The Zen of Conversation
As any honest contemplative will admit, hunkering down to meditate isn’t easy. Our attention swiftly gets sabotaged by thought. And once thought takes over, it requires mindfulness to wrest our awareness back. Repeating this process ad nauseam trains the mind.
But what, exactly, are we training for? Unless you’re living the monastic life, you probably aren’t shooting for the status of Arhat, or fully enlightened being. Rather, you have more modest goals. You want to be happier throughout the day, tamp down stress, stop mindlessly checking email, etc.
In principle, mindfulness can permeate every moment of our waking lives. Not all moments, however, are created equal. It’s one thing to notice your respiratory rhythm in the shade of towering conifers. It’s quite another to execute this move when a customer rep asks you, for the third time, to repeat the spelling of your name. The Chrysanthemums of the world can be forgiven for losing their cool here.
This example hints at a larger truth: conversation is not always Zen. There are two parts – speaking and listening - to any dialogue, both of which are entangled in the concepts of human language. There is no escape into sensory data. One simply must engage with the ideas.
Speaking, it seems, is little more than thinking out loud. Unless I consciously rehearse my next spoken sentence, its words, grammar, and structure remain shrouded in mystery until they actually escape my mouth. My thoughts simply move from within to without. The outer voice, fortunately, seems to have a filter that the inner does not. But the truth is - I can’t fully grok how this mental filtration works. And when it doesn’t work, I’m even more perplexed.
However mystifying these processes may be, a meta-awareness of our speech is crucial for connecting with others. Without noticing certain habit patterns – gossip, lying, self-talk, useless chatter, etc. – we can’t see how poorly they reflect on us. When someone is jabbering about the intricacies of their morning omelet, it takes effort to keep our eyes from rolling inside our heads. But how often are we, in fact, the tiresome bore?
“There is this mismatch between what we think makes us look good, and what we effortlessly recognize looks bad on other people,” remarks the philosopher Sam Harris. “[It’s like] a piece of clothing you could wear which you thought looked great on yourself, but the moment you put it on another person, you could recognize that this is the least flattering thing a person could possibly wear.”
Even more so than pointless prattle, gossip is one of these unflattering garments. We’ve all been in this situation: someone leaves the room and, before the door has swung shut, another person starts to review the recently departed’s flaws with an unusual level of energy. But rather than boosting their status, the gossiper is only announcing their infidelity. Everyone else in the room is wondering how many times this person has backstabbed them.
Yet it often seems that gossip is the only form of speech on the menu. It’s standard dinner table fare. Deriding other apes (behind their backs, of course) can be tremendous fun. But this practice is guaranteed to whittle down our integrity. We say one thing in the presence of our social group, and another in a work setting. This is also known as being two-faced.
The habit of gossip is so deeply engrained that one wonders: is it even possible to cease blabbing about others? Many years ago, the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein decided to find out.
“I made an experiment,” reflects Goldstein, “and for some period of time (…) maybe a couple months, I decided not to speak to someone about someone else. (…) If they weren’t there, I wasn’t going to speak about them.”
How did it go? “About 90% of my speech was eliminated,” remarks Goldstein. That’s a lot of smiling and nodding on his side of the table.
But radical, guru-level, commitments need not be made. Merely noticing our tendency to gossip can be enlightening. And this bad habit, it seems, hints at an underlying pathology: we simply want to be heard. With our speech, we’re often saying little more than “I’m here.”
This constant self-reification, it seems, is perfectly opposed to the other side of dialogue: listening. When we listen to someone speak, we seldom do so with an open mind. Instead, we are busy conjuring a clever response to reveal our mastery of the issue at hand. Our goal is to articulate our views, not to learn. We sometimes don’t even interact with what the other person is saying.
In many cases, polite conversation rapidly disintegrates into petty competition – whoever flexes more vocal chords wins. But attentive listeners are obviously more likeable than those delivering monologues on whatever they’ve sponged from today’s New York Times. Ironically, it’s in our selfish best interests to be less self-centered with our speech patterns.
Contemplatives, of course, have known this for ages. The Chinese sage Lao-Tzu once quipped: “Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.”
As we pay closer attention to our speech, Lao-Tzu’s words make progressively more sense. There are indeed many things that are best left unsaid.