Monday 22 October 2018

Right speech builds a responsible world

Have you noticed what has happened to speech? And the written word? The instant soundbite, the tabloid headline, the advertising slogan, the attention-grabbing phrase beloved of demagogues, and the cloudy waffle of the political speech are all now moving or even forming the human world. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God', still has a truth to it; it still creates worlds that we are immersed in – but as subjects of what god? The word valued in terms of impact rather than veracity or meaning, the word launched into cyberspace willy-nilly, issues from a god that only attends to its own interests. This is a god that doesn’t listen to others, and has no regard for long-term consequences. The deification of irresponsibility.
How after centuries of development, education and knowledge could we have find ourselves in a situation where human enterprise is destroying the planet on which we depend? How could it be that after centuries of struggle to fashion political systems to support people and steward our national resources, we are experiencing dictatorships, oligarchy, increasing inequity and a gross imbalance of wealth and opportunity? We can blame individuals, but the fact that humans create a system where personal advantage trumps collective responsibility points to something systemic, even embedded in the human mind. 'Me and mine is the guiding light' puts it in a nutshell. In an age of mass-communication and mass-media, words that issue from that perspective have a huge effect.
To breathe out: yes there are many noble acts, many people taking a stand against the exploitation of our commonwealth - our fecund earth, our air, our water, and our right to stand as beings with access to values and mutually- acknowledged dignity. Things get better even as they get worse. But at the current estimate, self-view is ruling the cosmos.
Cosmos? What's that? No, I'm not referring to stars and nebulae, at least not exclusively. By 'cosmos' I'm referring to the totality of what you're experiencing, the 'field' within which you are affected and operating. The heart of the matter is that the smallest unit in the cosmos is two, not one. To the average person this is 'me and you/her/it.' But this duality includes not just the physical world that you're part of, but also thoughts, emotions, impressions and the sense-data that trigger all that. You and it affect each other. This may not seem to be the case, because most of the 'it' of the cosmos may seem to be the unresponsive stuff of what you taste, what touches you physically and psychologically, what you hear and what you hear about. Note that last term: much of what effects you is unresponsive because it's abstract; you read about, you hear about, you look at a screen and it tells you about somewhere other than where your feet are – as someone you can't talk to addresses you. In this complex and wide human field, we are guided by reports that have a direct and even dominant effect on what you know, how you feel, what you do, and who you belong to. With this 'belonging' sense, the 'mine' co-ordinate swells into a sub-field – but still excludes the 'others': so we get liberal against conservative, pro-choice against pro-life, secular against religious, urban against rural, citizens against migrants; exclusivity (=keep us pure) against inclusivity (= keep things open). This reportage is the god of words and in fact of all representation – nāmain Buddhist terms. Let's flag that:
Nāma['name'] has weighed down everything
Nothing is more extensive than 'name'.
'Name' is the one thing that has
All under its control (S.1:61)
The crux, and the liberating hinge, of this is that what our minds receive is a report, a representation not an objective reality. Although we get used to either rejecting or accepting, but not responding to this fact, on the level of existence in this dualistic world, there has to be a response to the fact that all we have is a report. Both internal assessment and interpersonal dialogue are needed to arrive at a harmonious result. That is a return to full exploration. In this process words, although slippery if taken as final truths, are crucial. Because exploration must begin at home: directing awareness towards one's mood and subjective bias, capturing that in one word or phrase ('defensive, 'hungry', one listens to the heart for a response to that sense. When one has found an internal resolution, or at least an acknowledgement of one's angle, there is an opening to a balanced recognition of the truth of the matter. 
As everything arises out of a synthesis of dependently conjoining factors, the factor of one's mind state has to be recognized and dealt with. As well as how it meets ‘the other’ when things aren’t going my way. The samanas' training standard on this is quite clear; accepting that diversity, dissonance and even dispute were inevitable facts, the Buddha set up the process of inner resolution that each party should undertake before discussing the point of contention. In outline, each should consider whether they practise purity in body and speech; whether they have an inclination of goodwill; whether they are well and fully informed; and whether they are speaking 'at the right time, of facts, gently, words that are profitable, with kindly heart.' (A 5:44) Whereas ... if in any dispute the offending bhikkhu and the one who admonishes him do not practise strict self-examination, it may be expected that it will lead to protracted, bitter and contentious quarrelling...(A.2:15)
Have you noticed that? This lack of wise reflection brings dire consequences when the writer/speaker addresses people as a mass. Then their unresolved biases and self-interest manipulate and divide the listeners for the speaker's personal advantage. Personal advantage is enjoyable, no doubt: power over others, the lust for control and moral (or immoral) supremacy stimulates a pleasure neuro-chemical that gets addictive. The question is: ‘Can I shelve that short-term high for the greater long-term good?’ Because there is gladness that comes with serving others, in witnessing their well-being, and in having a clean and open mind. And it has long-term effects. One rejoices in peace, delights in peace and speaks words that make for peace ... at a suitable time [one] will speak words that are worth remembering, well-grounded, purposeful and profitable.(A.5:99) All the more reason then for right speech to be a training standard that is more important than any other science. It should be obligatory for those moved to serve in public office.
Right time? When we're not distracted or busy. Fact? Have I seen this for myself when I was clearly focused? Or did I get it from someone else? Do I present what I know as just what I’ve seen or what I've heard from others just as what I’ve heard? Gently? Can I place my words calmly, with little rhetoric and in a way that supports a clear response? Can we create an opportunity to mutually check for the ‘facts’?
The clarity and balance of this practice pays off in any meditation or introspection, when inner speech, thought, has to be mastered. The added twist is that the average person can’t always determine what thoughts will pop into their head at any moment. This is because many thoughts, and the emotions and viewpoints that condition them, are picked up from other people, or through the media. So your thoughts are not entirely your own. Hence knowing the effects of passing on whatever comes into your mind, the first training is to be circumspect in terms of giving them attention and from uttering them.
I … do not say that all that one has seen/heard/sense and understood should be spoken of. …Now… to the extent that speaking what one has seen/heard/sensed and understood causes harmful states to arise and useful ones to decline ... harmful states to decline and useful ones to arise ... one should not or should speak what one has seen, heard, sensed or understood. (A.4:183)
(For more on 'internal speech see: Monkeys, Parrots and Contemplative Thought )
Many thoughts are just reactions, so you'd best decide what has to be felt and let pass, what has to be pondered internally, what has to be brought out for inquiry at a suitable time, and what can be categorically stated. As for the last category, you’ll probably find that nothing in that is reactive or carries emotional pressure. You speak for yourself, clearly and simply. Even if you're expressing yourself strongly – ‘I refuse to tolerate being addressed in this way!' – such speech is not chaotic, nor does it attack or demand anything of the other person. But any statement of truth must allow for clarification and interaction. It should allow the other to enter into dialogue – as: 'Excuse me. I must have caused offence. Can you help me with this?' This is unlike the assertion of righteousness or the dismissal that erase that option. So the advice is: ‘Don't bounce the other. Check the mood. If it’s impassioned, the information or opinion may be valuable, but how about the delivery? If you start threatening or judging the other, is he or she going to be able to receive this or block and counter it?’ Can you pause and find balance first? Can you ask the other to respond or comment?
Right speech means giving some focus to speaking; that is how you speak, why you speak and what you talk about. And to that add awareness of who you’re talking to and whether they are ready and interested in receiving your words. So for a start: how conscious are you of your speech? Have you decided what to say, and how best to bring that across? Have you checked in as to whether this is the right time to speak to her or him? Even more important, have you reviewed why you’re talking? In the above example you might try: 'I'm annoyed right now, and I'd like to address this with you.' Find the occasion: make an overall assessment: ‘I’m in a pretty intense state right now, better not talk about that … yet.‘ Or, ‘He’s pre-occupied at this time, maybe I’ll just let him know that sometime, when it’s convenient…’ Or, create some time, and negotiate contact, beginning with a sketchy check-in concerning how the other person is right now, and then suggesting what you’d like to talk about. Disturbing matters may well need to be addressed, so: ‘Is now a good time?’ Of course it might not be! But that’s the deal – and if you’re willing to respect the other’s boundaries, the chances are that they’ll be more willing to enter dialogue at some other occasion. It works both ways: you can also say: ‘That seems like a lot to deal with right now, but…’ or, ‘I’m feeling like I need some space this morning, but ...’
Furthermore, when you do speak more fully, keep negotiation in mind. Rather than present a monologue, pause from time to time to allow the other to comment or respond; and even inquire: ‘How does that sound to you?’ ‘ Do you get what I mean?’ If you entered the dialogue as listener, wait for that pause; avoid interrupting unless the speaker is really rambling on – in which case you wait for a mini-pause such as a shift of tone or speed, and then interject: ‘Can we take this a little at a time, I’m finding it hard to take all this in,’ and so on. In this way, you’re learning two valuable things: firstly, that the other person has their own life and isn’t just a character in your mind, and secondly, that you can manage the rush of thinking. You can even learn from it as to what stirs you up. More deeply, you can learn to let the first stream of immediate (reactive) thought pass, listen to what is happening in your heart and respond to that from a place of clarity. This is not about self-interest, but about an alignment to truth. Of course it's not gratifying to acknowledge that one is defensive, pushy or confused, but to respond to that in oneself is going to be an effective first step. It also means that you're more capable of responding usefully to these qualities in another person. When it comes down to it, without doing this, inner and outer speech is going to amount to blurting, rambling and dumping.
Above all, skilful thought in meditation and in dialogue comes down to learning to think short and listen long. Make just one point and attend to the response in yourself and in the other. Find out where to go from there. Apart from settling any dispute, and experiencing pleasure in an exchange that leads to mutual agreement, you are in this way helping to rebuild the cosmos. Because the more we can shift our source of success and pleasure from supremacy to mutuality, the less destruction and abuse we're going to create. A planet of a few billion cooperative humans sounds good. The opposite is a mega-disaster.