If you are interested in exploring the teachings of the Buddha, the good news is that his teachings are for the most part very straight forward. Much of his advice was presented in the form of lists which are unambiguous and easy to comprehend. One such list is the 10 Unwholesome Actions which are, obviously, to be avoided. Here’s the list – does anything jump out at you?
- Killing Living Beings
- Sexual Misconduct
- Sowing Discord
- Harsh Speech
- Idle Gossip
- Wrong View
Isn’t it something to contemplate, that 4 out of the 10 are to do with the way we communicate?! I had to look up the list again this afternoon to remind myself that, as lately I’ve been aware that the ways I communicate have sometimes left me feeling unsettled.
One of the joys of working here at Aro Hā is being part of a large team, many of whom also live here in community. The retreat centre is spread across 8 sub-alpine hectares, and staff work in shifts starting before 7am and ending after 10pm. So, there is a lot of handing over information, passing on messages, and the official (and unofficial) debriefing that happens when we are both on and off shift, at home, and out socialising.
This last week or so, I’ve begun to pay more attention to my speech (and emails, and facebook messages). I’m thinking that if I could bring better awareness to my speech it would result in many more mindful moments throughout the day, simply because I spend so much of the day communicating in one way shape or form. I’ve already noticed the uncomfortable feeling when I’ve said something that’s untrue or unkind, and retrospectively it’s not too hard to feel into the motivation behind much of my speech – it feels like this could be an interesting place to practise.
Here’s several areas where I could do better!
1) The times when I’ve added fuel to a fire when a colleague has been grumbling about another person’s behaviour or attitude (sowing discord, or divisive speech) and I’ve added my two penny’s worth because I agree with the complaint and/or I want that person to like me. In other words, part of me thinks that we are forming and strengthening a bond by being complicit in gossip. Momentarily, it feels good but isn’t this shaky foundations for any relationship?
2) I am trying to pause and remember that there are multiple viewpoints to every single situation or question. In the kitchen I can find this especially challenging. When we are discussing a meal or recipe, and the team has differing views on the meal we have just created, or the idea of a new one, I need to be confident in my own judgement and experience but still remember that this is such a subjective field. Am I simply attached to my own viewpoint? Can I try and understand why another chef has a different opinion? The 17th century Zen Master Bankei said ‘don’t side with yourself!” which is one end of the spectrum…. but decisions do need to be made, and I need to take ownership of our menu. I find this tricky.
3) I REALLY try not to ever tell a lie, and have been practising this precept for so many years that when on occasion a white lie does just pop out, it feels really uncomfortable and I know immediately that I shouldn’t have said it. Sometimes the truth is embarrassing for me so I twist things, or maybe I lie to make myself look better, other times I embellish the truth to protect someone I care about, or to enhance their reputation. Mostly though when it comes to lying, what I notice is that multiple versions of the potential lie play through my mind and I listen to all the options and give them consideration, then actually the best response is simply the uncomplicated truth. Why my mind still plays the game of trying to conjure up the most believable fiction to put me in the best possible light is I suspect just old conditioning repeating itself. Jospeh Goldstein once suggested I pretend that every thought that arises in my mind is actually coming from the person next to me. This is a hilarious and powerful practise – I can disassociate from my own thoughts, and smile at their absurdity.
4) In recent weeks there has only been one time that I found myself on the receiving end of some harsh speech. When I think back to that afternoon, what I remember is being very tuned in to the incredible suffering that the other person was experiencing. It seemed that she was lashing out due to an old wound that I had unwittingly managed to poke, and she was triggered out of all usual proportions. It’s likely that if she had been simply very angry, I wouldn’t have had the composure to respond with anything other than anger myself. I know I don’t handle anger well at all. But in this instance she seemed mainly very upset, and to see her suffering actually made my heart open, and I truly wanted to try and understand her point of view. Later I reflected on this, and thought it was a good example of how it’s actually only the hurt people who hurt people – and the only antidote to that is kindness and compassion. I would do well to remember that in future.
5) There’s one more category of unskillful speech that pops out. This is basically some kind of totally unnecessary and useless statement, which amounts to nothing more than me wanting to declare ‘here I am!’ because I haven’t said anything for a while. This kind of idle chatter is called sampapalapa in the ancient Pali – I love that word, it’s onomatopoeia; blah blah blah!
Of course, in our Kiwi social society some amount of small talk and blah blah is not only normal, but it can break the ice, take the pressure off, and provide some often much needed light heartedness and fun. As Joseph also says, don’t be absolutest about all this. Just play with it, pay attention, and always be kind.