right speech

The Fourth Noble Truth — the Eightfold Path

Introduction

The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Buddha’s Noble Truths, and he described it as the way that leads to the uprooting of the causes of suffering, and thus to increasingly stable and profound peacefulness, wisdom, virtue, and happiness.

Each of the eight elements of this Path is described by a word that is typically translated as “right” or “wise.” Both meanings are useful to reflect upon regarding your own suffering and your yearning for its end. Each element of the Path is right, in the sense of being correct, moral, and a pointed instruction about how to live. Each element is also wise, in the sense of resulting from deep understanding and leading to good results. In keeping with the weight of tradition and the value of the sharp edge of the word, “right,” that’s what is used in this summary.

  1. The Noble Truth of Suffering
  2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering
  3. The Noble Truth of the End of Suffering
  4. The Noble Truth of the Eightfold Path

While the eight elements of the Path are presented here in their traditional sequence, they are not something you develop in order. They are all important, all the time. Yet some may become more prominent aspects of your practice at one time or another.

The heart of each element of the Path is non-clinging, the essence of the Third Noble Truth: the cause of the end of suffering.

[Note: Quotations are shown in italics, and in some cases have been edited for brevity, clarity, including female pronouns, etc. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from the Buddha are from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology, In the Buddha’s Words, shown as BW with page number(s).]

1. Right View

Introduction

Right View entails a deep, embodied understanding of the truth of things — in particular, the truth of the three topics discussed just below.

One who has fully developed right view is considered a “stream-enterer,” one who is certain of ultimate liberation.”

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha: “And what, monks, is right view? Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering.”

Please see the article on “The Four Noble Truths” in the Buddhist Wisdom section of this webpage.

The Unwholesome and the Wholesome

Right view also entails understanding what is unwholesome and avoiding it, and understanding what is wholesome and doing it.

What did the Buddha say were the causes of the unwholesome? They are any and all forms of greed, hatred, delusion, and the belief in a separate self.

What did the Buddha say were the causes of the wholesome? They are equanimity and renunciation, compassion and lovingkindness, wisdom, and releasing the “conceit” of self.

You might like to consider the causes of the wholesome and unwholesome as they occur in your own mind and life. For example, you could take a day or a week and investigate one cause in particular, such as all the manifestations of greed in your mind – or alternately, all the manifestations of compassion.

The Chain of Dependent Origination

Last, right view means understanding what the Buddha called “the chain of dependent origination.”

In its essence, this means simply understanding that everything is the result of causes, a restatement of the law of karma. In personal terms, this means that if you foster certain causes in your life, good things will result for you and others; on the other hand, if you foster other causes, bad things will result. Wisdom is knowing which is which!

In the formal, detailed statement of the chain of dependent origination, the Buddha gave a complex, circular, intertwining, and sometimes mind-boggling description of why things are the way they are. This description can be daunting at first glance. Take your time with it, and learn more about what the specific terms mean that the Buddha uses. Its depth and power will become clearer for you, and probably very useful. This is the chain, with thirteen links:

  • “Taints” (sensual desire, ignorance, and sheer existence) lead to:
  • Ignorance (not realizing the Four Noble Truths; presuming a separate self), leading to:
  • “Volitional formations” (wholesome and unwholesome intentions expressed through the body, speech, or mind), leading to:
  • Consciousness (linked to the five bodily senses and the mind), leading to:
  • “Name-and-form” (the cognitive and physical aspects of individual existence), leading to:
  • The six sense bases (sight, touch, mind, etc.), leading to:
  • Contact (the meeting of three things: a sense organ, an object appropriate to that organ, and the consciousness associated with that organ; with the five senses and the mind, there are six types of contact), leading to:
  • Feeling (meaning not emotion, which is a “mental formation,” but the tone of an experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral), leading to:
  • Craving (for forms, for mental phenomena, etc.), leading to:
  • Clinging (to sensual pleasures [including avoiding pain], to views, to rites and rituals, and a sense of separate self), leading to:
  • Existence (in one of the realms of Buddhist cosmology, ranging from hells to heavens), leading to:
  • Birth (through reincarnation, in one of those realms of existence), leading to:
  • Aging and death, and then carrying karmic tendencies which are:
  • Taints . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There are repetitions and feedback loops within the chain of dependent origination. That means you can change your fate at many “links” within the chain. In particular:

  • Reducing ignorance sends huge positive ripples through the whole system.
  • If you can have equanimity toward your feeling reaction – toward whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – you can interrupt the tendency toward craving, clinging, etc.

2. Right Intention

Introduction

This is sometimes translated as “right resolve,” which conveys the determination, firmness of aim, heartfelt conviction, and persistence that are central to right intention.

Intention of Harmlessness

This is a broad aim of not causing pain, loss, or destruction to any living thing. At a minimum, this is a sweeping resolution to avoid any whit of harm to another human being. The implications are far-reaching, since most of us participate daily in activities whose requirements or ripples may involve harm to others (e.g., use of fossil fuels that warms the planet, purchasing goods manufactured in oppressive conditions). Further, in American culture there is a strong tradition of rugged individualism in which as long as you are not egregiously forceful or deceitful, “let the buyer beware” on the other side of daily transactions; but if your aim is preventing any harm, then the other person’s free consent does not remove your responsibility.

Taking it a step further, to many, harmlessness means not killing bothersome insects, rodents, etc. Even as you feel the mosquito sticking its needle into your neck. And to many, harmlessness means eating a vegetarian diet (and perhaps forgoing milk products, since cows need to have calves to keep their milk production flowing, and half of those calves are male, who will eventually be slaughtered for food).

Nonetheless, we need to realize that there is no way to avoid all harms to other beings that flow inexorably through our life. If we are to eat, we must kill plants, and billions of bacteria die each day as we pass wastes out of our bodies. If we get hired for a job, that means another person will not be.

But what we can do is to have a sincere aspiration toward harmlessness, and to reduce our harms to an absolute minimum. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Intention of Non-ill Will

Here we give up angry, punishing reactions toward others, animals, plants, and things. If such attitudes arise, we resolve not to feed them, and to cut them off as fast as we can.

Please see the article on “Ill Will to Good Will” in the Buddhist Wisdom section of this webpage: //www.wisebrain.org/articles.html.

Intention of Renunciation

Renunciation is founded on a disenchantment with the world and with experience, based on right view. You see through all the possibilities of experience: you see their ephemeral, insubstantial, empty qualities, no matter how alluring or seemingly gratifying. You see the suffering embedded in the experience, the “trap,” as the Buddha put it. And you see the happiness, peace, and love available in not chasing after pleasure or resisting pain.

Based on this clear seeing, you align yourself with the wisdom perspective and with the innate, prior, always already existing wakeful, pure, peaceful, and radiant awareness within yourself. In so doing, you renounce worldly things and worldly pleasures. If they pass through your awareness – a sunset, a child’s smile, chocolate pudding, Beethoven’s 9th – fine; just don’t cling to them as they disappear as all experiences do.

Renunciation is NOT asceticism, or privation for privation’s sake. It is a joyous union with the path of happiness that happens to include a relinquishing, casting off, abandoning, walking away from any seeking at all of worldly gratifications.

At its heart, renunciation is simple: we just let go.

“If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.” — Ajahn Chah

3. Right Speech

Abstinence from False Speech

Do not knowingly say what is not true. But note that this does not mean you have to tell people everything. The Buddha said that whatever we say should pass three tests at a minimum, and often a fourth: Is it true? Is it useful? Is it timely? (And the fourth: Is it welcome?)

Abstinence from Malicious Speech

This links to the intention of non-ill will. Malice has to do with intention, but those intentions are often unconscious or fleeting. If you are about to say something but you’re getting a funny feeling, you probably shouldn’t say it.

Abstinence from Harsh Speech

“Harsh” is a matter of both content and tone. Sometimes the best course is to say something that is true, useful, and timely – even if not welcome – and the art is to say it in a clean way. Imagine a video camera is recording you and will be played back later; act in such a way that you will not squirm but will feel at peace with what you see. Or try out what you might say (or write) with others and get their feedback about harshness, including some that might just be leaking through in spite of your filters.

Abstinence from Idle Chatter

This probably originated as an admonition to monks and nuns, but it is also worth considering in householder life. How much of the time are we jabbering away to no good purpose – not even our own well-being – wasting time and energy, consuming the attention of others, avoiding what’s really important?

Extending these Standards to Thought

Much thought is internal speech: the verbal processes of the mind. Consider abstaining from false, malicious, harsh, or idle thinking!

4. Right Action

Introduction

These are restatements of three of the five basic precepts.

Abstinence from the Destruction of Life

At a minimum, this means not killing human beings through murder or through war. For example, unlike other major religions, there has never been a war in the name of the Buddha.

It is also often taken to mean (especially for monks and nuns) not eating meat from an animal that was killed specifically to feed you; on the other hand, if (hypothetically) a chicken were killed for a family’s dinner and some meat was leftover and placed in a nun’s begging bowl, she could eat it.

As with the intention of non-harming, the literal meaning of the abstinence from the destruction of life has far-reaching implications. Do you never eat vegetables that have been raised with pesticides? How about vegetables grown organically with pesticide control via the introduction of bugs that eat (and kill) pests? How about vegetables with no pest control at all but harvested by people who can’t help but crush tiny insects as they walk about the fields wearing leather shoes? Since absolute harmlessness is impossible, the question of balance is a serious one.

Abstinence from Taking What is Not Given

Beyond the obvious action of not stealing, it’s interesting to reflect on broader notions of not taking what is not freely offered. What about glancing at a letter sitting out on another person’s desk; were its contents freely offered to you? Or looking at the photo of an actress sunbathing snapped by a paparazzi; did she offer you her image voluntarily? There’s $10 lying on the sidewalk: do you pick it up?

Abstinence from Sexual Misconduct

Obviously, this means not engaging in infidelity, rape, molestation, or incest; for monks and nuns it goes farther and includes touch, being alone with a member of the opposite sex, etc.

But there are also realms of sexuality that involve shades of gray. For example, when is sexual exploitation involved in seduction or even flirting? We often know in our bones if we are starting to cross a line in which we are using another person for our own purposes, especially if there is any element of deception – but sometimes it’s not so clear. How about cajoling or pressuring our mates for sex when they’d rather go to sleep; is that misconduct?

Or consider viewing pornography. If you believe the people in the images are being exploited in some way – even if their participation is ostensibly voluntary – are you engaging in sexual misconduct if you participate in their exploitation by buying the magazine or simply clicking onto the website?

Practice is about wrestling with these questions mindfully, with a skeptical eye on the element of clinging, not robotically adhering to some fixed rule. If there is any whiff of clinging, grasping, or aversion in the action, it’s probably best avoided – and this applies to each of the elements of the Eightfold Path.

5. Right Livelihood

Introduction

Some of the Buddha’s general instructions on householder life are included here, particularly as they pertain to making a living or accumulating wealth. Obviously, many of the considerations of right livelihood and family life would not apply to monks or nuns, who are “homeless,” celibate, do not handle money or own property, and never ask for payment of any kind.

Avoiding Wrong Livelihood

The Buddha talked about many of the central themes of his teaching in terms of their negation, such as impermanence, not-self, and non-clinging. He did the same in his explicit description of what constitutes right livelihood:

“These five trades should not be taken up: trading in weapons, living beings, meat, intoxicants, poisons.” [BW, 126]

The Sources of Welfare and Happiness in the Present Life

Additionally, the Buddha offered guidance for how a householder should engage the world that have clear implications for right livelihood.

“Four things lead to the welfare and happiness of a family man or woman:

  • The accomplishment of persistent effort – Whatever may be the means by which a person earns a living, he or she is skillful and diligent.
  • The accomplishment of protection – The person sets up protection and guard over the wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his or her arms, earned by the sweat of his or her brow, righteous wealth righteously gained.
  • Good friendship – Wherever one dwells, one associates with people who are of mature virtue and accomplished in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom, and converses with and emulates them.
  • Balanced living – A person knows his or her income and expenditures and leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, so that income exceeds expenditures rather than the reverse. Just as a goldsmith or his apprentice, holding a up a scale, knows, ‘By so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up,’ so a family man or woman leads a balanced life.” [BW, 124-125]

“Four other things also lead to a family man’s or woman’s welfare and happiness in the present life: accomplishment in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom:

  • Accomplishment in faith – The person places faith in the enlightenment of the Buddha
  • Accomplishment in moral discipline – The person keeps the five basic precepts (no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false or harmful speech, or intoxicants leading to carelessness)
  • Accomplishment in generosity – The person dwells at home with a mind devoid of the stain of stinginess, freely generous, open-handed, delighted in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing.
  • Accomplishment in wisdom – The person possesses the wisdom that sees into the arising and passing away of phenomena, that is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of suffering.” [BW, 125-126]

Note the framing of faith, morality, etc. as accomplishments, as character traits in which one can become increasingly effective, skillful, and masterful. This reflects the fundamental theme in Buddhism of a progressive process of growing skillfulness. In other words, we all have the opportunity for spiritual realization – even of the highest sort – and we are the ones who are responsible for making use of that opportunity.

The Proper Use of Wealth

“With wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his or her arms, earned by the sweat of his or her brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, the noble disciple undertakes four worthy deeds:

  • He /makes himself happy and pleased and properly maintains himself in happiness, and he does the same for his parents, wife and children, workers and servants, and friends and colleagues.
  • He makes provisions against the losses that might arise on account of fire and floods, kings and bandits and unloved heirs; he makes himself secure against them.
  • He makes the five kinds of offerings: to relatives, guests, ancestors, the king, and the devas [religious spirits].
  • He establishes a lofty offering of alms to those ascetics and Brahmins [noble beings] who refrain from vanity and negligence, who are settled in patience and gentleness, who are devoted to taming themselves, to calming themselves, and to attaining Nibbana – an offering that is heavenly, resulting in happiness, conducive to heaven.

For anyone whose wealth is expended on other things apart from these four worthy deeds, that wealth is said to have to waste, to have been squandered and used frivolously. But for anyone whose wealth is expended on these four worthy deeds, that wealth is said to have gone to good use, to have been fruitfully applied and used for a worthy cause.” [BW 126-127 ]

Avoiding the Dissipation of Wealth

“Wealth has four sources of dissipation: womanizing, drunkenness, gambling, and evil friendship.” [BW 125 ]

The Happiness of a Householder

“There are four kinds of happiness which may be achieved by a layperson who enjoys sensual pleasures, depending on time and occasion:

  • The happiness of possession – When a person thinks, ‘I possess wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his or her arms, earned by the sweat of his or her brow, righteous wealth righteously gained,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.
  • The happiness of enjoyment – When a person thinks, ‘I enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.
  • The happiness of freedom from debt – When a person thinks, ‘I am not indebted to anyone to any degree, whether small or great,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.
  • The happiness of blamelessness – When a person thinks, ‘I am endowed with blameless conduct of body, speech, and mind,’ he or she experiences happiness or joy.” [BW 127-128]

How to Cultivate Right Livelihood

  • Mindfulness of the body – By remaining aware of the body, you can stay present with the people and the activities involved in your work.
  • Not clinging to self – By relaxing attachment to “me and mine,” by not getting identified with views, by seeing oneself and others as simply parts of one whole thing, then one will be more likely to be caring and moral in one’s work.
  • Avoiding harms to oneself and others – We typically focus on avoiding harms that have to do with outcomes, with the results of our work, and that is certainly good. Additionally, consider avoiding the harms that have to do with the process or manner of our work, such as how we represent ourselves in the world, or do business, or speak with customers or colleagues.
  • Tend to the mental dimension – Note the frequent reference to blameless conduct of mind. It’s relatively easy to act well in one’s speech and outward behavior. But being blameless in thought or inner feeling: hmm, that is a much greater challenge – yet having a blameless mind will probably bring much greater benefit to you and others than blameless speech or behavior.
  • Focus on the fundamental causes (and that’s all anyone can really do): “Buddhism teaches us to make earnest efforts in the things we do, but our actions should not be mixed with desire. They should be performed with the aim of letting go and realizing nonattachment. We do what we need to do, but with letting go. We do our work according to our responsibilities [rather than because of a wish to get something]. If we act like this, we can be at ease. . . . It’s a matter of making causes. If the causes are good, the result is bound to be good. If we think like this, there will be lightness of mind. This is called right livelihood.” Ajahn Chah, Being Dharma, pps. 118-119.

6. Right Effort

Introduction

Right Effort is one of the three elements of the Path that focus particularly on your internal states of being (the others are Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration).

Preventing and Abandoning the Negative, Cultivating and Maintaining the Positive

“And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, a person generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he or she makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his or her mind, and strives. He or she generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states . . . He or she generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states . . . . He or she generates desire for the continuation of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecline, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development; he or she makes an effort arouses energy, applies his or her mind, and strives. This is called right effort.” [BW, 239]

Unwholesome States

At root, these are conditions of greed, hatred, and delusion — even in their subtlest forms. Such states also encompass sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and doubt (from the Five Hindrances), and wrong view (e.g., belief in a self). These are considered “evil” because they lead to bad results for oneself and others.

Wholesome States

These include non-greed, non-hatred, etc., as well as more affirmatively described conditions of generosity, diligence, insight, wisdom, equanimity, lovingkindness, concentration, bliss, and joy.

Cultivating Your Garden

Right Effort is an ongoing, conscious, and wholehearted application of energy and attention to cultivating the garden of your mind and heart. But what helps you – or could help you – keep weeding and pruning, planting and fertilizing, day after day after day? Each person has their own answers, but traditionally the Buddha offered three great resources (sometimes called refuges) to help you keep at the path of Awakening:

  • The Buddha – Both as a wise teacher you can have general confidence in and as a symbol of the natural wisdom and goodness we all have at the core of our being
  • The Dharma – Both the teachings of Buddhism, evaluated by each person for themselves, and ultimately, reality itself with all of its mysteries
  • The Sangha – Both the vertical dimension of our teachers and the horizontal dimension of fellow practitioners gathered together on the path

7. Right Mindfulness

Introduction

Right Mindfulness is one of the three elements of the Path that focus particularly on your internal states of being (the others are Right Effort and Right Concentration).

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is simply a continuous, non-judgmental, accepting awareness of your inner and outer world – especially your inner one: the flow of experience. It is a very grounded awareness, not some kind of lofty mystical state.

Why Be Mindful?

Mindfulness feels good in its own right: relaxed, alert, and peaceful. Additionally, studies have shown that it lowers stress, makes discomfort and pain more bearable, reduces depression, and increases self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Mindfulness is required for the “observing ego” everyone needs for healthy functioning. It detaches you from reactions to see them with gentle clarity and perspective, helping you change old patterns and respond more skillfully. The mindful acceptance of a difficult experience, opening to it without resistance, often allows it to move on. Mindfulness brings you into the present, the only place you can ever be truly happy and free. All this is reason enough to cultivate this quality in our lives.

Further, the Buddha described mindfulness, when fully developed, as the direct path to enlightenment and the end of suffering:

“This is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentations, for the passing away of pain and dejection, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana – namely, the four establishments of mindfulness.

“What are the four? A person dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, and mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world. He or she dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having subdued longing and dejection in regard to the world.” [In the Buddha’s Words., p. 281]

“Contemplating body in the body” (or feelings in feelings, etc.) means being simply aware of immediate, experiential phenomena as it is without conceptualization or commentary. Just the sensations of the rising breath in the belly. Just the subtle feeling of a sound being mildly unpleasant. Just the sense of consciousness being contracted or spacious. Just a single thought emerging and then disappearing. Just this moment. Just this.

This pure awareness – which becomes increasingly absorbed by its objects with growing concentration, to the point that there is vanishingly little difference between the observer and the observed (see the handout on Right Concentration) – is a kind of spotlight illuminating the nature of mind and reality in more and more breathtaking detail. This brings insight into the causes of suffering, and into the causes leading to the end of suffering. (In Pali – the language in which the teachings of the Buddha were first written down – the word for insight is “vipassana.”)

Mindfulness is the counter to our habitual state of mind, which is beautifully characterized in this story: A renowned Thai meditation master was once asked what his take on the world was. His concise summary was, “Lost in thought.”

Imagine being in a lovely and peaceful meadow, with a train full of thoughts and feelings and desires rolling by in the distance . . . Normally, as this train approaches we tend to become fascinated, drawn in some significant way, and we hop on board and get carried away . . . lost in thought.

On the other hand, mindfulness allows you to see the train coming but have the presence of mind . . . to stay in the meadow! And whenever you get swept along by the train, as soon as you notice that, whoosh, you return immediately to the peaceful meadow, to the refuge of mindfulness.

Where Is Mindfulness to Be Established?

The Buddha named four “establishments, “foundations,” or “frames of reference” of mindfulness (depending on how the original term is translated):

  • Body, both as an objective entity and as a subjective experience of sensations, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes
  • “Feelings” which mean not emotions but the tones of pleasant or unpleasant or neutral that come with every experience
  • “Mind,” which means consciousness and states of consciousness
  • “Phenomena,” (sometimes translated as “formations”) which means all the other contents of mind, including thoughts, emotions, desires, images, plans, inner conflicts, views, murky psychological dynamics, transference from childhood, etc.

Mindfulness in Meditation

Meditation is the preeminent opportunity to practice and to cultivate mindfulness. This is a progressive process in which ” . . . the mind is steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated,” leading to liberating insight.

Buddhism is a 2500 year tradition of dedicated practitioners using skillful means to achieve these deepening states of awareness. And recently, research on the brain has both corroborated and enriched that tradition with findings that have practical implications for how to have meditation be as effective as possible.

Some of these findings are specific to steadying the mind . . . or to quieting it . . . or to bringing it to singleness . . . or to concentrating it. Others are more general, and these are presented in the rest of this article. Think of these as practical tools that you can pick and choose among to find whatever might be helpful.

Continuity of Mindfulness

But mindfulness is not reserved just for some special period of meditation in the day, but is to become as continuous as possible, whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down . . . or doing acts of the body, speech, or mind . . . . or answering the telephone, responding to emails, arguing with a family member, doing the crossword, eating, watching the news on TV, and so on.

Consider this story from the book, Knee Deep in Grace (p. 83), about Dipa Ma, the great Indian teacher – and housewife and grandmother:

“Dipa Ma was a living example of how to live in this world, of how practice and the mundane activities of our day-to-day existence can be made one. She insisted that the practice be done all the time, and that we do the things we do throughout the day without making them into problems. Dipa Ma wanted to know, “How awake are you in your life? Are you just thinking about being mindful, or are you really doing it?” Dipa Ma said that even while she was talking, she was meditating. Talking, eating, working, thinking about her daughter, playing with her grandson—none of those activities hampered her practice because she did them all with mindfulness. “When I’m moving, shopping, everything, I’m always doing it with mindfulness. I know these are things I have to do, but they aren’t problems. On the other hand, I don’t spend time gossiping or visiting or doing anything which I don’t consider necessary in my life.”

For more information about ways to weave mindfulness throughout daily life, please see the article at www.WiseBrain.org/articles.html titled “Continuity of Mindfulness.”

Some of the key factors promoting mindfulness are summarized below.

Being Awake

When you can, meditate during the times when you are maximally alert within your own sleep-wake cycle. (Of course, this is irrelevant on a retreat where you are meditating 10 or more hours a day.)

Minimize drains on your wakefulness, such as lack of sleep, fatigue, illness, hormonal conditions (e.g., thyroid problems), or depression.

In sum: take care of yourself. Pay attention to physical factors, rather than trying to muscle through them or beat yourself up for not being able to overcome them.

Being Alert

Several factors increase alertness:

  • Posture – Provides internal, somatosensory feedback to the reticular formations that lead to alertness. Being upright says to the mind: “Wake up!”
  • “Brightening the mind” – Here you deliberately activate an internal sense of energizing and enlivening your mind. In physiological terms, this is probably linked to a surge of norepinephrine, which helps you feel both alert and relaxed.

This is distinct from epinephrine – adrenaline – which indeed wakes the whole body up, but also has a kind of jangly, fight-or-flight quality to it. And adrenaline decays into secondary metabolites that remain in the body for hours and have a stressful, disturbing quality to them.

Sometimes you may want to trigger an adrenaline-based surge of “darn it, focus, get here now!” in order to wake yourself up. But only in small doses, and consider the “brightening the mind” approach instead.

  • Oxygen – Oxygen is to the brain what gas is to your car. By taking several deep breaths, you increase the oxygen saturation in your blood and thus “push the pedal” with your brain.

Feeling Safe

To help us survive, the brain is naturally vigilant, routinely moving attention across the environment to look for threats. Feeling safe encourages the brain to withdraw the sentries from the battlements, so to say, and put them to work internally (e.g., keeping watch on the breath).

For example, there is the Buddha’s recurring instruction to find a place of seclusion – i.e., safety – and then sit down at the base of a tree – where he found his own enlightenment – with your back to it, protecting your most vulnerable flank. Other traditional practices help one get used to, and thus relax about, perceived threats – such as meditating on the jungle side of a well or simply being alone in the forest at night. And some practices have a welcome side effect of helping one to overcome fears, even if that is not their primary purpose (e.g., charnel ground meditations, lovingkindness meditation).

Some methods for feeling safe:

  • Diaphragm breathing
  • Relaxing the body
  • Imagery
  • Taking refuge
  • Disputing or detaching from worries or other views that make you anxious

Feeling Happy

Commonly used Pali words that refer to positive emotions are “sukha” (happiness, contentment, tranquility) and “piti” (rapture, bliss). These are also two of the five factors that cultivate deep states of concentration, including those known as the “jhanas.”

Positive feelings:

  • Have vigor and pep, and thus foster greater alertness
  • Activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces the distractions of the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic system, and brings relaxation and attention to the body
  • Increase overall resilience, so you’re less likely to be bothered by something when you meditate
  • Counteract negative emotions, which consume attention (plus feel lousy)

Feeling happy is skillful means!

Here are some ways to generate positive emotions:

  • The “soft smile” recommended by Thich Nhat Han triggers feedback loops within the emotional circuitry of the brain, activating the feelings associated with smiling.
  • Metta practice – compassion, lovingkindness, etc. – bathes you in positive emotion.
  • Remember past states of positive emotion (“taking in” them helps support this memory). Then access that bodily/emotional memory to rekindle the positive feeling.

9. Right Concentration

Introduction

Concentration is a natural ability that everyone has, and everyone can get increasingly better at it. It’s like a muscle: by exercising it, you make it stronger.

To do that, alas, we must accept “failing” over and over again. For most people, especially those new to meditation, it is difficult to stay engaged with more than a few breaths in a row – or less! – without the mind wandering off to something else.

So it’s especially important to find that middle way between being uncaring and being harsh with yourself. When your mind wanders, try not to be self-critical, but simply get back into full awareness of the next breath. It’s not what happened in the past that matters but what you do now and now and now.

Benefits of Concentration

Cultivates the will.

Trains the mind to a greater steadiness, thus aiding both sila and insight.

Overcomes the hindrances (greed/lust, aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and doubt). The deepest states of concentration known as “jhanas” or “samadhis,” eliminate the hindrances for the temporary (i.e., impermanent) duration of the state; this is one of the rewards of the jhanas/samadhis.

Breeds conviction and faith: The deeper states of concentration are not ordinary states, and when you experience them, it becomes palpably clear that the fruits of practice include increasingly stable, profound, wonderful, joyous, magnificent conditions of the heart and mind.

Factors of Concentration

  • Applying your attention – This is the deliberate focusing of attention on an object, whether a teacher’s presentation, the sensations at the upper lip, or interesting stillness between two thoughts.
  • Sustaining attention – This means staying with the object of attention. Sometimes the metaphor of rubbing is used, like two sticks rubbing together, staying in contact throughout. Sally Clough, a Spirit Rock teacher, combines applying and sustaining attention (especially applicable for the breath) into a single metaphor from ice skating: applying attention is like planting your foot, and sustaining it means gliding along; then at the end of the inhalation (for example), you plant your foot again ( = focusing on the exhalation) and then glide along the length of the exhalation, staying in contact with every part of it.
  • Rapture – A strong sense of bliss, often felt particularly in the body, often with an energizing, upwardly moving sense to it.
  • Happiness – Also a definite, unmistakable feeling, that sometimes shades into a quality of contentment or perhaps tranquility.
  • One-pointedness – This is the mind brought to singleness, in which there is a kind of unitary state in which all elements of experience are experienced as a whole; there is often a sense when this factor arises of a kind of ka-chunk, of all the pieces coming together.

These factors can vary in their intensity from sitting to sitting. In particular, the factor of rapture can be experienced over time as a bit jangly and too intense, and give way increasingly to the factor of happiness.

Try to register a clear sense of each factor, so that you know what it feels like and can find your way back to it again.

To an extent (and which usually grows with practice), you can invite, call up, or invoke each factor. Traditionally, you can say in your mind, “May rapture (or happiness, etc.) awaken (or arise, or be present).” If it comes, conditions are ripe. If it does not come, be patient and keep cultivating the causes of its arising and have faith that it will come.

Getting tense with yourself or impatient will not serve. Relaxation and happiness are the immediate causes of concentration. Striving is a form of clinging.

Access Concentration

This is a state in which the five factors are present, but you haven’t yet tipped fully into the jhanas. Applying and sustaining attention take little effort; the mind is quite quiet, with thoughts apparent as discrete entities, coming and going; the body commonly feels both light and grounded. Get to know this state well so you can readily settle into it.

The Jhanas

These are progressively deeper and more subtle states of deep meditative absorption. There are four “form” jhanas, in which there is still a clear sense of ordinary physical reality. Then there are the four “formless attainments,” which can – if the causes are ripe – culminate in Nibbana.

Descriptions vary regarding what is a jhana and what isn’t. In our experience, these are unmistakable, remarkable, non-ordinary states of being that have a self-evident persuasiveness when they come upon you.

In the Buddha’s description, which is repeated verbatim or with minor changes throughout the Pali Canon:

“And what, monks, is right concentration? Here monks, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a person enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination [i.e., applied and sustained attention] with rapture and happiness born of seclusion.

With the subsiding of thought and examination, she or she enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has happiness and rapture born of concentration.

With the fading away as well of rapture, the person dwells equanimous, and mindful and clearly comprehending, he or she experiences happiness with the body; he or she enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He or she is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’

With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, the person enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity.

This is called right concentration.”

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A day without complaining

Man placing finger over lips.

In Buddhist practice, we cultivate something called “mudita.” Mudita is most commonly translated as “sympathetic joy,” which can sound a bit odd since nowadays we think of sympathy as being concern about someone’s suffering. Being sympathetic about happiness might seem peculiar.

But in earlier days the word sympathy meant more like the current use of our word “empathy.” And in fact, you’ll often see mudita translated these days as “empathetic joy,” meaning that we feel happy when others are happy.

But I don’t think that’s what empathy is really about. In a very early meditation text, called the Vimuttimagga (Path to Liberation), we’re asked to cultivate mudita in the following way: “When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: ‘Sadhu! Sadhu! May he continue joyful for a long time!'”

Sadhu means something like “Hurray!” The crucial thing here is the link between having good qualities and — as a consequence — experiencing peace and joy.

See also:

Mudita is the third of a series of practices that begin with metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion). Kindness is wanting others to be happy, and behaving accordingly. Compassion is wanting beings to be happy, but recognizing that they’re often afflicted with suffering. Because we want beings to be happy, we therefore want them to be free of suffering, and (again) act accordingly. The “acting accordingly” thing is important. Kindness and compassion are not things that we simply feel, but that we do. They’re actions. They’re ways of relating to and interacting with the world.

Mudita recognizes that if we value beings’ happiness, and if we therefore want beings to be happy, then we must want them to have the causes of happiness.

So what are the causes of happiness? Lots of money, a beautiful/handsome partner, and a nice job, obviously. Just joking! Psychologists have put a lot of effort into studying what factors lead to happiness, and material wealth is pretty far down the list. Far more important are things like being involved in loving and supportive relationships, having a sense of meaning and purpose in life, doing things for other people, expressing gratitude, being mindful, forgiveness, and optimism. So, mudita is: valuing, appreciating, and encouraging what is positive in others, and leads them to experience peace and joy. Since mudita is appreciation, and since practicing it is joyful, I translate it as “joyful appreciation.”

Mudita is appreciation; complaining is its opposite. The Vimuttimagga says that the “non-fulfillment” of mudita is both “resentment” (internal complaining) and “derisive action” (complaining that we do out loud).

Today I’m suggesting that we become more mindful of complaining, in particular. If you focus on noticing the “out-loud” complaining you do, that’s a good start. It’ll help you to become more aware of the internal complaining—resentment.

It’s been interesting, over the last week or two, to pay more attention to my tendency to complain. I can be a bit snarky about things that frustrate me, like computer programs or mobile apps that often don’t function as advertised (I’m talking about you, Siri!). And we have a running joke in the office about the amount of noise made by the trash and recycling trucks that visit not just our building but several adjacent ones, too. But one thing I’ve realized is that I don’t complain as much as I assumed I did, which is good news!

Mostly this complaining is pretty good-humored, which actually makes it hard to know sometimes whether I’m complaining or not! Commenting that the recycling truck is particularly noisy today — is that a simple observation, or is it a complaint? I guess it depends on the tone of voice, motivation, etc. This may not be an easy practice!

In the past, trying not to complain would have been challenging in another way — I used to do so much of it! When I was younger, I complained all the time. I guess I thought it made me look smart. I remember when I was at university, my girlfriend’s best friend once gave me a ride back to their home town. Afterward she commented to my girlfriend that I kept up a constant stream of complaints about one thing or another for the entire 90 minute journey. When my girlfriend told me of this, I was mystified. Apparently, complaining was something I did so habitually that I wasn’t even aware I was doing it! That’s a completely different kind of difficulty from what I face today.

Over the years I’ve been practicing, I’ve worked on complaining less. This is the result of applying the Buddhist speech precepts—ethical guidelines that encourage us not to 1) be untruthful, 2) speak harshly, 3) indulge in trivial and distracting conversation (still working on that one!), or 4) sow disharmony. I’ve gotten better at training myself not to lie, not to exaggerate others’ faults, not to present a skewed and misleading picture when I’m talking about others, not to gossip maliciously, not to indulge in blame, and so forth. All of this was a big challenge when I was going through a divorce just a couple of years back! But it’s a good practice!

While appreciation makes us happier, complaining makes us unhappy. While appreciation makes us feel open and free, complaining makes us feel kind of bitter and tight inside. Look and see for yourself!

Of course, wanting to complain but restraining yourself feels unpleasant, like trying to hold in a fart at a dinner party. It’s a good thing to do, but it’s not a comfortable feeling! It can be a relief when you give up the effort and just let out your snarky comment. But that relief is temporary. Complaining really doesn’t makes us feel good. And the discomfort of holding in our complaints is temporary too. As we get used to complaining less, we’ll start to experience the benefits. And so will those around us!

So I suggest that you give this a go. See if you can become more aware of your complaining. The point is not to notice how often other people complain! (Strangely, this is often an early response to practicing ethics.) Nor is the point to give yourself a hard time when you catch yourself in the middle of a rant. When you do notice that you’ve been complaining, or are about to complain, just take a breath and let go. Maybe you’ll think of something skillful to say, maybe not. But each time you do this at least you’ll be taking a small but important step toward living with joy and appreciation.

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Speak truly

mighty oak treeIt’s been said that the most powerful tool for physical health is a fork (or spoon), since the choices you make with it determine the good or bad things you put into your body.

In the same way, perhaps the most powerful tool for your mental health – and certainly for the health of your relationships – is your tongue. Thousands of times each day, it (or your fingers on a keyboard: same thing) offers the good word or the bad one out into your world.

If you say what’s true for you, and say it clearly and kindly, you get one kind of results. But if you use a sharp tongue, speak falsely, exaggerate, or leave out the parts that are most important to you, you get different results: unnecessary conflicts, lost opportunities, a tightness in your chest, etc.

Of course, the most important person to speak truly to is yourself, with inner speech. Come to peace with the truth: the facts, your experiences and intentions, the goodness inside your heart, what’s led to what for better or worse.

On the other hand, if you act like something is true but deep down there’s a knowing that it’s not – like it’s OK not to go after an important dream, or that you can keep putting off dealing with a health issue such as smoking, or that everything’s fine in a cool and distant marriage – you’re living on thin ice: hard to build a good life on that foundation.

Truth is bedrock. Even if you wish the truth were different, it’s what you can count on in a world of full of selling, spin, and BS. It’s your refuge.

Speaking truly does not mean saying everything. You can cut to the chase in a conversation, not burden a child with more than he or she can understand, be civil when you’re angry, and not spill your guts in a meeting.

Nor should you confide more than is appropriate. There’s a place for privacy, for not telling A everything you know about B, for recognizing how intimately you can safely communicate in a particular situation or relationship.

Speaking truly – to yourself and to others – does mean being authentic. Is your outer expression lined up with your inner experience? Most of us have “that thing” which is hard to express. For me growing up, it was feeling inadequate. For many men, it’s feelings of fear or weakness. For many women, it’s feelings of anger or power. Could you find appropriate ways to say your whole truth, whatever it is?

Ask yourself: “What am I actually experiencing?” Relax your face completely and look at it in the mirror: What does it tell you? What does it say you really need these days?

Also ask yourself: “What’s important that’s not getting named?” This applies both to you and to others. Consider the hurt or anxiety beneath irritation, or the rights or needs that are the real stakes on the table. Is there an elephant in the room that no one is mentioning? Maybe someone has a problem with anger or with drinking too much, or is simply depressed. Maybe someone’s jumbo job – 60, 70 hours a week or more, counting commute and weekend emails – is crowding family life out to the margins.

Especially when you’re upset, watch out for distortions in the words you use. These include leaving out the context (like getting mad at a misbehaving child who’s hungry), using extreme language – words like “always” or flat statements that should be qualified – or using a tone that’s harsh or nasty. Without talking like a robot, look for ways to be more judicious, accurate, and to the point in what you say.

Last, accept the fact that no one is a perfect communicator. You’re always going to leave something out, and that’s OK. You have to give conversations room to breathe, without continually judging yourself as to whether you’re speaking truly! Communicating is repairing. As long as you come with basic sincerity and goodwill, your words will weave and mend a tapestry of truth in all your relationships.

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On radical honesty and agnosticism concerning rebirth

Indo-Tibetan Wheel of Life (bhavacakra)

This morning I had an email from Sheila, one of our newsletter subscribers. She’d shared the article called “The Buddha’s Wager” with a Buddhist friend, and wasn’t sure how to address the points her friend had raised. So here’s what her friend had written:

i find it fascinating that ‘sceptics’ want to know how consciousness can survive the death of the brain – when we have no inkling of how consciousness arises in a living brain – to me it’s as much of a leap of faith to believe that other people are conscious as it is to believe that ‘my’ consciousness can survive the death of my body. we are all profoundly agnostic about almost everything…. i find a belief in rebirth gives a me a sense of meaning – of possible progress – i still don’t understand how anyone can profess to be seeking Enlightenment – in the Buddha’s sense of a release from suffering – and not believe in rebirth. if death is the end of suffering then what’s all the fuss about? let’s just die….

And here’s what I wrote to Sheila:

Thanks for writing with these questions. It’s always interesting for me to meet, even indirectly, someone like your friend who sees life and Dharma practice in very different ways.

To take things out of order, with regard to the whole idea that life is pointless unless you believe in rebirth, I’d quote the Kalama Sutta, and gently point out that the Buddha seems to have disagreed with your friend’s position. If he taught the Kalama sutta, then he clearly thought that Dharma practice made sense even if you don’t have a belief in rebirth.

[To quote from the Buddha’s wager, in that sutta the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his “noble disciples” acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are:

  1. If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.
  2. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.

So the Buddha is saying here that his disciples can practice the Dharma and benefit from that practice without believing in rebirth. What’s more, these disciples have mind “free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, and pure.” In other words, these are enlightened disciples of the Buddha, who have the assurance that their practice is worthwhile, even if they don’t know whether rebirth happens. You can go all the way to enlightenment and still not be convinced that rebirth is true!]*

Your friend gets her source of meaning from rebirth, but those of us who are skeptical about rebirth get our meaning elsewhere. Life to me doesn’t need any justification, so “let’s just die” would strike me as being a weird position to take, or even to imagine that people might take (unless, say, they were profoundly depressed). I don’t think it takes much empathy to recognize that people with differing views find life, and dharma practice, meaningful without the conviction that there is rebirth.

I hear similar arguments from Christians, who say that God is what gives life meaning, and if you don’t believe in God then you have no reason for living and might as well kill yourself. If your friend doesn’t believe in God then perhaps she might recognize that she’s adopting the same attitude in thinking that her source of meaning is the only possible source of meaning.

I wonder what she means by “let’s just die?” That without a belief in rebirth we should just kill ourselves? That’s absurd, since I don’t need a belief in rebirth to feel that my life is meaningful. That we should cease practice and just hang on until we die and then our suffering will all be over? That’s also absurd, since she’s suggesting that we should stop doing the things we find meaningful because we don’t get our sense of purpose and meaning in precisely the same way she does.

We all have different ways of finding purpose in life, and to me life is meaningful in and of itself. To be alive and conscious is a constant wonder and miracle. But in addition, seeing suffering in myself and others, and recognizing that most of that suffering is unnecessary, I find meaning in wanting to free myself and others from suffering. Now I can see how a Christian can think that serving god is a source of meaning or how the idea of pursuing enlightenment over many lives can give meaning, so I wonder why your friend can’t recognize that other things give my life meaning? I mean, hasn’t she ever *asked* someone with different beliefs what their source of meaning is? To just assume that they have none suggests some kind of lack of empathy or imagination.

To take your friend’s first point, I don’t think it takes much of a leap of faith to accept that other people are conscious. I am a human, and I am conscious. Other humans show the external signs, though facial expressions, words, etc., that they are experiencing the world in a similar way to me. So it would be bizarre, in my opinion, to assume that other people are not conscious. Assuming that consciousness survives death is an assumption of a completely different order from assuming that others are conscious.

As for agnosticism, I am profoundly agnostic when it comes to the teaching of rebirth. I have no evidence either way. It seems unlikely to me that consciousness can somehow function separate from a body (if we don’t need a body to be conscious, why does brain damage affect our ability to think?) and transfer itself to another body. There are on the other hand accounts of past-life memories, but few of us have had the opportunity to check those out first hand, and even if we did there’s no way we can rule out the possibility of the supposed memories having been acquired through some other route. I was advised to watch a video about a Scottish boy who apparently remembered a part life. I didn’t find it very convincing, and when much was made of his knowing that on the island of Barra, planes use the beach as a landing strip, it seemed quite possible to me that he’d seen this on TV. I try to keep a reasonably close eye on what my kids see on TV, but they’re always coming up with surprising things that they’ve picked up, and that I’d no idea they’d been exposed to. So most of the evidence that I’ve seen is rather shaky (plus there are some well-known instances of supposed memories having come from books people have read). On the other hand, we live in a very strange and wonderful universe, where there’s quantum entanglement. We don’t even know what 95% of the matter in the universe is made up of! So I’m not ruling anything out.

For me, being agnostic about rebirth is actually an ethical position. The Buddha promoted a sort of radical honesty (although of course we’re to be kind as well as honesty). The suttas describe truthful speech like this:

“There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”

If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Otherwise you’re practicing a form of untruthful speech. Now I don’t know that there is such a thing as rebirth, so no matter how many references there are to rebirth in the Pali canon, I’m not going to say that rebirth happens. Unless someone has some extraordinarily convincing and even irrefutable evidence for the existence of rebirth, I think the only honest answer is “I don’t know,” [along with, “Of course what the Buddhist scriptures say is…”]*

Also, practically speaking, not being convinced in the reality of rebirth gives me a sense of urgency. I want to gain full awakening in this very life, and not have the feeling that I can always get around to it later. Sangharakshita has, if I remember correctly, described laziness as the besetting sin of traditional Buddhism, and I believe that this is due to people thinking that they have all the time in the universe to get enlightened.

***

*This wasn’t in my original reply, but it’s something I meant to say and I added it here for completeness.

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How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged

How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be angry.

I was struck by the similarity between the quote in the graphic above and something the Buddha’s recorded as having said:

Whoever doesn’t flare up at someone who’s angry wins a battle hard to win.

It’s also very reminiscent of these verses in the Dhammapada:

133.Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

134. If, like a broken gong, you silence yourself, you have approached Nibbana, for vindictiveness is no longer in you.

I was a bit surprised, though, to see a comment made by the person who shared the graphic:

I love this one: it usually irks the attacker even more.

Remaining silent in order to irk someone isn’t a very noble motive.

Taking pleasure in someone else getting angry is, from a Buddhist point of view, unskillful. It’s just a subtle form of aggression. Our desire should always be to reduce the amount of suffering our actions cause.

If we “irk” someone, they then go away in a state of resentment, which causes them to suffer. And out of their suffering they’ll likely cause suffering for others as well.

Buddhism encourages us to practice compassion. We should have a concern for the well-being and happiness of ourselves, the person who is trying to make us mad, and all other beings who might be affected.

By remaining silent instead of getting into an argument, we avoid creating unnecessary conflict. In that way there’s less suffering. The other person might get mad in the short term even if we’re not intending to provoke them, but in the long-term they’ll benefit because you’ve given them less to be resentful about. You might even have modeled compassionate non-reactivity for them.

You might experience discomfort in the short term because part of you really wants to fight back, but in the long term you’ll have less to regret and your emotional state will be more peaceful.

The Buddha alluded to the difficulty of not responding harshly to harshness when he said,

Knowing that the other man is angry,
He mindfully maintains his peace
And endures the anger of both,
His own, as well as of the other

It’s better to endure your own anger than to inflict it on someone else. It’ll be painful, but it’ll pass.

With training, we can even learn not to be angry:

People out of control stab with words,
When they hear a harsh word spoken,
a mendicant should endure with no anger in heart.

Of course it’s not necessary to remain silent in order to respond compassionately to another person’s aggression. Responding with words that express overt kindness and compassion is another way of “not flaring up.” That’s even more beautiful than remaining silent.

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“The Five Keys to Mindful Communication,” by Susan Gillis Chapman

“The Five Keys to Mindful Communication,” by Susan Gillis Chapman

I first started reading The Five Keys to Mindful Communication while waiting for my daughter at the airport. At the same time, a text came in from a young friend, announcing that he was probably going to be indicted by the FBI. It was difficult to keep my mind on the reading at this point, and yet I found solace there too, as one of the main themes in the book is working with fear. Even though most of the advice regarding fear centered around communication with others, I found it very helpful when communicating with myself that evening.

The author, Susan Gillis Chapman, is a marriage and family therapist, who has been teaching mindfulness meditation for over thirty years. She has an MA in Buddhist and Western Psychology and studied under Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chodron. Students of the Dharma will recognize many foundational concepts throughout the book, such as the illusion of the false self and the pitfalls of craving, which are clearly incorporated in her Five Keys:

  1. The Key to Mindful Presence: Awake Body, Tender Heart, Open Mind
  2. The Key to Mindful Listening: Encouragement
  3. The Key to Mindful Speech: Gentleness
  4. The Key to Mindful Relationships: Unconditional Friendliness
  5. The Key to Mindful Responses: Playfulness

These chapter headings seemed very promising to me, and indeed, there were some inspiring passages and engaging anecdotal stories. At times, though, I found the book to be repetitive and somewhat unorganized. Throughout the book, Chapman uses slogans and metaphors to convey her message: Green, Yellow and Red light communication patterns, having a ‘we-first’ versus ‘me-first’ mentality, and open/closed communication. After a while, I became mildly annoyed by the slogans and frequent use of ‘we-first’ as a label for how to communicate; and yet, outside of my reading I did find myself reflecting that I should ‘be careful, because the light is yellow’ when feeling irritated by a friend’s comments.

Title: The Five Keys to Mindful Communication
Author: Susan Gillis Chapman
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 9781590309414
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Another theme is the practice of staying open in communication and not putting up barriers or becoming defensive. For me, this is the essence of mindful communication; staying open and gentle, even in conflict. Chapman provides strategies to accomplish this throughout the book, but they all basically come down to maintaining mindfulness and unconditional positive regard. I appreciated her reminder that these barriers not only cut us off from each other, but from ourselves.

Early on I found the repetition to be reinforcing, because it is sometimes so difficult to remain open and mindful in communication. But I have to admit that, toward the end of the book I was skimming much of the content. Luckily, I did catch a real gem toward the end of the book that lists four progressive steps to compassionate activity when faced with a person who is truly contemptuous, angry, and regards us as the enemy.

Other features of the book include journal exercises (which are embedded in the chapters), a self-reflection guide, a glossary and a section called “Stepping Stones”. This last section was one of my favorite parts of the book, and the one I will most likely return to again. “Stepping Stones” is an overview of the main concepts of the book, structured into seven steps to help the reader avoid mindless communication patterns.

Chapman states in her closing that she is convinced that these keys to mindful communication have the power to restore peace and harmony in our society. Though keeping an awake body, tender heart, and open mind are, in many situations, overwhelmingly challenging, I think she is absolutely right, if only we are able to, “transform fear into love, and to bring that love into our lives for the benefit of others.”

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Mindful speech as a tool for mental health

Photo by LaShawn Dobbson on Unsplash.

It’s been said that the most powerful tool for physical health is a fork (or spoon), since the choices you make with it determine the good or bad things you put into your body.

In the same way, perhaps the most powerful tool for your mental health – and certainly for the health of your relationships – is your tongue. Thousands of times each day, it (or your fingers on a keyboard: same thing) offers the good word or the bad one out into your world.

Also see:

If you say what’s true for you, and say it clearly and kindly, you get one kind of results. But if you use a sharp tongue, speak falsely, exaggerate, or leave out the parts that are most important to you, you get different results: unnecessary conflicts, lost opportunities, a tightness in your chest, etc.

Of course, the most important person to speak truly to is yourself, with inner speech. Come to peace with the truth: the facts, your experiences and intentions, the goodness inside your heart, what’s led to what for better or worse.

On the other hand, if you act like something is true but deep down there’s a knowing that it’s not – like it’s OK not to go after an important dream, or that you can keep putting off dealing with a health issue such as smoking, or that everything’s fine in a cool and distant marriage – you’re living on thin ice: hard to build a good life on that foundation.

Truth is bedrock. Even if you wish the truth were different, it’s what you can count on in a world of full of selling, spin, and BS. It’s your refuge.

How?

  1. Speaking truly does not mean saying everything.
  2. You can cut to the chase in a conversation,
  3. not burden a child with more than he or she can understand,
  4. be civil when you’re angry,
  5. and not spill your guts in a meeting.

Nor should you confide more than is appropriate. There’s a place for privacy, for not telling A everything you know about B, for recognizing how intimately you can safely communicate in a particular situation or relationship.

Speaking truly – to yourself and to others – does mean being authentic. Is your outer expression lined up with your inner experience? Most of us have “that thing” which is hard to express. For me growing up, it was feeling inadequate. For many men, it’s feelings of fear or weakness. For many women, it’s feelings of anger or power. Could you find appropriate ways to say your whole truth, whatever it is?

Ask yourself: “What am I actually experiencing?” Relax your face completely and look at it in the mirror: What does it tell you? What does it say you really need these days?

Also ask yourself: “What’s important that’s not getting named?” This applies both to you and to others. Consider the hurt or anxiety beneath irritation, or the rights or needs that are the real stakes on the table. Is there an elephant in the room that no one is mentioning? Maybe someone has a problem with anger or with drinking too much, or is simply depressed. Maybe someone’s jumbo job – 60, 70 hours a week or more, counting commute and weekend emails – is crowding family life out to the margins.

Especially when you’re upset, watch out for distortions in the words you use. These include leaving out the context (like getting mad at a misbehaving child who’s hungry), using extreme language – words like “always” or flat statements that should be qualified – or using a tone that’s harsh or nasty. Without talking like a robot, look for ways to be more judicious, accurate, and to the point in what you say.

Last, accept the fact that no one is a perfect communicator. You’re always going to leave something out, and that’s OK. You have to give conversations room to breathe, without continually judging yourself as to whether you’re speaking truly! Communicating is repairing. As long as you come with basic sincerity and goodwill, your words will weave and mend a tapestry of truth in all your relationships.

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Apology as a spiritual practice

Yesterday I lost my temper with my daughter and yelled at her. I even snatched out of her hands the baby monitor that she and her brother had been using to make a noise with.

I’m not proud of losing my temper. In fact I’m ashamed when that kind of thing happens.

It’s true that I’d asked her several times to stop, but that’s still no excuse.

It didn’t help either that I’d been trying to get a little work done in the living room and was trying hard to stay focused on a message I was writing. But that’s no excuse either.

I messed up. I communicated in an unskillful way and shocked and distressed my little girl.

These things are going to happen, though, so I don’t beat myself up about them. Saying I feel ashamed doesn’t mean I think I’m a terrible person, but simply that I recognize that my action was wrong. I feel ashamed, not guilty. Unfortunately, things like this are going to happen again, though. That’s just how things are.

What I did get right, I think, was that I apologized swiftly. That’s something I try to do. When I have my little outbursts they take me over for just a split second, usually, but then what seems to happen is that I return almost at once to a more ethical perspective. And when I’ve hurt someone, especially my kids, I let them know that I regret my actions. Often the apology comes mere moments after the thing I’m apologizing for, as it did this time. And my daughter was instantly fine, and harmony was restored.

This incident was fresh in my mind when I came across a passage in an article by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on lovingkindness (or as he prefers to call it, goodwill). I’m reproducing it here, reformatted to help bring out more clearly the points he makes.

As for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the harm, so if an apology is appropriate, you apologize. In any case, you resolve not to repeat the harmful action again. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill in all directions.

This accomplishes several things.

  • It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t — in defense of your self-image — revert to the sort of denial that refuses to admit that any harm was done.
  • It strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm.
  • And it forces you to examine your actions to see their actual effect: If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to abandon them before they cause further harm.

In other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded, floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop this attitude to begin with: to make sure that it truly animates our thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness harmless for all.

I see apology as being a reorientation of our being toward the good. Our minds and selves are modular: some parts of us see the way to happiness as lying in selfishness and aggression, while other parts of us see the path to happiness as lying in mindfulness and compassion. When the unskillful takes hold of us, it’s crucial to re-establish as quickly as possible that this was a deviation, and to redirect ourselves toward awakening. When we try to justify what we’ve done, by rationalizing or weaseling our way out of admitting fault, we actually strengthen the unskillful within us, and end up perpetuating our own and others’ suffering.

Another way to deal with our unskillful actions is confession. Confession’s what I’m doing here, in part. When we confess we’re being honest about what we’ve done, so that we can own it and move on.

When I first did formal confession, I was terrified that the people I was confessing to (we did it in a group) would stop liking me if they knew what I was “really” like. But in fact, I discovered that they loved me more for having been honest with them. In confessing we’re not looking for forgiveness, just to have what we’ve done out in the open, rather than festering inside us. I don’t need you to forgive me; I just need you there to hear me.

The power of confession, like that of apology, lies in re-establishing our connection with who we truly want to be. It gives the reins of our being back to the wiser, kinder, and more honest parts of ourselves.

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Five steps to letting go of quarreling

angry cat

It’s one thing to stick up for yourself and others. But it’s a different matter to get caught up in wrangles, contentiousness, squabbles — in a word: quarrels.

Similarly, it’s one thing to disagree with someone, even to the point of arguing – but it’s a different matter to get so caught up in your position that you lose sight of the bigger picture, including your relationship with the other person. Then you’re quarreling.

You know you’re quarreling when you find yourself getting irritated, especially with that sticky feeling that you’re just not gonna quit until you’ve won.

Quarrels happen both out in the open, between people, and inside the mind, like when you make a case in your head about another person or keep revisiting an argument to make your point more forcefully. We quarrel most with family and friends – imagine that! – but also with people on TV, or politicians and groups we don’t like. We can even quarrel with conditions in life (such as an illness or tight money) or with physical objects, like a sticky drawer slammed shut in anger.

However they happen, quarrels are stressful, activating the ancient fight-or-flight machinery in your brain and body: a bit of this won’t harm you, but a regular diet of quarreling is not good for your long-term physical and mental health.

Plus it eats away like acid on a relationship. For example, I was in a serious relationship in my mid-twenties that was headed for marriage, but our regular quarrels finally so scorched the earth in our hearts that no love could grow there for each other.

This week, try not to quarrel with anyone or anything.

How?

  1. Be mindful of what quarreling feels like, in your body, emotions, and thoughts. For example, be aware of that sense of revving up, pushing against, being right, and driving your view home that is so characteristic of quarreling. Ask yourself: Does this feel good? Is this good for me?
  2. Observe the impact of quarreling in relationships, whether you’re doing it or others are (including on the world stage). Ask yourself: Are the results good? What would my relationships be like if I did not quarrel in them?
  3. If you sense yourself warming up to a quarrel, step back, slow down, don’t do it. Try a different approach: Say only what truly needs saying; stay calm and contained, without trying to persuade the other person; don’t take any bait. If it comes to this, let the other person, not you, look over-heated and argumentative.
  4. Much of the time, you’ll realize that nothing needs to be said at all: you just don’t have to resist the other person. His or her words can pass on by like a gust of air swirling some leaves along its way. You don’t have to be contentious. Your silence does not equal agreement. Nor does it mean that the other person has won the point – and even if he or she has, would that actually matter so much in a week – or year – or so?
  5. If you do get caught up in a quarrel, as soon as you realize that’s happened, back out of it. A good first step is to get quieter. Think about what really matters in the interaction – like saying what you are going to do in the future, or finding out some key fact – and then zero in on that thing, whatever it is. Maybe acknowledge to the other person that you’ve realized you’ve gotten into a kind of argument here, but that’s not what you really want to do. If that person tries to keep up the fight, you don’t have to. It takes two to quarrel, and only one to stop it. Then when the time is right, as you can, try to repair the damage of the quarrel.

Overall, explore the sense of being at peace with the world, without a quarrel with anyone.

(The feeling of this reminds me of a saying from my wife’s childhood, which should be adapted to one’s own situation: Be a friend to all, and a sister to every Girl Scout!)

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Ten tips for skilful communication

Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

Communication is a huge part of our lives. All our relationships depend on it, but it often seems to go wrong and we can react or lose patience, even with people we’re close to. Here are some suggestions for developing our communication with the help of mindfulness

1. Notice your habits
Habits probably play a big part in how we communicate, so we need to reflect on how we communicate, and particularly what difficulties arise. Notice if you tend to focus on what others do when things go wrong: change comes when we identify what we contribute ourselves.

2. Use meditation
When we meditate, arguments and unresolved difficulties often rise up into awareness. We can use that time to notice the elements of our experience: the thoughts that go with what happened; the feeling; and how the body feels. These are all clues to what’s going on underneath our interpretations. Notice a tendency to judge ourselves harshly when difficulties arise and encourage a kindly response to ourselves and others.

See also:

3. Identify what’s really important in what you are saying
Communication is most effective when we are able to say, simply and clearly, what’s important and why. If you can share that, others are more likely to understand and sympathise with what you’re trying to say. But it takes some reflection, especially if we have to untangle what’s important from resentments and reactions.

4. Connect with the other person
Empathy is the real key to communication and mindfulness can  help us listen more fully to what others are say. Use your imagination to connect with them and try to sense what is really important to them, even if it isn’t quite what they are saying.

5. Be truthful
It’s interesting to notice the small ways in which we can avoid telling the truth: exaggerating, flattering or wriggling out of awkward communication. There’s no easy answer to what we should say when someone asks ‘does this dress look good on me’? But little evasions add up and get in the way of straightforward connection.

6. Express kindness
Make a point of expressing gratitude and appreciation of others, and look for opportunities to encourage them.

7. Find the right time
Being truthful can sometimes seem at odds with being kind and the art of skilful communication involves finding the right balance. Sometimes that means finding the right time to speak a difficult truth

8. Steer clear of gossip
Often conversations in workplaces and social situations involve lots of  moaning, gossiping and criticising. Notice the effect these have on you and explore not getting drawn in

9. Reduce input
More and more of our time seems to be filled with emails, texts, social media and entertainment. Mindfulness needs mental space, so experiment with chatting less and reducing input. Periods of silence help, especially when you spend time alone or go on retreat

10. Enjoy language
Love words, read poetry, speak well (and reduce swearing!) The best communicators understand that words are precious and have many meanings and connotations. Read authors who also love and understand language, and bring mindfulness to whatever you write: even emails!

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