Category Archives: Right Speech

What I learned on my summer vacation

Family vacations are wonderful times to learn a lot about ourselves and our way of being in community and in the world. I remember one extended family vacation that my mother put together in a beautiful spot with perfect weather. Though everything went well, she was mostly tense and dictatorial and I was often grumpy and defensive. My main job as I saw it was to assure the safety and well-being of my two year old son and to pitch in cooperatively to keep the shared household running smoothly. But she saw me as her personal assistant and servant to assure the happiness of my brothers and their families whom she saw as the ‘guests’.

Because in the U.S., most of us don’t live in multi-generational family situations year-round, when we live for brief periods with our family of origin, a lot of old patterns resurface, and a lot of reactivity that replicates our childhood coping mechanisms shows up as well. We might be surprised, even horrified, to discover that those emotional cesspools are still within us when we felt we had become ‘better’ people.

It helps to see the pattern unfolding, even if it’s difficult to stop it from playing out. Just noticing it makes a big difference, helping us to understand its origins and its fleeting nature. We can rest assured that when the gathering is over, we will return home to our ‘normal’ adult ways. Being able to see these patterns arise gives us the chance to pause, send metta (lovingkindness) to ourselves and the rest of the family, so that we reconnect with our core intentions.

Because I had had negative experiences on family-gathering vacations my mother had hosted, I didn’t try to host one myself after I became a family matriarch. But a few years ago we happened to stay as overnight guests at a vacation home with our son and his family, and I discovered what I had been missing. Yes, extended time together can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly rich, sweet, funny and insightful. So I’ve started hosting simple little three-night summer mountain getaways, and I’m so glad I did.

We just returned from a mountain lake that has a rustic family resort vibe. It was a perfect choice for the age our youngest grandchildren are right now. We had a great time relaxing together, doing whatever anyone was in the mood to do, free of any agenda. As well as the fun of our group conversations, I had time alone with each family member — sweet moments I especially cherish.

My morning meditation got short shrift, as our grandchildren visited us when they woke up while their parents slept in, and I was too busy whispering and laughing. But my longtime practice helped me to stay grounded and present to enjoy it all and to hold the experience lightly. It would be so easy to get caught up in grasping and clinging, wanting to hold onto this special time and place forever. But impermanence is our nature. All we can do is savor the current experience and let it go, without regret or anticipation of the next great thing.

I didn’t completely master the advanced art of the zipped lip that all parents of adult children must learn if life is to be enjoyable, but I think I did pretty well, considering. I find the key is when judgy words are about to burst forth to ask myself, ‘What is my intention here?” and also “What is most important in this situation?” As a compulsive tidier and responsible tenant of vacation rentals (Oh, the pride I take in our AirBnB rating!) my first answer to what’s important defaults to making sure everything is just so, but with even a moment’s reflection I see that my relationship with my family is infinitely more important. And after all, it’s only for a few nights.

We are fortunate to not have reason to get into heated arguments, but decades ago I had that experience with other family members. I learned then to go to bed before alcohol consumption fueled wee hour dysfunctional disagreements. And again, to question my intention in needing to be right. Ah, the ‘I don’t know’ mind really comes in handy! Cultivating spaciousness for all voices to be heard without getting into battle. And if we let go of the need to convince someone of our view, we have the opportunity to learn more about what fears motivate their views, and that’s valuable information for us all.

All my past lessons helped me enjoy the gathering, but there’s always more to learn, and here are several I came away with this time:

#1 Explore off the beaten path
On the last day, after packing up, we took a little walk and decided to head away from the lake instead of toward it. (It’s understandable that we would always be drawn to the lake, but curiosity finally took us in another direction.) We discovered that right behind our cabin there was a beautiful wooded walking path to the grocery store, that was not only a short cut but a much safer way to walk with two children than on the street.

It makes me wonder what obvious/autopilot ways I have been taking in my life, ignoring beautiful and possibly even more direct routes.

Using this lesson, on the drive home down the mountain, we stopped in Jamestown, an old gold mining town off the beaten path. A passerby gave us the peace sign, a relic of a bygone era for sure. It’s main street is about two blocks long and it has all the requisite architectural features of the old West circa 1856, with raised wooden sidewalks under overhanging balconies. It had the requisite number of antique shops for any small California town before it becomes too popular for shopkeepers to sell some old bottles for a dollar each for our grandchild’s Harry Potter magic potion collection and then carefully wrap them in a gift bag.

We also chose a more scenic if less speedy way into the Bay Area, and arrived home refreshed. A perfect ending to a lovely getaway.

#2 Vacation food is not offset by exercise
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t doing that much exercise. We walked around quite a bit but also did a lot of lounging on the beach enjoying the sight of our kids and grand-kids playing in the water, and all the various families with children and elders of all ages having a great time together. I have never heard the word ‘grandma’ spoken from so many different young mouths.

I used to see vacation as an opportunity to over-indulge, but since I’ve found a way to eat in a balanced and satisfying way, my treats were tasty but sporadic and my reward was that I felt good. If my scale on returning home begged to differ, that’s its problem!

#3 Having better cell phone coverage is not always a blessing
Some in the family had AT&T and were blissfully free from knowing whether anyone was trying to reach them. We have Verizon, whose infinitely better coverage in remote areas is much appreciated in almost all circumstances. Except this one. Eventually, I had to just turn it off and put it in a drawer. We were surprised to discover that even though we couldn’t text each other our whereabouts or make plans, we kept finding each other quite naturally, just like we all did before cell phones were invented. 😉

#4 Put away the camera most of the time
With my phone in a drawer, I was without a camera. But I have found that ‘capturing’ the moment as a future memory is sometimes really losing the moment because I’m focused on framing and adjusting and not paying attention with all my senses. A camera cannot capture the experience anyway — the feel and smell of mountain air, the textures of sand, water and sun-warmed skin — and while a video camera gets the sounds as well, it imposes itself into the situation, altering behavior. Our grandchildren hate having their photos taken anyway.

#5 Always bring seat cushions
We just happened to toss in some outdoor seat cushions as we were packing for the trip, and boy did they come in handy! The cabin kitchen table had a hard bench banquette that was much improved by the cushions, and they were easy to transfer out to the picnic table on the deck where fast and furious games of Yahtzee taught the grandchildren a lot of math skills. Our kids took the cushions to outdoor movie night and said they wouldn’t have survived without them.

So let’s consider this: Where in life might we add a little extra cush? It doesn’t have to be a physical cushion. Our language, for example, has cushions that make conversations more comfortable like  ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘maybe you’re right.’ Hugs, pats, holding hands — small gestures convey a lot of love and soften the sometimes rough edges of life’s interactions.

#6 Apply practical lessons to inner life
We are all learning things every day. These are usually new facts, practical solutions, etc., but it can be helpful to see how they could apply to other areas of our lives, including our inner lives.

So, what have you learned lately?

The words you use shape your world

As we continue to look at the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we come to Wise Speech.

a heart of wordsTraditionally wise speech is using words that are true, kind and timely. If any of those conditions are not met, then it’s not wise speech. We can see unwise speech in so much of what is being said and written in social media, especially by one who holds an office where words are usually carefully considered.

We can see untruths. We can see unkindness. Whether it’s timely or not, it’s hard to assess, but in its harshness and scare tactics it seems bent on stirring up volatile emotions and prompting reactions that are equally unskillful.

It may be tempting to turn away, and to some degree this kind of self-protection is useful, but only long enough to anchor ourselves in the present moment, remember and reset our truest intentions, check in with the quality of our effort, cultivate mindfulness and wise view through concentration practice. Then, and only then, we can engage as effective citizens of the world.

It is certainly not a time to be silent. But giving ourselves the gift of silence in daily practice or on a retreat is especially valuable in volatile times. We are not seeking escape. We are not running away. We are not sticking our fingers in our ears, shutting our eyes and saying ‘lalalala’ to shut out what we don’t want to hear. Instead, we are finding our center, anchoring ourselves in the sensations of breathing, hearing, feeling whatever sensations are present in our experience. And in doing that we see how things change from minute to minute. That gives us the gift of understanding the nature of impermanence. No experience, whether difficult or wonderful, goes on forever. And that informs us as to our role in engaging in life. We are not separate beings shoring up our isolated identities in order to feel safe. We are part of an amazing whole, integral to the well being of all life. Our actions matter. Our words matter. No matter whether we are talking to a child or putting words out into the twitter-sphere, we are setting into motion something powerful that cannot be retracted. Our words matter. So let them be true. Let them be kind. Let them be timely. Let them inspire compassion rather than hatred.

As someone who spends a lot of time writing, I find words and language are much more interesting and complex than simply making sure that they are true, kind and timely, although that is an important aspect. So in this post I want to explore the power and beauty of words, in the context of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

The power of words is undeniable. George Lakoff has long pointed out that in politics the words you use deeply influence the populace in how they think about policies. He uses the example of ‘regulation’ — a word that carries the burden of oppressive government interference. This word can be felt in the body as a tightening in resistance if one feels the government is prone to overreach. But notice how differently the word ‘protection’ is felt in the body. This is a word that accurately can be applied to the laws, such as environmental laws, that were created to protect the health of our streams, ocean, air and ourselves as living beings who are deeply dependent on a healthy environment. Choosing the word that more accurately reflects the nature of what we are discussing makes a huge difference in how it is received, doesn’t it? This is not just word play, but an insight into the nature of our relationship to language.

In class, when I shared this comparison, a discussion arose around the word ‘protection’ and how it can have a negative effect as well. One student pointed out that sometimes it is suggested that women need to be protected, and that patriarchal belief doesn’t sit well with many modern women. Another student said that inciting violence at an international level is often done in the name of ‘protection’. So the investigation continues for each of us as to how we use words that accurately reflect our truest intention.

Word choice is so important because it shapes our understanding and attitudes, and it impacts how what we say is received. In a personal conversation this can be just as true. There are words that may be well-meant but they push buttons in the other person that we never intended. In the language of intimacy in particular, we may feel like we are walking on eggshells. And we may become so fearful that we might say the wrong thing that we say nothing, maybe at a time when the other person very much needs something to be said!

Language shapes and potentially limits understanding. The recent movie Arrival had this idea as one of its theme. Visitors from outer space arrive and the main character, a linguist played by Amy Adams, is asked to communicate with them. Their language is unlike anything on earth but somehow she manages to understand it. Of course her military colleagues wanted to know are these beings friends or foes, in order to know how to treat them. She tried to get them to understand that setting up an ‘us and them’ paradigm by asking questions that assume they are here to attack or take something from us, locks out the possibility of other intentions because it will feel threatening to them. Language shapes and potentially limits understanding and outcomes.

We can see how true that is in our own conversations with each other. When we are in a conversation with someone and suddenly there’s a shift of mood, or an escalation of tension, where did we get off track? What happened? It certainly wasn’t our intention (or was it?) to irritate, aggravate, denigrate or any other kind of -ate. Yet here we are in a very different place than we intended.

Speaking of language and power, here is a very interesting quote from an article on the blog Vox by Emily Crockett where she says, “Women, and women leaders in particular, often get criticized more for how they say something than for what they actually say. They have to walk a difficult line of being assertive but not too aggressive, likable but not too much of a pushover.

“When women speak, people tend to mentally turn up the volume. Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like “vocal fry” and “upspeak” when women use them, but often don’t even notice it when men do. The same mental amplification process makes people see an assertive woman as “aggressive.”

What’s a woman to do? In class last week, one student shared that within her she felt an up-welling of powerful feminine energy, a fierce protector power that is inherent in us when what we love is threatened, like a mother bear protecting her young.

Another student was surprised because, as it turns out, she was currently writing about the very same subject. So in our women’s group, we will certainly open to this needed energy, and cultivate it to be skillful, with wise intention, wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise view and wise use of language, assuring that our words are true (as in speak truth to power!), kind (as in compassionately speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves) and timely (as in speaking up when our voices are most needed, like Now! and persisting even when cautioned that it is somehow unladylike to use our power for the benefit of all beings.)

We all have a seat at this table of life. We don’t have to wait to be invited. We were born with our seat already there and the table set for us. Yet many women, and some men, are in a state of waiting for permission, waiting for an invitation. Wait no more! Our voices need to be part of the conversation. And we need to be wise in the words we choose, knowledgeable about how powerful words are, and how easily misunderstood. If we speak from our truest intention, respectfully, compassionately, our words will be powerful.

I have written a number of other talks about Wise Speech. Here are links to past posts if you would like to explore further.

Is your mouth getting you in trouble?

mouth-guardsThis time of year we can get into a lot of trouble with our mouths. What goes into them can so easily be too much, too rich, too sweet or too inebriating. What comes out of them might be thoughtless comments, backhanded compliments or casual remarks that are way off the mark. One way to stay out of trouble is to avoid all social gatherings for the duration. But if we do engage, do we have to stand guard, inspecting all content coming in and going out with a careful eye? Ugh! Where’s the fun in that?

Fortunately there is a way to stay out of trouble with our words and our eating without declaring ‘Bah humbug’. Compassionate noticing is joyous, not a duty call or an inner police state. The Buddha called it Wise Action and Wise Speech.

Wise Action during the holidays means being present in our bodies, finding balance, resting as needed, and gently stepping away from the buffet table when we are not hungry but find we are grazing to pass the time. We can wake up out of autopilot and really enjoy the party!

Wise Speech invites us we use three questions to gauge whether speech is indeed wise.
We ask:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

All three need a ‘yes’ answer for our speech to be wise.

One of my students said, ‘If I had to ask those every time I wanted to say something, I’d never speak!’
‘Is that true?’ I asked her. ‘Is everything you say a mean lie spoken at the most inopportune moment?’
Of course not. In my own experience her words are truthful, kind and timely, and I would bet that is more often the case than not. But hearing this set of questions can sound daunting, so I’m sympathetic to her concern.

We have all been witness to and perhaps participants in situations where unskillful words or the wrong tone of voice have ruined the mood at a gathering, sometimes creating a hostile atmosphere. Words are powerful! They can even put a relationship in jeopardy. A family dinner can be a minefield of potential emotional explosions. Having a few simple questions we can ask ourselves before venturing forth into conversation is actually a comforting gift. If what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we can feel confident in our participation. We won’t be left with that gnawing feeling of guilt, wondering ‘Was it something I said?’

But why are we ever motivated to say things that are untrue or unkind? We may be under stress, worried about something, in a hurry, reacting to a perceived slight, or blaming a loved one for our own grumpy mood. With family there can be a river of long-held gripes running just under the surface, so these gatherings can get out of hand quite easily. We may balk at the idea that we need to be mindful of our words. ‘I just want to be me,’ we say. But is mindlessness who we are? Is unkindness who we are? Is saying untruths who we are? Really?

Of course not. When we speak mindlessly we are most often not speaking from our true selves but repeating some social patter we’ve heard somewhere just to fill the space and pass the time. The ‘filters’ of truth and kindness are ways of finding our own authentic voice, not quashing it.

The question of whether what we are about to say is timely really has to do with being present with what’s going on. We take a moment to notice that the person we want to speak to has their hands full at this moment and would not be able to pay real attention. Or we may realize these are words for a private conversation and think better of blurting out something in the group. Finding the right moment doesn’t have to be a monumental task, but considering timeliness helps to insure a more productive conversation.

If you can remember those three questions, hooray. If that’s just way too easy, consider a few more questions you could use as well:

‘What is my intention here?’ You might notice any sensations in the body — tension, for example — that indicate you are probably motivated by fear. Not much good comes from fear. We tend to make enemies. We feel we need to defend our isolated sense of self so we use our speech as as a sword to ‘protect’ ourselves. It doesn’t work, of course. It just makes us feel more isolated as people pull away or attack in kind.

Another motivation can be exposed with the question ‘Am I trying to prove something?’ Maybe some sibling seems to have it all together, and it feels important to be heard and seen as the accomplished person you are. (Remember not to compare your insides with their outsides. You present a pretty polished surface too.) That’s also a good question to ask yourself when you find you are doing most of the talking. If people’s eyes are glazing over or their looking away, you may be thrusting information that was not requested and pontificating about something just to show how much you know.

‘Is this my story to tell?’ is a useful question that helps to curb gossip. All information we receive is not fodder for conversation. Sometimes people share personal information with us and we are not meant to pass it on! It is not necessarily a secret, but it is just not our story to tell. Much as we may want to ‘fill the void’ by sharing stories about others to mutual friends or family members, it’s really a destructive pattern. But if not everyone is able to attend a family gathering, then what are we supposed to say when Aunt Sarah asks after her absent great nephew? Maybe it would be skillful to anticipate that there will be such a question and tell the one who plans to be absent that if he doesn’t want you to share his contact information with relatives, please provide some (true, kind) brief answer for the question of how he is doing so that you can feel confident you are not speaking out of turn. If none is forthcoming, fall back on, ‘Oh he’s fine.’ and if the probe continues, smile and ask the inquisitor a question.


When being mindful of your words in general, you can also look more deeply at the first question ‘Is it true?’ Your first response may be, ‘Well of course it’s true!’ but if you look a little more deeply you might see that we don’t know for certain if it is true. Investigating the truth of what we hear and read, seeing things in context, considering the source, and trying to see the bigger picture are all useful activities when we are looking at information. If we are going to repeat it, we don’t want to do so mindlessly, just passing on fabrications, urban myths or unfounded rumors. In an election year, it is especially easy to align ourselves rather mindlessly with the candidates who we assume represent us, without questioning what we really believe.

Sometimes we talk just to avoid ‘awkward silences’. You might ask yourself, ‘Can I be at home in silence?’ It is often our discomfort with silence that prompts us to say just about anything to keep the conversation going. We get so myopic we don’t recognize how much else is going on besides conversation. When silence arises try resting in it, deepening into noticing sensation. What is present in this moment besides words? A relationship that only has words to bind it is waiting for a deepening that resting in silence can bring: a smile, a pat on the back, a hug, a look, a sensing into the emotional state of the other person.

All these questions are not to make us uncomfortable with speaking. They help us develop language that has more meaning, resonance and connection; and less misunderstanding, boredom, hurt feelings and confusion.

When we pause in our obsessive need to fill the supposed void or to prove that we exist, we might find that the best form of speech of all is really listening. Less focus on monitoring the mouth, and more on activating the ears!

May all these suggestions help you further enjoy your holidays.

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.

The Pot Hole of Pigeon-holing

My new granddaughter is barely a week old and already she has been pigeon-holed and typecast. Her gender, weight and height have been duly noted and these facts have refined the perception of her parents, extended family and friends. Her physical features have been matched to known patterns. She has her father’s brow, her mother’s ankles, and her great-grandmother’s cheeks.

Like any other mammal, the human is biologically driven to devote itself to its offspring, and the initial ritual of sniffing and checking out to make sure that this offspring is in fact its own, is a natural part of the process of claiming, making the novel and extraordinary understood and ordinary.

The ‘I don’t know mind’ has been tossed aside in the process. Nature abhors a vacuum, and humans abhor a vacuum of solid facts, strong opinions and pigeon holes in which to store them.

But, biological imperative aside, doesn’t that still leave room for this new life to be a wondrous mysterious unknown? Will everything she does in her first week of life have to go on her permanent record? Will all her efforts to come to terms with her environment, skillful or not, be brought up again and again to haunt her?

This is just the beginning after all. She will have a well-documented existence, with photographs, achievements noted in the baby book – whether she is early or late with the various stages of learning to hold her head up, roll over, creep, crawl, walk and talk. Each erupting tooth will be noted, each word learned will be remembered for how endearingly she mispronounces it.

I remember that Josh called a piano a plano and Katie called it a pinano. Josh got his first teeth at four months, Katie at fourteen months – both extremes noted and incorporated into the body of knowledge that attempts to describe their nature. His early teeth got him weaned off the breast earlier than was healthy, thus causing his allergies perhaps? Her late teeth had her used to swallowing food whole without chewing, and she is still a fast eater with indigestion. This is all part of the family lore that weaves a cozy family nest around those who passed that initial sniff test of acceptance into the fold.

But is this who we are? Are we the sum total of our report cards, our teachers’ and fellow students opinions? Are we, as studies often show, a product of our sibling placement, whether we’re the oldest, a middle child or the baby? Are we our grade point averages, our diplomas, our credentials or lack thereof? Are we all living under the weight of our accomplishments, our failures, our faux pas that did not go unnoticed, our favorite music, color, gem stone, animal, genre of book or movie, or our preferred style of dress or home décor?

Will this new life I have been holding in my arms as she sleeps, her dear little mouth and hands in constant movement, be plastered with so many labels she forgets who she is? Will she read the labels as directives of who she should be? Will she struggle to win the affections of her first grade teacher by conforming to the ideal of a good student? Will she struggle to win the admiration of her playmates by being funny or daring? Will she struggle to win the love of a young man by being sexy and willing? Will she struggle to win the approval of her employer by becoming her job title or by foregoing her own moral bearings for the company’s bottom line?

How will she know she is not all the labels put upon her? That she is more than her gender, her ethnicity, her nationality, her preferences, her foibles, her perceived strengths and weaknesses? If she is like most of us, she will come to believe that it is the labels themselves that those around her love. If she is like most of us, it is these very labels that she will love or hate about herself. She will be ready to name her favorite and most hated body parts for the degree to which they conform with those she sees in the media or the most popular girl in class.

Will she feel, as we often do, somehow lost in this naming process?

This is how life is. This is what we do for each other, whether we are parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, coworkers or friends. We mirror each other. Because it’s hard to see ourselves, we rely on the mirroring of everyone around us who, in their response to us show us if we are brave or cowardly, smart or dumb, interesting or dull, beautiful or plain, big or small, fat or thin, old or young, agile or clumsy. We do this in ways overt and subtle, through our words, our expressions and our choice of whom we spend time with and whom we avoid.

When we think about the Buddha’s call to practice Right or Wise Speech in our relationships, we understand the power of our words. In this mirroring process, where we in a word or phrase sketch the whole character of a person, we fall off the Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering. Not just the person we are describing’s suffering, but our own. We can feel this, the heartburn that follows a meal of labeling a person, claiming to know them, or to know how they must be feeling in any given moment based on causes and conditions. If a person is in mourning, we assume that in every moment they are in misery. When in fact every moment, every second, has a vast array of fleeting emotions and thoughts. When a person has a new grandchild, we assume that in every moment they are thrilled, euphoric, over the top deliriously happy. And even though these assumptions are not totally incorrect in both cases, they are not allowing for the person to be fully present with the actual feelings that arise.

Perhaps the person in mourning just enjoyed a lovely conversation with an old friend or just took a walk in nature, and in fact was not in that moment caught up in a sense of loss. Perhaps the grandmother had just received news that a friend’s husband had died, had just discovered that her credit card had been used on a spending spree in a foreign country, or was worried about another family member’s health. So even though she is totally over the top thrilled beyond belief at the gift of this new life, it is not for any one else to name or claim to know how she is feeling right now.

We have all experienced this sense of disconnect when someone says, “You must be so…fill in the blank: thrilled, devastated, heartbroken.” And yet our need to label and pigeon hole is very strong, so we find ourselves doing this as well.

When we thrust this pre-determined appropriate emotional response to a situation on those around us, we give the other person the clear message that that is how they should be feeling, leaving them no room to say how they really are feeling. Then they may have a sense of failure or shame of somehow not living up to expectations of others because the named emotion is not the predominate one in this moment.

This is just something we say. It’s the accepted expression of love and concern in our culture. So when we recognize it we don’t have to make ourselves wrong. We can just acknowledge that it’s a product of this need to label, to known, to make connections, to organize the untidiness of life into some semblance of order.

But if we truly want to end suffering for ourselves and others, we can look at it from the standpoint of Right Speech. And what are the three guidelines to determining right speech? The first is “Is it true?” How does this assumption of a particular emotion or this assignment of a particular trait hold up under the light of the truth test? Not very well, we have to admit. Because the truth is that we don’t know. We can’t know how a person is feeling about any given situation. Bringing our assumption into it is not truth, it’s just assumption. Often the truth is that we don’t know. But how often do we believe that? Not often enough!

The second guideline is “Is it useful?” Not really! If it makes the person get caught up in comparing mind instead of being able to stay present with their own experience, that’s not useful at all. In fact, it’s obstructive, veering them off their present course into a quagmire of confusion and emotional discord.

Is it timely? No. Since in every second a person has a panoply of emotions, hitting the mark on naming just one is more chancy than roulette.

So must we always be watching what we say? While awareness of what we say is useful, watching it as if on a fault-finding mission will simply create suffering. Instead, we give ourselves the gift of slowing down, being as much in this moment as possible, and allowing our natural curiosity, compassion and love to guide us. The words that arise out of that state are less likely to be habitual, more likely to be in tune with whatever is going on.

In this state we have less urgency to label and file our experience, feel less rushed to get on to the next exciting thing. Unrushed, we settle down and sink into the experience itself, without the need to label or draw conclusions. We can relax into not knowing, and not needing to know. We can simply be present.

This is just one example of how this labeling process goes on way beyond the realm of report cards and early defining of characteristics. We are constantly providing each other with feedback. But is this feedback accurate? Each of our perceptions are distorted by our own associations and interpretations, our own misperceptions based on feedback we have received from a whole league of equally unreliable sources. What is received may have some truth in it but is not a clear reflection.

This labeling process is like being trapped in a fun house with hundreds of wavy mirrors giving us faulty information about who we are. So the question is not which mirror is correct, or what is the cumulative adjusted equation of all this provided information. The question is: which way out of the funhouse?

Meditation provides a door out of the fun house. By coming into awareness of physical sensation, we access this present moment. In full awareness of this present moment, things can get very simple. Very clear. A spaciousness arises that makes room for the tangle of distortions to be seen, known, examined and perhaps eventually released.

When we talk about No Self, (a concept that this class came upon in studying the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson while I was away and has asked for clarification) we are talking about letting go of our attachments to the labels we have been given in our lives. Last year I read to you something I wrote in 1995 called The Dance of the Seven Veils. Since you have been meditating for so much longer now, I will read it again, to see if it answers any questions about this concept of No Self.

The Dance of the Seven Veils
An exercise in letting go

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements, your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. The title you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the guilt you bear, the pain you have suffered. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationships with others. Your roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, employee, employer, citizen. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs. Your religion, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you. Let them go.

The fifth veil is the you that is defined by your physical, emotional and psychological traits. These are what you were born with: your gender, your race, the fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.
Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your body’s very existence. It is your perception of your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.
Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind. It is the you that maintains resistance, through fear, in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are One. One with all that is, a manifest expression of the joy of oneness, undefined thus unconfined, free, expansive, beyond the beyond. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment.

Now as you dress in your veils, lovingly drape yourself with these manifest expressions of self, full of richness, full of clues. But never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic you, merged with the all that is, with God beyond personification, you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

You’ll notice that we remove the veils and then we don them again. After seeing the truth that we are not the veils, we can wear them more lightly. Instead of a constricting straight jacket, these labels weave together to make a filmy gown that gives us freedom to dance playfully. We can don the labels with which the world defines us and know that this is just part of the experience of living this existence, but it is not the be all end all of who we are. Who we are is both much more complex and more simple than all these labels would have us believe. Who we are is not how we measure up in possessions or accomplishments or strengths or interests. Who we are is not attached to our stuff, our relationships, our beliefs or our preferences, but our moment by moment experiencing of this gift of consciousness and the spaciousness of not knowing. We can relax and dance in the mystery.

We don’t know much of anything and, as we discussed last week, that is a very liberating acknowledgment. Our brains are busy trying to assess and assimilate information from current conditions and past experience, trying to find a match, so we can plaster a label on it and file it away, because without an efficient filing system, we get easily overwhelmed.

But maybe not all information has to be assimilated and assigned a file drawer. Maybe we can just let ourselves float a bit in the moment and allow our curiosity to run free and our file clerk to take a much needed vacation on a white beach with balmy breezes.

This is the gift of meditation: A step back from the fray of needing to get caught up in the thick of the sniffing, checking and labeling. To just be open to what is.

Through meditation we relax into the mystery a little more, and become more fluent in the language of the I Don’t Know mind. It is the most beautiful language of all, for allowing what is to retain its mystery is a great gift. Allowing ourselves and others to simply exist without labels or expectation grants a certain gracious gratitude for life as it is, however it is – a mysterious gift we are continuously unwrapping in no hurry to end the experience.

Eightfold Path: All Speech, No Action?

As we move from discussing Right Speech to discussing Right Action, let’s pause at the conjunction of the two. Where in our lives are we talking about something but not doing anything about it? Perhaps we have strong opinions about something that we are only to happy to voice, but we don’t act upon them. We don’t use whatever skills we have to bring about the change we see as necessary.

Or perhaps we talk a lot about what we plan to do, putting words to our fantasies, but after a while people realize that they are only that, just fantasies, not plans that we will actually fulfill.

When we are paralyzed, unable to act, yet continually complain about the way things are or fantasize about the way we want them to be, we are ineffectual, inauthentic, and let’s face it, annoying. We cause suffering to ourselves and to those who must listen to our continual harangue. Our expressions of dissatisfaction have become a habit that we may not even be aware of. They become black holes that suck out our energy and leave us feeling powerless. People don’t like to be around us because they don’t want to be sucked into the black hole.

Perhaps our harangue is fueled by what we hear on the radio. Since what the speaker says resonates with some fear-rooted anger within us, we are ready to believe what we hear, and we may repeat it, spreading the fear with a sense of authority that is based on hearsay. The people we draw to us are others who are rooted in fear, who resonate with the despair and anger of our words, and are fueled by it. Then we wonder why we are surrounded with such angry challenging friends.

Without questioning what we hear, without making any effort to confirm it with other sources, we mindlessly spew out this information like gossip to pepper a conversation, instead of exploring how, if this is a real concern, we can be effective agents of change. This is a kind of purgatory of the mind where suffering is endless.

But before we rush out to ‘walk the walk’ of our talk, we need to be sure our planned actions will be skillful. For this we can do a little self-exploration. We bring our full consciousness to our judgments and beliefs. We question them: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is this statement aligned with my deepest wisdom and my deepest intention? Is it coming from a whole hearted love or is it rooted in divisive fear? If it is indeed aligned and loving, is this concern one I am ready and willing to work to remedy? If so, can I use my creative energy to find skillful means to be useful? For example, is there an existing organization working on this issue where I can volunteer or at the very least send funds? If it is a fantasy for myself, can I put together a detailed step by step plan of action? And if not can I employ the skills of someone trained in doing so to help me?

If I can’t honestly say I will work toward remedying this situation, can I compassionately let go of my habitual commenting on it? Can I open to the possibility of perceived imperfection being an integral part of this life?

The pursuit of perfection is just one more allure of Mara, trying to keep us from awakening. Seduced by the pursuit, we feel we can’t really live until everything is ‘just right.’ We are holding out for a certain level of satisfaction when all aspects of our lives or the world are perfectly aligned with our personal preferences or our greater global vision. But nothing can ever be just right, it can only be as it is. True awakening happens in this moment, seeing the integral nature of existence, seeing through the drama, the violence, the pain, the boredom, and recognizing the infinite beauty that permeates it all – the patterns, the cycles, the seasons.

The answers that arise out of a spacious, calm honest exploration will provide either acceptance of the way things are or a means to be an effective agent for change. Either way, we have skillfully alleviated some suffering in ourselves and those around us.

Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Part Two

Since every situation is different, we may feel that coming up with Right Speech is near impossible. We need to think on our feet. We don’t have time to ponder what would be the most perfect skillful words to say.

If we are rooted in Right View and Right Intention, then pausing briefly to take a breath and bring our awareness fully in the present moment, is sufficient to assure us that the words we speak will be as skillful, heartfelt and timely as possible.

But we are human and we misspeak at times. Right Speech will not spout forth from our mouths just because we’ve heard a dharma talk and agree with the concepts in principal. Buddhist practice is an ongoing experiential exercise in learning how to access our deepest understanding.

All of the aspects of the Eightfold Path are life-long practices of awareness. Expecting that suddenly, having heard about Right Speech, we will know the perfect words for every situation is just one more way to cause ourselves suffering. But as we develop greater awareness through our practice, we may begin to notice our words. And this noticing is a great leap toward Right Speech.

We may also notice the variety of causes and conditions that can affect our speech. If we find ourselves babbling, we can notice if we are nervous, excited or if we are experiencing any biological fluctuations, energetic or hormonal, that may be influencing our speech patterns. As we notice, we can focus on our body sensations including the breath. This focus on sensation will help us to be fully present in the moment. Skillful speech might be giving ourselves a rest from speaking all together by asking the other person(s) a question, and then practicing being present as we really listen to their answer.

For most of us this is a new and challenging activity. No one has yet invented a mechanical filter to attach to our throats to assure Right Speech. Fortunately we do have some tools to work with: We have our intention to meditate regularly. We have our intention to bring our attention to the present moment every time we notice that our minds are stuck in the past or the future. And we have our intention to be as kind as we are able to be to ourselves and others.

If we practice honoring our intention, we can trust that our minds will become more spacious and peaceful over time. Then our speech will attune to this state, and be more rooted in the truth of our experience, more anchored in the present moment, and more filled with our growing sense of caring and compassion.

Of course, we are so used to instant gratification of our desires – if only we could charge enlightenment on a credit card! – that we may become frustrated when our minds keep falling into old habits of seeing and thinking. At the moment that we notice we have the opportunity to bring ourselves back to the present moment where expectation and disappointment find it difficult to take root, for they thrive on leaning toward the future and dwelling in the past. We’ve all had the painful experience of saying or hearing words dredged up from disappointment or aligned with expectation. So just this intention to return to the present moment will make us more skillful speakers.

More tools at our disposal are skillful questions with which we can explore our words. Choose any of the following questions that are resonant for you, or create your own:

Are my words reactive or responsive?
(Reactive words often feels defensive, self-protective, justifying our position. Responsive words are spoken from a deeper place and let the person know we have heard them.)

Do my words lean toward connection or separation? Do my words lean toward inclusion or exclusion?

Do I feel tension in my body when I say these words? (If so, what is causing this tension? What am I afraid of?)

Am I speaking from the present moment? (Or am I speaking from past disappointment or future expectation?)

Do I have lingering misgivings about my words? (If so, explore to see if the words you are concerned about were true, useful and timely. Accept this valuable lesson, bring this new awareness to any future conversations, and let this memory go.)

Is what I am saying in harmony with my core values?

Are my words sabotaging me into inaction? Am I saying I can’t do something, I’d like to do something, I want to do something, or I’m trying to do something, instead accessing our awareness of ourselves as connected, expansive, expressions of all that is, and going forth and doing it?

What do I hope to achieve by saying this?

When I’m telling my story, am I using my words to show off or to share?

Do I see the person I am addressing as ‘other’ or even as ‘enemy’? (From this dualistic view, real deep sharing is impossible.)

Questions help to create spaciousness because by questioning our assumptions about the way things are, we free our minds to look at things anew. Answers are all around us, if only we have the right questions with which to explore ourselves and the world.