January 29, 2009


Words are great things. My stock in trade, they are the most wonderful things ever invented, better even than indoor plumbing. Especially written words. They can communicate so much, convey those things which are almost inexplicable. Personally, I always felt the thousand words to paint a picture was somewhat low, but then I’ve always had a problem with brevity.

Yet, lately words seem to be getting me into trouble. Three separate times in two days I’ve managed to completely mis-communicate my message and/or alienate the person I’m communicating with. But you see, the words are just a means to an end, and in these failures, I’m starting to learn a little bit more about exactly why I like words so much.

The other day, I said something to a friend and I knew it was exactly the wrong thing to say the second I hit the enter button on the chat program. “That was unskillful,” I immediately though. “That’s not gonna get me what I want.” But as the day progressed, and I naturally obsessed over the faux pa, I noticed a deeper issue. By evening I was wondering “Is that really how I judge whether something is unskillful or not? What it gets me?” I was stunned by the subtly and monstrosity of my ego. Sneaky bastard!

What I said might have been exactly what that person didn’t want to hear (or read, as the case may be), but it might have been something they needed to hear. Maybe in the short run it wouldn’t help me get what I want, but in the long run it could bear fruit for them. I hope so anyway, otherwise I’ve been doubly unskillful. The trouble is that I don’t possess the wisdom to tell the difference just yet. So maybe I shouldn’t speak at all? Hmmm...

In my latest column, I let my passion carry me away and distort the argument into something that it wasn’t. My rhetoric got the best of me and worked to turn the lock on the minds I was trying to open through an accident of misdirection. Part of what bothers me though is a word choice change my editor made. He replaced a word with one exactly opposite of what I was trying to say, which illustrated more problems than the poor choice of a single word. It shows that I really need to try reading my own columns and looking at them from the perspective of another person. I need to get outside my own head and try to see it how others see it.

Last night I ditched my design competition team at quarter to one in the morning. At quarter past six they decided to cancel the critique scheduled for nine because not only did they feel we didn’t have enough work done, but that we needed to go back and rethink the entire presentation. They may well be right, but I was particularly unskillful in discussing it with them when I got back in.

What I saw was the same kind of existential panic attack that strikes everyone in the wee hours of the morning shortly before the due date, usually around the 72-48 hours-out mark, which is where we happen to be. This is why I don’t do all-nighters. I’ve seen too many classmates rendered completely ineffective due to exhaustion, stress, uncertainty, and just plain being tired of working on the same damn thing for so many hours. You get too close the project and everything starts to look like worthless gibberish and your ability to execute goes out the window.

So, I reacted not so fabulously of Chris’s declarations of “It doesn’t make any damn sense!”

“It’s not supposed to make any sense!” I yelled back. Fortunately, the moment of incredulity which ensued did halt the tirade and give me room to backtrack and make a more reasoned argument. Apparently, my life philosophy of bewildered confusion was not pertinent to the argument at hand.

Eventually, we were able to communicate like adults, understand each other, if not entirely agree, and reach a reasoned compromise, but it was more painful than needful. The thing is that I reacted to my teammates entirely from the space inside my own head. I didn’t stop long enough to try to understand where they were really coming from.

All three of these instances highlight one thing: EGO! In each one, I was clinging to me. What I want. What I am saying. What I see. And I was getting frustrated with people and reacting badly when they didn’t say, do, or see what I wanted them too. I was using words to unskillfully express the needs of my ego, rather than communicate a genuine message.

So in thinking about how I use my words, the question is not really, how can I say exactly what I want to say in order to get exactly what I want to get. That’s just the ego talking. Right Speech is instead understanding when speech is beneficial at all, to what end, and for whom.

I’ve been thinking I could really benefit from a wordless retreat. No speaking, no writing, no reading, watching television, or listening to the radio. I don’t think it needs to be solitary, but it would be a good way for me to come to a greater understanding of Right Speech. It would be a good way to understand how to connect with other people, the ones who are right in front of us, not the talking heads on the moving picture box, and see the urges behind our need to communicate.

Maybe this summer, and in the meantime I’ll just write about it some more…


Teacher Jim said...

I spent some time at a Buddhist Monastery as a volunteer and every once in a while, someone would go on a 'silent' retreat for a day. They had a big button on their shirt that said:

(but you can still talk to me).

When I did it, the day unfolded just like any other day but instead of talking to people who stopped to tell me something, I just smiled. It felt wonderful. Not sure I could do it long term, but it was a great learning experience none the less.

Monica said...

Yeah, people at reatreat centers I've been to have done that. I've even been part of a program where we were supposed to spend an afternoon in silence, but we spent more time goofing off and trying to mime than actually trying to follow the practice. I think I'd like to try something a little more committed, because I think it wouldn't be that hard to be silent, but if I could write...then if I couldn't read...that would be interesting. Maybe just for a few days or a week, a full week would be good.

Monica said...

Hmmm...that comment was all about me again, wasn't it?

greenfrog said...

I've recently begun to play with the idea that my words are not meaningfully separate from "me" -- IOW, they're not so much tools as manifestation, and they're as empty as "I" am. That notion (which I picked up from another blogger elsewhere) has allowed me to be a little more aware of my words in the same way that I'm aware of my thoughts when I meditate. Not sure where such a notion might lead, but your post reminds me of that recent practice.

Nice post, Monica.

Kavita said...

Vipassana, Monica?


Monica said...

I don't know any place/person hereabouts that teaches vipassana. I haven't looked recently, mind you. I think the closes place is over near Iowa City, which is practically in Illinois. Maybe this summer...

wolfie185 said...

Hi Monica,
Writing is a way of getting stuff out, so therefore, yah it is about me, since I am not talented enough to look at things from a completely meditative view I need to write things out to examine my thoughts. You do this with your blog and articles, I can’t see anything wrong with that, since you do it objectively and in a humble manner. From my understanding of Dharma practice it is advised that we talk to others in order to understand our suffering better, we also listen to the feedback for assistance in working toward the Middle way.
My understanding of Right Speech is having the awareness before I open my mouth or hit the send icon. I also am aware of the speech that stays in my head and is never expressed to others, this is usually the negative/ignorant stuff I have to work on which holds back growth towards Loving Kindness, o.k. this is probably more on the lines of Right Mindfulness but I am still talking but just inside my head. All of this takes practice, learning to not speak impulsively and speak from the heart, to be aware that each person I communicate with understands the words and there implications differently, I really dislike making amends for hurting someone with my words, constructive criticism and tough love are different but still must be handled with an open mind toward compassion. For me it is all about slowing down, if my mind is rushing ahead of the moment then more than likely I will blurt out words because I am not taking the time to hear what is being said so I can respond correctly.
A silent retreat without words sounds tough!! I can go hours without speaking but to go 12 hours without reading, listening to music or even jotting something down on paper would but a serious mental workout. Not being able to read would be the hardest, I have finally started getting comfortable with silence and not wanting to have some music in the background but not reading something for a whole day would be strenuous.

Nice post, best wishes towards your endeavors!! Thanks for reading my self perspective words.