Intention and speech

All our reflections on right speech seem to come back to knowing what our intentions or motivations are. This is one of the many ways that the elements of the 8-fold path support and illuminate each other.

Recently we thought about right intention (the second step on the 8-fold path) as:
1) Intention of renunciation
2) Intention of goodwill
3) Intention of harmlessness

How does this link up, in our experience, with right speech? So often we speak carelessly, with no idea of what our intention is. Or we speak with intentions of self-aggrandizement, or of impatience, or simply to fill a void. A recent study showed that many people would rather accept mild self-harm than endure their own company with no external stimulation – that’s how reluctant they were to be alone with their own thoughts! But we must come to know our thoughts if we are to stop creating problems for ourselves and others.

This question of intention is particularly challenging in modern western cultures because the cult of the individual seems to predominate. We are encouraged at every turn to create and re-create ourselves based on superficial desires. We are led to believe that what we wear, eat, drive, and what entertainments we pursue form who we are. The Buddha’s teachings are a direct contradiction to this point of view; he directs our attention to our internal experience. Only with reflection can we know our intentions, and from those intentions our actions, our words, and our thoughts flow.

We can be mindlessly driven by the momentum of wanting and acquiring, or we can go in the other direction and consider a simpler life, one that values renunciation, which we could think of as non-greed. When the Buddha talks about renunciation, he is describing the choice of a subtler and more lasting joy (peace) over short-lived sensual gratification. A quieter, more reflective life will naturally encourage our existing intentions of goodwill and harmlessness. Can we give up some moments of excitement to enjoy a peaceful heart? Whenever we make that choice, our words and actions can bring less aggravation and more joy to ourselves and to others.

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In the context of reflecting on whether we measure ourselves against others (better than, worse than, or the same as), and speaking in ways that reflect those (mis)perceptions, we also need to listen to our internal rating system. This may or may not be in relation to other people.

Ajahn Sumedho, in his book “Don’t Take Your Life Personally”, talks about trusting awareness without judging our experience. This is how we can build internal stability regardless of what thoughts or emotions visit us; or as Shinzen Young would say, a peace that’s not dependent on external circumstances. Ajahn Sumedho speaks very specifically about allowing even the feelings we wish we didn’t have; how to be aware of them without being caught by them.

From a chapter called “Being Human” in Ajahn Sumedho’s book of collected talks titled “Don’t Take Your Life Personally”:
I encourage you to listen to your personality non-judgementally, and if immature, emotional reactions come up – if anger and resentment or negative states come up or you get carried away with inspiration and all the good stuff of life – just say, ‘Fine, welcome!’ The point is not to judge any of it, not to cling to it, or prefer it, but to merely trust yourself to be the witness. Things arise and cease; they are what they are. And in this attitude of it-is-what-it-is, I find a way of accepting experience without judging it. As soon as I say ‘immature emotion’, I am making a value judgement about what I am experiencing. And the logic that comes from that is that I am an emotionally immature man. There is such a strong resistance to some mental states that it takes real determination in awareness to accept them. But, if you can, trust yourself to accept the things you don’t like.

By accepting our experience in awareness – all of it – without resistance or judgment, we are in fact letting it go. We can continuously release our experience; as it arises, we note or observe the experience directly, and we allow it to pass. The more we can live this process of awareness with acceptance, the lighter our lives can become.

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Words and intentions

Daniel’s comment on the last post got me thinking more deeply about expressing and receiving appreciation in a way that connects rather than separates us.

One thing Marshall Rosenberg points out (see previous post) is that often we aren’t aware of our own motives and intentions. Even when we think we are being nice, we may be setting ourselves apart from others. Some people feel “above” everyone else, some feel “below”; most of us feel “above” some people and “below” others. As a result, we approve or disapprove the actions of others whom we feel free to judge, and we look with different eyes (possibly hoping for acceptance or approval) on those we feel are our peers or betters.

These categories may be entirely subconscious. A sense of inferiority could show itself as frustration or resentment or envy, or something else. A sense of superiority might be our normal mode of interaction with the world. Even if we don’t recognize it, others do.

We can ask ourselves: are we connecting, person-to-person, or are we creating a barrier? Are we dismissing or protecting ourselves from another person by judging her, even if we’re judging her as “OK”?

Words of the Buddha:
Bhikkhus, there are these three discriminations. What three? The discrimination ‘I am superior’, the discrimination ‘I am equal’, the discrimination ‘I am inferior’. These are the three discriminations. The Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these three discriminations, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.
from AN 45.162, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

This sense of “I am superior” or “I am inferior” is deep and difficult to dislodge. The development of the eightfold path is one way that the Buddha says we can uproot the tendency to compare ourselves to others, consciously or subconsciously. The “discriminations” are ways in which we set ourselves apart from others, and in so doing, form and harden the boundaries of our sense of self. By practicing with the eight-fold path, we may start to see the fluidity of the self, its rise and fall.

Meanwhile, when we are able to acknowledge that each of us is a bundle of (only partially knowable) virtues and flaws, we will understand that that there is no reasonable ranking system, and that judging others is an unwholesome way to interact. We can strive to meet every person, even people we know well, as a new experience, greeting them with fresh eyes and an open heart.

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Expressing appreciation

Yet another important area of Marshall Rosenberg’s teaching on Nonviolent Communication is an examination of how we express appreciation.

It’s long been my practice to give positive feedback to others at every opportunity. Most people like to hear positive things about themselves or their actions. So I was a little taken aback when Rosenberg identified what I thought were lovely statements of praise as “life-alienating”. He went on to say that if compliments are offered as judgments, then the speaker is sitting “over” the listener, which is why he called such words life-alienating. His point was that judgments of others, whether positive or negative, put distance between people rather than connecting us. Suddenly, the difference between “It’s great you’re doing that!” (judgment) and “I’m so happy for you.” (Yay!) became clear.

This challenges us to dig deeply into our own motivations when we speak to others.

One potential problem is that we tend to notice what’s wrong more often than what’s right. Many of us are constantly in “fix-it” mode, which can make us overlook the fact that a majority of things are going fine. For example, every now and then, we could marvel at the fact that the vast majority of drivers observe the rules of the road and drive courteously.

This tendency to notice what’s wrong can be most painful within the home. Those with whom we interact most often, and with whom we feel less of a need to soften our words, are sometimes the recipients of our most poorly considered speech. Yet these are our most important relationships! They deserve more, not less, care. One study showed that the ratio of positive to negative words we speak to our spouses/partners is the primary determinant of whether or not our relationship will last. As a practice, it’s remarkably effective to consider our words before speaking, and just NOT SAYING things that aren’t helpful or kind. Most of us have many thoughts that are better left unexpressed. I’m not arguing for suppression, but I do think that most of our critical comments are unnecessary and unhelpful, and just feed our own dissatisfactions.

Sometimes we may be reluctant to offer specific praise or appreciation. We may feel that we’re making ourselves vulnerable, or that our words will not be welcomed. But if our appreciation is sincere and we can identify the other person’s particular words or actions and the specific rewards they brought us, then our praise has a very good chance of being received with shared joy.

One of our tasks before dying is to recognize those who have given us important gifts (mostly non-material) and find ways to express our honest appreciation to them, including what they did for us, how they made us feel, and what important need they helped us address.

In summation, the more closely we examine our intentions before we speak, the more likely we are to produce beneficial results when we speak.


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Working with our anger

It’s important to recognize and respond wisely when anger (or other forms of aversion) arise in us, because these are the situations in which we have the potential to do lasting damage to ourselves and our relationships.

Marshall Rosenberg outlines a wholesome response to anger. He says we should:
1. Stop. Breathe.
2. Identify our judgmental thoughts.
3. Connect with our needs.
4. Express our feelings and unmet needs.

It is quite possible to apply these principles, even if we end up saying nothing in the moment. First, we have to recognize what’s happening: “Anger is arising”; then we turn our awareness towards the anger without flinching or deflecting. We investigate, not the outside stimulus but what’s actually happening within us. What words appear in our minds? What body sensations arise? We try to look beyond the “s/he shouldn’t do that!” feeling. If we are persistent, we can identify feelings (in us) other than anger and start to see what inner need is going unmet.

A need to have things be a certain way (when they’re not), is not an actual need; it’s a wish. Anger in general can be reduced by examining our assumptions and expectations. The more we set those aside and (mindfully) observe exactly what’s going on both inside and outside ourselves, the better chance we have to be at peace.

After we calm down, we can express our feelings and needs in such a way that we retain responsibility for them. “When you say X, I feel Y and my need for safety (or acceptance, or something else) is not being met.” It may be that we need to walk away. But if we start the conversation, we may discover what is behind the other person’s actions or words. There is the possibility of connecting, heart to heart, through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and expressing our feelings and needs clearly.

Sometimes, the things I get angry about are not directly my problem. When I read that Israel was taking another thousand acres from the Palestinians, my blood boiled at the injustice. But what was really happening? I’d read or heard an account on the news and gone straight to blaming. The only direct engagement was between myself and the radio/magazine; my strong objection that this action should not occur created friction within me. Later, I read a good analytical article explaining why the Israeli leadership was behaving in this way at this time. I could see, when it was pointed out to me, that depending on where one stands, the situation can look entirely different from my point of view. This has changed my framework so I’m not quite as likely to rush to judgment and blaming. There’s still discomfort and an awareness of all the pain and suffering in the world (limitless, really), but there’s also the knowledge that I am only seeing a small part of the full story.


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Dhutanga practice

In the Thai forest tradition (and some others), there are “extra” practices, beyond the 227 monastic rules for monks and 300+ rules for nuns. These additional practices are not for everyone, but are taken on by practitioners who wish to address their deepest attachments, e.g., food, sleep, or comfort. They are called dhutanga practices and are austerities piled atop the austerities of ordinary monastic life.

For laypeople, an analogy to the dhutanga practices might be to choose a major area of clinging (and hence suffering) in our own hearts and find a way to challenge that clinging. For me, this area is anger, and Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVCC) approach includes some lessons on understanding and dealing with our anger which seem almost impossibly challenging. And yet I see how they could (eventually) uproot anger/aversion/resistance entirely.

NVCC says that we have four options when confronted with a message or behavior that we don’t like:
1) blame ourselves
2) blame others
3) sense our own feelings and needs
4) sense others’ feelings and needs

In a chapter called “Expressing Anger Fully”, Rosenberg says that we need to distinguish the stimulus for our anger from its actual cause; that we are never angry because of what others say or do, but because of the way we think about what others say or do. If we go straight to blame or judgment (as is common), then it’s our own thinking we need to focus on, not what the other person is doing.

We can use anger as a wake-up call. Instead of using the energy of anger for blaming and judging, we can use it to investigate our own unmet needs, as well as the feelings and needs of others. Judgments of others, whether right or wrong, contribute to an unproductive cycle of recriminations and entrenchment of positions.
“Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment.”

The steps Rosenberg recommends for expressing anger fully are:
1. Stop. Breathe. (Does this sound familiar?)
2. Identify our judgmental thoughts.
3. Connect with our needs.
4. Express our feelings and unmet needs.

But wait – before the other person is ready to hear about our unmet needs, we have to attempt to figure out what motivated their action or behavior. If we can empathize with even a fraction of the speaker’s motivation (often some form of fear), we have a chance of making a connection. “The more we hear them, the more they’ll hear us.” We need to hear each others’ pain to come through anger to the other side, which is understanding and compassion.

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Choosing our actions

Why do we do the things we do? What motivates us?

Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication method recommends finding an element of play in all we do. To find the fun, it helps to have a clear idea of why we are doing a particular activity. Sometimes we feel resistance to situations or people or commitments we’ve undertaken. We can discover the source of our resistance if we look carefully, and move from “I should” or “I have to” to “I choose to”.

It’s never true that there is no choice; we always have a choice. Even as parents, we learn to balance our own needs with those of our children. Likewise with all our other relationships. We do have to pay taxes, but we can get help with the task, and we can choose whether we resent parting with our money or take joy in sharing what we’ve got.

We can decide to discontinue an activity. Singing in a volunteer choir that is enjoyable less than half the time is a signal to exit that commitment. Working at a job that we have to drag ourselves to every day is not required. Finishing a degree when we are certain we don’t want to work in the relevant field would conflict with our own needs.

Life is full of uncertainty, and one way to cope is to keep track of our feelings and needs as they change. The better we understand ourselves, the more skilfully we can choose our activities (and words).

As a wise friend once advised me, “Review your activities and see if there are any that no longer serve.” If there’s a regular activity on your calendar that you feel relieved when it’s canceled (or you wish it would be canceled), consider just stopping. If there’s something you’re drawn to but feel nervous about starting, brainstorm with a friend ways you might try it out.

For myself, in retirement, I felt the need to develop my compassion, and I’d long been interested in hospice volunteering. I found an excellent organization locally and have been volunteering there in various capacities for seven years or so. That organization is now in dire straights because of a change in government funding. It’s not clear what will happen, but I may need to search out another channel to continue developing my heart. Deepening my compassion is a felt need for me. Your needs may be very different, but we all would do well to be guided not by passing fancies, but by our deepest human needs.

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