Observations and judgments

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg points out our tendency to make moralistic judgments as a matter of course, in both our thinking and our speech. He distinguishes value judgments (things we’ve considered and hold to be of value) from moralistic judgments, which we apply to others who don’t seem to share our values (or sometimes our habits, assumptions, history or context).

This is the beginning of “violent” communication: when we don’t realize that we are condemning or dismissing others with our initial responses to them.

From NVC:
Thus if my partner wants more affection than I’m giving her, she is “needy and dependent.” But if I want more affection than she is giving me, then she is “aloof and insensitive.” If my colleague is more concerned about details than I am, he is “picky and compulsive.” On the other hand, if I am more concerned about details than he is, he is “sloppy and disorganized.”

Also from NVC:
At the root of much, if not all, violence — whether verbal, psychological, or physical, whether among family members, tribes, or nations — is a kind of thinking that attributes the cause of conflict to wrongness in one’s adversaries, and a corresponding inability to think of oneself or others in terms of vulnerability — that is, what one might be feeling, fearing, yearning for, missing, etc.

We do this sort of judgmental thinking at least sometimes, and most often when we do, we use it to distinguish and separate ourselves from others in a very primitive “me good, him bad” way. How can we start to undo the hold this habit has on us?

It’s not easy, but it begins with recognizing when we are making observations and when we are making moralistic judgments.

From NVC:
Example 1: “You are too generous” vs. “When I see you give all your lunch money to others, I think you are being too generous.”

Example 2: “If you don’t eat balanced meals, your health will be impaired.” vs. “If you don’t eat balanced meals, I fear your health may be impaired.”

Example 3: “Hank Smith is a poor soccer player.” vs. “Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games.”

You get the idea. Sometimes we are just lazy and find it more comfortable to think in simplistic, moralistic terms. But we can become better communicators, and better people, if we know when we’re making unnecessary judgments and when we’re making factual observations.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Compassionate speech

We circle back now to thinking about wise or skilful speech, a seemingly infinite field for practice.

I’ve known about a system called “Nonviolent Communication” (originating with Marshall Rosenberg) for some time. Very recently I decided to look into it, and have begun reading the basic text, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Here’s a very short summary: http://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/aboutnvc/4partprocess.htm

A better (though longer) summary is here: http://www.wanttoknow.info/inspiration/nonviolent_communication_summary_nvc

The shorthand version of NVC involves accurately noticing and articulating:
1. Observations
2. Feelings
3. Needs, and
4. Requests

As with most practices, they are most beneficial if we use them to train ourselves first, before attempting to instruct others. If we can organize our speech into the suggested categories, we clarify our thoughts and remove any flavor of aggression from our words. We can make ourselves better understood if we are clear and non-accusatory in what we’re trying to convey. The NVC way of listening and speaking can connect our best intentions to our words; it can train us to remember that we want to act from a base of compassion.

As a complete newcomer to this system, I see some practical connections to the Buddha’s teachings. For one thing, mindfulness is necessary to accurately assess our observations, feelings and needs as they truly are right now. We have to let go of assumptions and look at our thoughts (and body sensations) in an unbiased way, with some wisdom.

It also seems that NVC is based on the premise that all beings desire happiness, in this case defined as “having their needs met”. When we start from this assumption, which is the opposite of “others are out to get me”, our defenses can soften, our compassion can rise up.

For today, I’m interested in observations and feelings from the listener’s point of view. When we listen to others, we are not only taking in their words; we’re also picking up tone of voice, urgency, disinterest, agitation, etc. If we’re interacting in person, body language can also tell us many things about energy level, engagement, and general mood. In other words, we have an opportunity to listen to feelings at the same time as listening to the content of speech. This seems like a useful practice in itself. Some of us are very sensitive in picking up other peoples’ moods, which can create difficulties. But for me, it’s often difficult to know what other people are feeling, partly because I’m not really seeking to know. Maybe if I listen for feelings in others, they can be discerned. Will give it a try and report back…

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Trading candy for gold

As is true with views, we often don’t know what our intentions are when we act. We are so accustomed to being on auto-pilot through our days that the time needed to reflect on our intentions doesn’t seem to be available.

But, to practice the Buddha’s path, we need to try to know our intentions. This may mean slowing down a bit to see our actions more clearly as they happen. A gradual path of less reactivity and more reflection will help us know our intentions.

The second factor of the 8-fold path is right intention, that is, intention of renunciation, goodwill and harmlessness. Goodwill and harmlessness, and their opposites, are not so hard to discern in our experience, at least after the fact. But renunciation might be the single goal within the Buddha’s teaching that makes the least sense to modern people. What do we think renunciation means?

It might be easier to understand renunciation if we pair it with its opposite — grasping. When we release any form of grasping, we are practicing renunciation. Seeking out, grabbing, and holding onto things, material or immaterial, makes us feel solid and real. Our cultures seem determined to convince us that what we like and what we don’t like define us. Are we simply an accumulation of shifting desires and aversions? Or is there something else?

When we release a moment of wanting, when we let go of “I must have X” or “I can’t stand Y”, what’s left? Renunciation is a less dramatic feeling than grasping, but it is more peaceful and reliable. When our energy is pushing forward to get or reject something, and we notice that, we can practice renunciation by observing, relaxing, and understanding the process of grasping and letting go.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, renunciation is trading candy for gold. We trade immediate, short-lived gratification for a deeper balance and peace.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Examining views

Further thoughts on working with the 8-fold path, in this case, Right View…

One of the challenges with right view is that we are sometimes, perhaps often, unaware that we are holding a particular view. Or we are so sure that our view is the only way to see things that we don’t question it.

Here is a sampler of problematic views we may hold:

- I should wake up feeling rested and ready for each day.
– I should be able to do physical exercise at the same level as I did ten (or twenty or thirty) years ago.
– The things that I buy/own (clothes, food) should last longer than they do.
– My home and vehicle should not have parts that wear out and need to be replaced, maintained, re-painted, etc. At least not today!
– All drivers should behave in safe and predictable ways.
– All buses and trains should run on time, be tidy and safe, not be too crowded, and not cost too much.
– All roads and other infrastructure should be well-maintained (and taxes should be cut or kept low).
– Everyone should be polite, kind, and forgiving towards me, regardless of what’s going on with them.
– My friends should reach out to me at least as often as I reach out to them.
– My friends and relatives should not have problems (that might upset me).
– My work should be engaging and rewarding, and not too demanding.
– My partner or close friend should [fill in the blank].
– People should be like me.

You get the idea. Whenever we find ourselves getting annoyed or upset with things as they are, our automatic reaction is to think that things shouldn’t be as they are. We can get into a pattern of running a continuous inner monologue about how unsatisfactory things are, or worse, become a chronic complainer. Such patterns can become self-perpetuating and define our personalities.

An alternative is to observe things from a less personal perspective. Those of us who live relatively privileged lives can forget how poorly many processes in the world work on a normal day. When we are inclined to complain (to ourselves or others) about other drivers, for example, we can think: maybe this is the law of averages at work. Most drivers are pretty good, a minority are careless or reckless. How do I want to view this situation?

Whenever we are not getting what we want, or getting what we don’t want, we can take a step back and ask ourselves: is there another way to see this situation? One that doesn’t have me at the center? The laws of karma are always at work – everything that’s happening has a multiplicity of causes, and will in turn become causes for future events. What role do we want to play in this complex unfolding?

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Persistence and flexibility

After our whirlwind tour of the ennobling 8-fold path, I’ve been thinking about how to work with the path as a whole. Clearly it’s difficult (or impossible) for most of us to remember and practice all eight elements all the time; so on a practical level, how can we adopt the path as a guide and develop it?

My current working theory is that persistence and flexibility are two important keys. The Buddha’s path will only be effective at reducing our suffering if we undertake it for the long term (persistently). And, to make real use of the 8-fold path, we have to be flexible, meaning willing to try, fail, try again, try differently, observe the results, observe others’ as well as our own results, reflect, surrender, check the results, try looking from another angle, etc.

The process of walking the path is also iterative and non-linear. Our attention to right speech might lead us back towards considering right view, or we could focus on balancing right concentration and right mindfulness. The steps are too interdependent to complete one at a time; we have to keep circling back to deepen our understanding of each step again and again. When the elements of the 8-fold path are (in some sense) complete and balanced, that is one definition of awakening.

My own practice with right speech has been interesting. I made a resolution some time ago to listen to others more closely and to not interrupt them. That part of the experiment has been going reasonably well. But I’ve noticed recently that other types of right speech are doing less well, as if a fat lady had tightened her corset, slimming down one part of her anatomy but causing another part to bulge out. There seem to be more instances of questionable words slipping out of my mouth – not curses usually, but blunt or rough speech. I notice these words and tones after they’re airborne, and feel a bit shocked and dismayed. What’s behind this change? Is slowing down and becoming more reflective in one category of speech taking energy away from other forms of careful speech? Perhaps being reunited with old friends stimulates old patterns of speech? Or maybe I’m just noticing the next challenge. It’s not clear, but the process of observing and reflecting continues. I offer this story as an example of one way to work with the path factors.

Meanwhile, there are a few opportunities I’d like to bring to your attention. These are recommended activities for persons interested in the specific areas of study or practice.

For those of you who live in the Brisbane area, you or a friend of yours might be interested in an Introduction to Meditation course I’m planning to teach starting 29 August. The flyer is available here: http://www.dharma.org.au/dharmacloud/

For those of you interested in intensive study of the Buddha’s teachings, my friend Shaila Catherine offers on-line courses, one starting very soon: http://www.bodhicourses.org

If you are interested in investigating Healing Ecology with a Zen teacher, see: http://www.davidloy.org

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Right concentration

Right concentration (in Pali: samadhi), the last element in the 8-fold path, is a non-grasping form of concentration, characterized by a relaxed body and a mind open to subtle experience.

Classically, right concentration refers to the four jhanas or four increasing levels of mental unification and stability.

From Bhikkhu Bodhi:
However, samadhi is only a particular kind of one-pointedness; it is not equivalent to one-pointedness in its entirety. A gourmet sitting down to a meal, an assassin about to slay his victim, a soldier on the battlefield — these all act with a concentrated mind, but their concentration cannot be characterized as samadhi. Samadhi is exclusively wholesome one-pointedness, the concentration in a wholesome state of mind. Even then its range is still narrower: it does not signify every form of wholesome concentration, but only the intensified concentration that results from a deliberate attempt to raise the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html

It takes a particular form of effort to develop right concentration; it comes more easily to some than others. It is also best to have a living, present teacher when attempting to cultivate these mental states.

Meanwhile, whatever we can do to settle our minds in the tumult of daily life will be helpful. While intense feelings, positive and negative, may seem compelling, they are rarely helpful in making wholesome choices. Rather, a few deep breaths, a thought for the longer view of the effects of our words and actions, along with remembering our best intentions – these will support a steady flow of decisions that favor the wholesome.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration (the four jhanas)

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Right mindfulness

The last three factors on the Buddha’s path work together to support the cultivation of wisdom. It’s true that all the steps on the path work interdependently, but these last three describe a complete meditation practice. Right effort sets us up with a nourishing, wholesome mind-state; right mindfulness is an active, alert placing of the attention, and right concentration is the foundation of a relaxed and open calm.

The word translated as mindfulness is sati in Pali, which doesn’t match well with any single English word. The root of sati is memory – both remembering to be present with our immediate experience, and remembering the object of our meditation (e.g., the breath, or the passing flow of experience).

It is impossible to describe the development of mindfulness briefly. A study could start with the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, MN10 (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html), or better yet, a book called Satipaṭṭhāna, the Direct Path to Realization by Analayo Bhikkhu. Another excellent introductory book is The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera.

But here is a taste:
The four foundations of mindfulness, or frameworks for investigation are:
1) Our bodies and the physical world;
2) Our hedonic response to experience, i.e., I like this, I don’t like this, or I don’t care/I don’t know.
3) Our mental states (positive and negative, gross and subtle, etc.)
4) Categories of experience as described by the Buddha (also called dhammas)

What are the four [establishments of mindfulness]? Here, bhikkhus, in regard to the body a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to feelings he abides contemplating feelings, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to the mind he abides contemplating the mind, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world. In regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas, ardent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free from desires and discontent in regard to the world.
– Joseph Goldstein, from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (from MN10)

The contemplation referred to here is of a very special kind; it is not simply thinking and speculating about the four frameworks. “Free from desires and discontent in regard to the world” means that the mind is not leaning in a particular direction, that we are not grasping or pushing away anything, nor seeking a specific result. It’s as if we (temporarily at first) step outside of our preferences and expectations so we can notice very clearly the elements of our direct experience. While meditating silently, or while active in the world, we place our attention on one of the categories designated for developing mindfulness: the body, feelings, mental states, or dhammas. With no expectations and no agenda, we track our experience as closely and continuously as possible and see what we can discover.

The factors of the eight-fold path are:

1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action (non-harming, non-taking, good conduct in sensual matters)
5. Right Livelihood (legal, peaceful, honest, non-harming)
6. Right Effort (abandon the unwholesome, cultivate the wholesome)
7. Right Mindfulness (body, feeling, mind-states, dhammas)
8. Right Concentration

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