts, we are probably not aware of the repetitive nature of the things we say, those comments we make over and over again about things we see and situations about which we have set opinions. It does seem an unfortunate truth that as we age, without developing increased consciousness, we are more likely to repeat ourselves, much to the dismay of those around us. Here’s an example I used with my students. From our living room looking out across the valley, I can see a house that stands out like a sore thumb in my opinion. So my thoughts go something like, ‘Why did they paint that huge house that color? Maybe I should write them a note before their next paint job to remind them that a less garish color might…” You get the picture. It’s skillful for me to notice that I have this repetitive thought, and skillful to let it stay a thought, to leave it unexpressed. So that’s what we bring from silence into Wise Speech. We are not censoring. We are simply being compassionate. If it bores us to think it, it’s going to bore someone else to hear it! Secondly, when we develop a quality of loving silence we can more easily develop the skill of engaged listening. Listening to others without an agenda is the most skillful means of developing connection in any conversation. Notice when you are in conversation where your mind is when you are listening. Are you really listening? Or are you preparing your response?

Engaged listening means letting go of the need to prove we know something or that our position is the more secure one. We might notice a sense of feeling threatened by someone else’s opinions or statements. What is it that is being threatened? Our sense of separate self that we believe we need to shore up and defend? Time to revisit Wise View.

We might notice that sometimes we listen with a hunger to be entertained, to have our curiosity satisfied. Perhaps we are so used to watching television, plays or movies or reading books that we are passively amused or stimulated by what we hear, even when it’s a friend or family member who is talking. Or if we are not passive, our curiosity might demand to be fed, and we might ask questions that are intrusive, unlike ones that make people feel heard and foster understanding.

There’s a quality of mutual respect in the process of listening, a quality of namaste, loosely translated ‘The god in me honors the god in you,’ It acknowledges that we are all the same stuff at the core of being, and all the distinctions and differences are creations of our minds. This does not mean that our experiences are the same, or that we can make any assumptions about the other person, but it does create a more spacious way to be present in the conversation.

Some of us are antagonistic listeners, actively looking for the loophole, the fatal flaw in the other person’s words, as if all conversations are political debates. Notice if in conversation you tend to break into a person’s sentences, use the word ‘But…’ when doing so, as if there will be some tally of points in the end about who is right. If so, take a cue from the tradition in improvisation theater where each actor dives in with, ‘Yes, and…’ so that the result is a wondrous collaboration instead of a trashing of each other’s ideas.

If you find that you are scanning what you hear for errors and faulty reasoning, you are not listening. Give yourself permission to rest that over-active fault-finder. Listen with your whole being. We might feel that we are listening in a loving way when we are actually on a problem-solving mission. This person is not your problem to solve. Fixing them is not your job.

So you can see that Wise Speech is not just about talking. It’s about resting in silence, noticing the nature of our thoughts, and developing the skill of really listening to others when they speak to us.

SPECIAL HOLIDAY TIP: If you have a person with whom you have a particular challenge and somehow the words always feel wrong, tap into metta practice, send loving-kindness to him or her before speaking. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.” Always give yourself some metta first. That will enable you to share it more easily.

Wise Speech arises out of silence

Wise Speech rests in and arises out of a spacious peaceful, deeply connected silence.


So I want to begin our exploration of of this aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path with that silence. In class we rested in the silence of our meditation on a foggy morning that lent a cozy muffled silence to our practice.


What comes up for you when I say ‘silence’?


For many of us silence is not a welcoming, deepening sense of connection at all. Perhaps we are uncomfortable being left alone with our thoughts, so we fill our minds and our environment with noise to mask them.


We may have had to learn to navigate in a dangerous world of potentially violent silences, developing hyperactive skills on reading the body language of parents, boyfriends or spouses, in order to protect ourselves or our children. This is a sad skill that so many women, in particular, have had to develop. The CIA has found that women have the heightened ability to read men’s motivations, to read the silences and see beyond the words. So women make up 50% of the staff at the CIA and the majority of its leadership. Some pretty hard-earned early life training those women had, no doubt.


We may have been silenced, told to know our place, to stuff down our words, to hold our tongue, or to “stifle” ourselves, as TV character Archie Bunker so often said to his wife Edith on the sitcom ‘All in the Family’. More insidiously, we may have been asked to be silent and keep secrets we now know we should have reported to the nearest responsible adult. (If any of this brings up personal memories, please pause and send some metta, loving-kindness to that young person that was you, and to that aspect of self that may feel to blame. Then if you are able to do so, send loving-kindness to the person who put you in that position. May they be well. May they be at ease. May they be at peace. Metta practice is not always easy, but it is always powerful in its healing.)


Here are some traditional sayings from a variety of cultures that remind women to curb any inclination to speak up:


Women’s tongues are like lambs’ tails – they are never still. – English
A dog is wiser than a woman; it does not bark at its master. – Arabic
The tongue is the sword of a woman and she never lets it become rusty. – Chinese
Where there are women and geese, there’s noise. – Japanese
Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man or a quiet woman. –Scottish
When both husband and wife wear pants it is not difficult to tell them apart – he is the one who is listening. – American
The woman with active hands and feet, marry her, but the woman with overactive mouth, leave well alone. – Maori


While a group of women together can certainly carry on a lively conversation, studies show that in social settings with both genders, women talk less. Women often hold back. Women often stifle themselves without men needing to request it. The culture has historically required it, and women, especially women of a certain age, still feel that unspoken demand to stifle ourselves.


Why does this matter? The person who holds the proverbial talking stick is the one who directs or at least influences the action of the group. To be quiet is to go along with the program. To speak up is to take charge, to be a leader. Women of the 21st Century have at last taken the reins of leadership to a much greater degree than women have for many millennia! Hooray! Given that newfound sense of expression, why would we want to be silent?


We can see why our attitude toward silence is plagued with distrust, discomfort and fear: Silence is repression. Silence is a scary emptiness that will let the inner demons out.


I understand this, believe me! And yet I keep championing silence, particularly a long silent retreat! Why? Because a silent retreat is a key part of the insight meditation experience. A daily meditation practice gives us a grounding in the skills to be present and to quiet the mind, but on a silent retreat, even the periods of not meditating are in silence and attentive to the present moment.


In those periods when we are not meditating but are still very much in silence, there is a unique opportunity to see the nature of our thinking mind, to see the thoughts that repeat themselves ad nauseum.


We can rail against the thoughts or we can develop a compassionate, curious but clear relationship. We might address a recurring thought with, ‘Oh you again! Haven’t heard from you in, gosh, twenty-two minutes!’ We can think about Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi Tree greeting Mara again and again, saying, “I know you.” These recurring thoughts are Mara too. We can recognize them without going to battle with them. A simple noting is sufficient, and can short circuit the train of thought. If the thought is a plan, we note ‘planning’. Likewise, ‘memory’ or ‘regret’. We might develop our own little creative ways to cease struggling with thoughts and yet curtail them. For example, I sometimes think of the thought as a ribbon I tie into a bow that turns into a butterfly and flies away. This keeps the process light. We are so prone to being punitive, it helps to have a light-hearted method that keeps us from succumbing to antagonism.


Only when we give ourselves an extended state of silence without much external stimulation do we begin to really see clearly the nature of persistent thoughts. We see their associative connections. We might notice that a sight or smell or texture triggered a particular memory that brought forth an emotion that caused a physical manifestation, such as tension in a certain area of the body. What useful information! We can apply compassionate inquiry and discover we have been operating on a totally erroneous assumption. This can be big life changing news that can liberate us and end suffering.

Silence allows us the spaciousness of mind to see the weave in the fabric of our mental processes. That spaciousness in the environment, in the silence, the stillness of being, the easing of physical tension, the simple structure of the retreat schedule that takes away the constant need to make decisions or to get things done, all helps to settle our minds and open our hearts to the sweet rich quality of being. With that clarity of mind and compassion of heart, we are inclined to have insights that awaken us.


So as scary as silence may seem to us, in fact when we give ourselves to it in this way, it proves to be the greatest gift we have ever received.

Bonus ‘Wise Action’ posts on this blog

Over the past five years I have taught the Buddha’s Eightfold Path three times, so if you are interested in reading more, here are some other posts on this blog about Wise Action. And here’s one that wasn’t included in the previous linked group, titled Even bad habits don’t deserve to be kicked!

Ours is not a caravan of despair

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again.
— Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic


Ours is not a caravan of despair! Why? Because we carry within us an oasis that, if only we take the time to sit and savor, fills us with joy, a sense of connection, a lightness of being. Yet so often we fill our meditation period with harsh inner commentary about our sorry state, how ill-fitted we are to the task of meditation. We do this at the very moment of realization that our mind has been wandering. If only we could realize that in that moment we are quite fully present in our experience, and this is cause for celebration. Instead of gratitude for this moment of presence, we so often choose instead to sit in judgment of the minutes before. Instead of sensing the pleasure of awareness, we fall back into an oh-so-familiar but uncomfortable pattern of making disparaging remarks. Off our mind goes again, into the brutal desert, into despair. We do this in other parts of our life as well, don’t we? We think of someone we care about, and instead of feeling joy, we suffer guilt, shame, dread or some other discomfort, because somehow we believe we have not done enough for them, have not done right by them or have not stayed in touch. Is this based in truth? Or is the very discomfort that arises what keeps us from fully engaging? Who put the discomfort there? Most often we create it ourselves. Sometimes we have in mind something we want to do with our lives, yet we spin our wheels in this very same cycle of despair, torturing ourselves with schoolyard bully taunts, and we are stopped in our tracks. Sometimes these taunts set us up for non-action. Sometimes they set us up for destructive action. Listening in, recognizing the fear-based quality of these inner conversations is very important in order to recognize the the murky, sometimes downright nasty, motivations, so that we can apply the wisdom of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to help us. After a period of meditation is an especially good time to explore and question, one by one, as they arise in our field of awareness, these murky motivations. Resetting Intention — Wise Action includes resetting our intentions, our vows, again and again. In this we understand and accept that we are human, by our very nature prone to error. This resetting of intentions is not casually undertaken, the way my granddaughter gaily calls out ‘Sorry!’ as she repeats whatever annoying thing she has done. (We’re hoping it’s just a phase.) Most of us know someone who is equally casual with their apologies and doesn’t have the excuse of being only three years old. We don’t want to be that person who thinks an oft-repeated ‘Sorry!’ is sufficient to repair damage done, who justifies unskillful actions as if they are the hapless victim of some incorrigible personality trait, a trait that they seem in fact to find particularly endearing. Through meditation and working with the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we learn to see the patterns of our own behavior. We see how our mind creates justifications and excuses, how it takes shortcuts and dodges around any reasonable challenges to what we believe to be true. We have skillful questions we can ask of these thoughts that prompted this unskillful action: What was our motivation in that action? If it wasn’t grounded in our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and all life, then we were operating out of the murky mire of mindless motivations! We believed we had something to fear, something to hide, or something to prove. Whenever we get bogged down in these motivations, we can pause to recognize the nature of our current quagmire, and reset our intentions to be present in this moment, however uncomfortable, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. What was the nature of our effort in that action? We were striving, focused on our goal, becoming mindless? Or half-hearted in our effort? Wise Effort is anchored in the present moment, attune to what is needed now. Did we stay on the couch channel surfing when the body wanted to move? Did we keep working on a project when the body wanted to rest? Did we push our agenda through without regard to others? What was the nature of our world view in that action? Did we believe that:
  • The world is a hostile place filled with threats?
  • We are this body, separate from the flow of being?
  • We are these thoughts, unique and in need of defending?
  • If we just held on tight enough things would stay the same?
  • If we grab onto something new, it will make things all better?
  • We are the appointed referee of others’ behavior?

These kinds of beliefs constrict us and force misery upon us and potentially on those around us as well. It’s worthwhile to question all beliefs that fly in the face of Wise View which sees clearly the nature of impermanence (anicca), no separate self (anatta) and the ways we create suffering through clinging to and pushing away our current experience (dukkha). Were we being mindful in that action? Very unlikely. Wise Mindfulness tends to keep us out of trouble. It offers more spaciousness within any moment to make wise choices. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice, stirred by Wise Concentration. The more we develop this muscle of mindfulness, the less often we will cause harm through our actions. The Eightfold Path sheds light on where we strayed and what to do about it now. We attend this moment, and the next as it comes. In this way we deepen our experience of being, and we learn the wisdom and beauty that is present in every moment. If we have wronged someone else, once we recognize it and have reset our intentions, we can do whatever is mindful and compassionate to right the wrong, and if there is nothing that can make it right, a whole-hearted recognition of the wrong may be appreciated. With the help of the Eightfold Path we can see where we went wrong and how we can assure that we will be wiser in the future. Our intention is not to remake ourselves into paragons of virtue. That is just grasping at some identity, and any identity we try to create just sets us up for misery, and Miz Perfect is particularly fraught. We will err, time and again. But with the handy dandy Eightfold Path to show us how we we came to make that mistake, we will spend less time steeped in misery and more time actively engaged in life, with deep appreciation for this fleeting gift. When Others Mess Up
We might notice that our thoughts and emotions are not just entangled in how we may have erred, but in the errors of other people. We might be caught up in blame. We might be stuck in defending the state of victim-hood. The Eightfold Path can also help here. We can look at the action of this other person and see where they strayed off the path. And in so doing, we can begin to see that the action came from mindlessness, from murky motivations, from over- or under-efforting. Seeing this, we can perhaps activate a little more compassion within ourselves. Certainly we have seen how easy it is to go mindless, to follow misguided motivations instead of Wise Intention. If we are struggling with the effects of what someone did to us, the Eightfold Path offers us the means to understand both the other person and what we can do in this moment ourselves. We can look at our intentions toward them. We can see how we may be held in the past by what is unresolved in our heart. We can see how our sense of defending this separate self that has been wronged keeps us from accessing the infinite nature of being. But it is not just people who did us wrong whom we have difficulty with. Perhaps we are in the habit of playing the referee in this game of life, and getting upset over other people’s behavior, even when it does not affect us and we have no say in the matter.In this process, we begin to recognize that those who do wrong are also in a state of mindlessness and lack of understanding of the way of things. How does this alter our feelings towards them? Can we send them metta, loving-kindness, in the form of well-wishes like: May you be well, May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. Perhaps metta practice is most challenging when it comes to people convicted of horrendous crimes, people who are serving life sentences or who are sitting on death row. We in Marin County are given the often uncomfortable gift of thinking about these very people every time we take the ferry to and from San Francisco, as we pass close by San Quentin State Penitentiary. That old dilapidated structure holds within its walls men who have committed the most heinously unskillful actions possible. Metta is not selective. It is like the sun, shining on everything in its path. This can be a really big challenge, but it is a challenge worthy of the effort. It is a challenge that requires us to be mindful, to notice our own resistance and be compassionate with that within ourselves that struggles, that reacts, that wants to strike out in anger against perpetrators who struck out in anger. We can see how anger for anger hyper-reactivity creates a dense field of fear-based misery. As we practice compassion and mindfulness, we create spaciousness to hold everything with equanimity, even the existence of the most troubled and unskillful actions. Over the past decade there has been a great revolution inside prison walls all around the world. Prisoners are learning to meditate, to spend time noticing the patterns of their thoughts, to contemplate the actions they have done and to look more clearly at what pain they have caused and to feel compassion for the victims of their actions. This simple practice has transformed many hearts and minds. And in the process it has begun a potential transformation of prisons from violence compression chambers that exacerbate the problem into places of potential healing for both the perpetrators and the victims of crime. May this trend continue! Whoever we are, a regular practice of meditation helps assure that ours is not a caravan of despair, but a caravan of clarity, compassion and joy!

Wise Action Keeps Us Moving

At the core of Wise Action is the felt sense of our physical bodies moving through space. So often we go mindless as we move about, distracted by thoughts, sights and other multitasking activities. Is this wise? Think about some time when you had an accident while moving your body (or a vehicle) through space. Would that accident have happened if you had been totally present in your body? When I brought this subject up to the class, every student responded to the topic with a story of having fallen down. So even though this is an important topic for everyone, it clearly becomes increasingly important as we age. I led the meditators in a walking exercise that was similar to a walking meditation, in that our focus was to be present in the felt sense of our bodies, particularly the lower part of the body. It differed from a typical walking meditation in that, to whatever degree we were able, we maintained the mindfulness while bringing the pace up to a more normal level. The aim is to be able to be present while going about our daily activities. Is it possible to be so present? Yes, we can train the mind to use a percentage of our awareness to anchor into the felt sense of moving through space. We can use a percentage of our visual awareness to purposefully notice the relationship of our body to other objects. This is not a fear-based instruction in how to navigate through a minefield of hazards, as if we were playing a video game. If we are rooted in fear, we create more tension and a self-consciousness that makes us second guess and doubt our movements instead of fully inhabiting this physical experience. When we bring more awareness to the dance of life, we experience with gratitude the pleasure of being present and alive. Awareness creates more fluidity and agility. I have put the directions for the walking practice at the end of this post, but first let’s look more specifically at the cause of most accidents: Being distracted, rushed or exhausted. Let’s look at each and apply Wise Action:
Destination Focus/Goal Oriented
We know where we are going and we will get there, but to arrive safely, refreshed and fully ready for anything, we need to stay present for the journey itself. Lost in Thought
We may be in the habit of getting a lot of thinking done when we are walking or driving. We put movement on automatic pilot. That is a danger to ourselves and others. And by using that time to think instead of be fully present in the experience of being alive in this moment, we miss out on so much! Devices
This more recent addition to the list of distractions has really been taking a toll in the emergency room. If you receive a call or a text, ignore it until you can stop in a safe place to attend to it. Everyone thinks they are the exception to the finding that we can’t safely do more than one thing at a time. The Wise Action is to do only one thing and do it wholeheartedly for the benefit of ourselves and all beings. Visual Delight
We may be enjoying being in the present moment, but we are putting too much focus on the sights around us, and not enough on the path in front of us. We can enjoy our surroundings with all our senses, but some percentage of our awareness needs to stay with the felt sense of moving through space and the relationship of our body to objects in our path. This also applies to driving if we are sight-seeing or getting caught up in thoughts about fellow drivers or interesting spectacles. Rushing
This is another health hazard. We know that when we feel rushed we can get reckless. Our judgment becomes impaired and our sense of connection and kindness are likely to get tossed out the window in our compelling need to get somewhere on time. While it is skillful to meet our social agreements to meet a certain place at a certain time, once it is clear that that is not going to happen, and once we are moving through space, either on foot or driving a potential death delivery system on the road, we need to let go of that urgency to get there, and just be mindful. It will take as long as it takes and no amount of rushing will help. Rushing may hurt or even kill someone! So slow down! Be present. Exhaustion
Accidents also happen when we push too hard, when we are determine to finish a project or get somewhere, and push through our body’s request for rest with determination. This is not Wise Effort. If we are in tune with our body, we take its cues seriously. We acknowledge thirst, hunger and the need to sit or lie down. Usually these needs are easily met and won’t necessarily take a lot of time. Perhaps the rest that’s needed is just a time out for ten or twenty minutes. Then the body is refreshed and better able to do what’s needed without all the attending frustration, expletives, shoddy results and physical danger. Wise Action Walking Meditation Practice
Start with standing meditation, coming fully present in the body, adjusting the body to be balanced.
Then start walking, sensing the movement of the limbs. Move as slowly as you need to in order to stay present. Then start moving your arms and stay present with the sense of the arms moving in space, the legs moving in space, the muscles contracting and extending. You can walk normally and be fully present in the body. Simply set your destination, then be present in the walking itself. If we can be present in physical movement we will have a much greater chance of arriving wherever we go in safety. And — bonus! — we’ll arrive full present to enjoy the experience of being there.