Author: Ben Page 2 of 3

I’m Making a Minimal(izing) Effort!

There is a lot going on in my life right now. Those of you who have read previous posts on this blog may already know that my marriage of almost 13 years recently ended, so I am currently in the process of preparing to move into a new place of my own. The last couple of years of watching this relationship fall apart have, naturally, lead to a lot of examination of my life. It has been a painful experience, but it has also been a period of some of the most profound growth that I have undergone during my life. Now I am onto a new phase of life, and have decided that some big changes are in order.

I have had an interest in something resembling Minimalism for quite a while, long before I knew to apply that term to it. From time to time during my marriage I would feel the need to “downsize” our life. Get rid of some of the things that we had accumulated over time. We made a few purges over the years we were together, but never really a substantial shift in the amount of things we possessed or the way that we were living.

minimalist clothing rack
Photo freely given by tu tu on Unsplash

Last year I came across a book that started to shift my thinking on the topic. I read a book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki, and his descriptions of the relationship he was cultivating with things really resonated with me. As often happens, reading this book led me to seek out more minimalist authors, which lead me to discover The Minimalists, which in turn lead me to a number of other bloggers and podcasters. There were so many overlapping and complimentary themes between my Buddhist studies and what I was reading about Minimalism, that it’s a little difficult to say which influenced my thoughts on specific lifestyle changes. Regardless of where I drew inspiration from, I began to think more seriously about adopting a more minimalist lifestyle.

Given the less than stable state of my home life, I didn’t really push to make any major changes in our household, but I did start to scale back a little on my own personal accumulation of stuff and get rid of a few things. It wasn’t until the decision was made that we were going to be separating that I decided to make any major changes. I have recently located a small studio apartment, and as we pack things up for our mutual moves, I have chosen to dive into a full-scale minimalist project by committing to only taking a minimal amount of things with me in the move. This is made easier by the fact that I first selected a place that only had minimal space to put things in, but it still hasn’t been easy.

Why Minimalism?

There were a number of things that guided me toward adopting a minimalist lifestyle. Some were influenced by philosophical factors, some by ethical, and some by practical considerations. Here are just a few –

Avoiding Attachment and Identification with Things

One area in which I found alignment between Buddhism and Minimalism in is the area of attachment. In Buddhism the goal is to avoid attachments in general. Minimalism is based on the idea that we don’t need things to make us happy, and that attachment to the accumulation of things leads to a lot of discontent and unhappiness. Things break. Things disappoint us. Things require upkeep. Things cause clutter. Things can be useful and can bring us joy in some cases, but attachment to our things sets us up for suffering.

Our things can also end up becoming our identity. We create an image to others, and to ourselves, of who we are, based entirely on the things we own. We begin to define ourselves and find our value in our things. We suffer when our things don’t live up to our aspirations, thinking we aren’t complete as a person if we don’t possess the right things.

minimalist bench
Photo freely given by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Our Things Have an Impact on Our Planet

From an environmental standpoint, purchasing new things means more things have to be produced. Some items have less impact than others, but none of these things are completely neutral. They require that resources be gathered to produce them, and in many cases they require production methods that might not be beneficial to the environment. There is generally some amount of transport involved, which means they have a carbon footprint. All of this, and then when we get rid of an item, it usually ends up occupying space in a landfill. By being more intentional with the stuff we buy and maintain we are able to decrease the impact that we have on our homes, individually, as well as our global home.

More Time and Energy For the Important Things

One of the things that I have realized in the early stages of this process, is that the things that I have cause me to spend a lot of time and/or money on their upkeep. Having so many things means I have to clean more things, replace batteries, spend money on electricity, etc.

Many of the things I own also cause a distraction from things that are more important. I have seen this played out during my 31 Day Precept Project. I have observed the role that social media, television, and video games play as an intoxicant in my daily life. Even though I might have a plan to work on some design work or a blog post, I decide that I’m just going to watch one show first. Then I decide that I actually feel too tired to work on my projects, so I just keep watching until I’m ready to go to bed.

More Financial Freedom for Experiences and Charity

By committing to owning less things, I will spend less money. This will allow me to eliminate debt, save more, and have more resources for charitable projects and donations. I have always told myself that certain causes were a priority for me, but when it came down to taking action, I showed that my priorities were actually not in line with my values, and that I mostly prioritized the support of the lifestyle I was living.

I have also never really had the money to participate in experience that I have wanted to have. It has always been a dream to travel more, even just camping trips around my local area, but I have never really saved to a point where that was realistic. By minimizing, I can cut my expenses and begin to actually save money for these experiences.

Living a More Meaningful Life Through Minimalism

This effort to minimize can be summed up simply by saying that I want to live a more meaningful life that is based on my relationships and worthwhile experiences, in place of one that is typified by the things that I own. This process is just beginning, but I am excited to see where it leads.

Impermanence in the Park

I felt the weight pressing down on me, the burden of everything that I hadn’t fully processed beginning to hit me. There was no one thing that I could point to that could explain why I was feeling this way. “I’m so sad,” I kept silently repeating to myself. The little stresses that arose at work only made me feel worse. Periodically checking Twitter, only to see another heartbreaking piece of news in my feed, was certainly not helping the mood. “I’m so sad, and I’m lonely.”

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on what I was feeling. My heart felt like someone had tethered a stone to it. My eyes had that not-quite-crying feeling, the pre-cursor of the breakdown that was just waiting for the right shoe to drop before the floodgates rushed open. I sat for a few minutes, telling myself I was just being with my emotions, but really I just wanted the feelings to go away. I decided that I needed to go for a walk.

I locked the door of the shop and walked out onto the trail that winds through the park and into downtown. As I walked, the voice inside continued it’s repetitive mantra, “I’m so sad.” I knew that this wasn’t useful. I turned my attention to my thoughts, observing them as they arose. The phrase came to my mind again, but this time I remembered something that I had heard recently about the fact that we will say, “I AM sad,” when what we really mean is, “I am FEELING sad.” I thought about this for a moment, and realized that I had spent all morning creating this sad and lonely me in my head. “What I feel in this moment is not who I am,” I told myself, “and it doesn’t mean I will feel this way in the next moment, let alone the next day, or week.”

park bench
Photo freely given by Will Paterson on Unsplash

I continued my walk, making my way into the park. I continued to observe my thoughts and feelings as I walked. My realization had not caused my sadness to disappear, but I did notice that what I had viewed as being a steady sadness was actually a fluctuating field of emotions. True, the overall color of my mood had been melancholy, but it changed with the various conditions of the day. I listened to the sound of children playing in the fountain and felt a slight warmth at their enjoyment. There was a group of young musicians, sitting along a brick wall, a makeshift band with two guitarists and a percussionist beating an upside down bucket. I listened for a moment, and smiled. I continued walking and saw an elderly couple, walking hand-in-hand, and felt a bittersweetness at the thought of enduring love contrasted against the ending of my marriage.

I observed each of these internal changes as I walked, recognizing the impermanence of each as they shifted. I thought about the effects of the various causes and conditions that held sway over my mind and heart. I felt a tinge of joy briefly emerge at this moment of understanding, then disappear just as quickly.

Today I met some friends for lunch, and one of them asked me how I was doing. “I’m doing okay today,” I told him. “It just depends on when you ask me. Some days are better than others.” This is true, but it’s not the whole truth. Each moment dies and gives birth to a new one. There are moments of feeling sadness, and there are moments of feeling joy. There are moments of feeling lonely, and there are moments of feeling connected to everything. The important thing is to be in each moment.

Awakening to Nature

I haven’t always loved hiking. I have tried to at various points in my life. I spent some time in Denver back in the 90s, and I remember buying boots to hike in, but I mostly just wore them as part of the Colorado uniform. I think I loved the idea of hiking, but wasn’t so much into the actual reality of hiking. A few years ago, that slowly started to change, and I now find getting out on the trail to be one of my favorite ways to reconnect with myself and with the world around me.

hiking with headphones
Hiking with headphones

I first started hiking the trails around Spokane about three years ago as a part of a big exercise kick. I liked it more than running, and there are an amazing amount of trails nearby. I wouldn’t say that I initially got much connection to nature out of hiking. I mean, there was always something about the views that I would connect to, but I would always have my headphones in when I would hike, always listening to a book or a podcast. In fact, I just went for a hike on a trail yesterday that I can remember listening to my first book about meditation on a little over a year ago. During this period, I began to really enjoy hiking, but it wasn’t until I began my mindfulness practice that I took the headphones out and developed a true love for being in nature.

Prior to discovering meditation and mindfulness, I obsessively avoided moments that were free of stimulation. I always had to be listening to something, watching something, playing something, reading something, or doing something. In fact, most of the time, I refused to limit myself to a single thing. In hindsight, I can see that I was afraid to be alone with silence, because that would be the moment that I would have to deal with my thoughts. In meditation, I found that I actually could sit in silent stillness and be okay. As I dug deeper into mindfulness, I found that I could actually experience a lot of joy in doing one thing at a time, and engaging fully with that one thing. This discovery was so revelatory to me that I wanted to keep following the path deeper to see what I would find.

One of my favorite local trails is about a nine mile loop that has an amazing variety of scenery, and culminates in a beautiful waterfall at the top of the trail. When I first decided to hike this trail without my headphones, I was actually a little worried that I would freak out about the silence over the course of the relatively long hike. Instead, I found that the combination of my recent mindfulness practice and the lack of superfluous stimuli helped me to experience things that I hadn’t noticed on my previous times on the trail. I heard the songs of numerous bird species, smelled the various aromas of the forest, and observed little white butterflies flitting around the floor of the trail. Not only that, but my practice of mindful breathing was helping me to take the initial steps toward a presence in my body that I had never had (On first hearing the James Joyce line, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body,” I was sure that it had been written specifically about me.)

There is a quote from meditation and Dharma teacher, Mark Coleman, that really resonates with what I experienced as I opened myself to being more present in my time outdoors. Coleman says, “Nature teaches us simplicity, because in its presence we realize we need very little to be happy.” We have so many tools that we use to distance ourselves from the natural world. There are many benefits that we get from our technology, but we have also learned to cling to it as a mechanism for our happiness. The problem is, whatever happiness we derive from our various distractions is fleeting, a hungry ghost that requires that we constantly consume more and more to keep the buzz going. Being in nature strips that away and shows us that, however nice our modern technologies are, they are not essential for our happiness.

nature simplicity

Yesterday, as I walked the trail, I allowed my awareness to open to whatever was arising around me. The field of sensation was so rich, and I thought back to how much of this I would have missed in the past. It made me feel grateful to truly be there in that moment, hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, and simply being.

Precept Project Day 12 Update

I am currently on day 12 of my 31 Day Precept Project. I have posted a few things that have been related to what I’ve been exploring thus far this month, but I figured I would take a minute to throw out some quick-hits style observations regarding the precepts –

  1. Eating vegan is not an easy transition. I have been doing pretty well on this overall, but I have had a few lapses, mostly involving not paying close enough attention to what ingredients are in whatever food I’m eating. I have actually ordered a butterscotch oat milk latte, not thinking until I was halfway through it that ‘butter’ is in the name. I also heedlessly order a vegetable fried rice, ate half of it, then realized I had been eating egg the whole time. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I am going to refocus on really being mindful of what I’m eating.
  2. I tell a lot of “little” lies. I have caught myself starting to tell a story several times, in which I begin to change a minor detail to make the story less awkward or reveal more than I would like to. This has been an interesting contemplation point, and I have generally caught it early enough to avoid the lie. There have been a couple of times that I didn’t really think about what I had said until later, however.
  3. Also related to speech, I have definitely decreased the amount that I am speaking by catching myself intending to talk about another person in a way that could be considered gossip. I have also realized that I have said something about someone that was not really useful or kind.
  4. I also have also noticed a tendency to interrupt. Often I make the initial interruption and then yield to the other person, but it’s still an interruption.
  5. Speech has been as challenging as I anticipated. Conversations can build a momentum, and sometimes I realize that I haven’t really been mindful of what I am saying, and when and how I am saying it.
  6. I have found a tremendous amount of benefit in avoiding intoxicants in the area of drinking. This is especially true as I am navigating a difficult time in my personal life. I has been nice to deal with a difficult situation from a place of presence and clear-headedness. I am also sleeping better overall (aside from that night that I drank 3 glasses of iced tea.) As far as my seated practice, I haven’t been experiencing the grogginess that I often have in the past, although I would say that it has been replaced by a bit of an overactive mind.
  7. I have definitely observed that I do use various forms of electronic media as an intoxicant. I have found myself compulsively checking Twitter at times. I have also found that I have an issue with moderation when it comes to video games and video streaming. I have grown somewhat better at noticing that I am getting sucked into a multi-hour mind numb fest, but have still managed to check out for hours at a time on a couple of occasions.
  8. I have been working with a mindfulness trick where I notice the urge to check social media and pick up my phone, holding it and trying to be aware of the feel of the weight of the phone and the texture of its surface. Usually the urge passes and I put my phone back in my pocket, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of this practice.

That’s just a few observations from the last 11 days. I’m planning on focussing some attention of the second precept this week (taking what isn’t freely given,) as I didn’t really have too many observations on that one.

Mindfulness Moment: Sullivan Lake

sullivan lake still waters
The tranquil waters of Sullivan Lake

This spring I spent a weekend camping at Sullivan Lake, a beautiful and peaceful spot about two hours drive from Spokane, WA. I set out on the trip with the intention to practice mindfulness throughout the trip. This effort was aided by the fact that I would be spending 3+ days without any cell phone coverage.

I had been spending my time on the cushion practicing the Anapanasati Sutta around that time, and had been specifically focusing on impermanence. Every morning during my ad hoc self retreat, I would go down to the lake and sit on the beach and meditate before the other campers were stirring. The wind had been blowing pretty hard most of the first couple of days, but I was delighted to discover that all was calm when I went to sit on the third day. I generally meditate with my eyes closed, but I had decided to practice that day with my eyes open, incorporating vision into my field of awareness. After a while, I felt a slight breeze blowing across the hair on my arms and legs. Shortly thereafter I saw slight ripples disturbing the surface, traveling from one side of the lake to the other, and then the water gradually subsiding back into it’s previous serenity.

Still morning waters
Hills reflect on the surface
Ripple with movement

My Sullivan Lake Haiku

As I sat taking in this scene, I realized that my mind was similar to this lake. I have within me a stillness that I hadn’t recognized until about a year ago, when I was constantly being helplessly blown about by various thoughts, desires, and aversions. In my practice, I have found moments of stillness, but I still experience the winds blowing across my surface. These winds arise and they pass, and as they do I am more often able to observe them mindfully. I am by no means free of their push and pull, but I have seen the stillness and know that it is there.

Acceptance Isn’t Resignation

Photo freely given
by Troy T on Unsplash

When I was a young twenty-something, besotted with the writing of the Beats and of Chuck Palahniuk, I bough myself a Moleskin notebook to carry around with me everywhere I went. This accessory (combined with my Gauloises cigarettes) was partially proof to the outside world that I was a man of depth, and partially a legitimate tool for me to begin writing my own poetry and short stories. My poetry was shit, but I like to think that some of my short stories were half-way decent for a person who had never really done any writing. At some point, I began to see a thread in my writing. I would often use the image of the protagonist taking a drag on a cigarette as a symbol of resignation. The most clear example of this was the following paragraph –

I stood out on the sidewalk, gingerly fingering a lump on my neck that had appeared a couple of days ago. ‘What is this thing?’ I asked nobody. ‘It’s probably cancer. That’s fucking great, I have cancer now. I’ll probably die alone from throat cancer.’ I took a drag of my cigarette. ‘I guess I could go to the doctor and have him look at it. Nah, I’m not going to pay some fucking doctor just to tell me I have cancer. Fuck it.’ I flicked the butt into the street and went back inside.

Some random thing i wrote

First, I would like to say that looking at this now, I am surprised to find that I unwittingly wrote a perfect example of Papancha (proliferation of the mind) many years before learning what it was that I was describing.

Secondly, I think this is a good way for me to set up the contrast between acceptance and resignation. In a tweet I posted recently, I said –

I had a lot of different directions that this thought was going in my mind. One of my new Twitter friends, Duane Toops, followed this up with a great post that captures part of what I was thinking. He did a great job covering this, so you should read his post, and I won’t go too in depth on this part. The short version is that we all have things that we find difficult to accept in ourselves. We need to learn to accept the truth about ourselves to grow as people and to skillfully make choices and deal with our life. The key thing is that accepting doesn’t mean that we have to be resigned to those areas not changing.

There were two other directions that I was exploring when I posted that tweet, the first being my approach to my practice, and the second being my approach to the outside world.

Acceptance in My Practice

I am still learning to see my practice as being a fluid and impermanent thing. It isn’t a straight line. It is a squiggly zig-zag, filled with ups and downs. I have recently found some rigidity creeping into my sittings, which is naturally accompanied by less ease and friendliness. I can get frustrated that I am not concentrating as well as I would like. I am finding that part of the reason for both my frustration as well for the actual cause of my frustration, is that I am bringing a lot of expectations and unnecessary striving into my time on the cushion. I have not been approaching my practice with friendly acceptance for what it has to bring. Over the last week I have been trying to approach my time in meditation with a spirit of acceptance. That doesn’t mean that I am not applying effort to continuing to improve my practice, merely that I am trying to accept that this is what my practice is like in this moment.

Acceptance in the Public Arena and Politics

With everything that has been going on in the world recently, this one has been a real problem for me. How can we accept the inaction of our government (speaking as an American) on issues like climate change and gun violence? This is where the concept of acceptance vs resignation really starts to get tricky.

Photo freely given by whoislimos on Unsplash

In the wake of two days in a row where I encountered news of mass shootings in our country, it was not easy to accept what was happening. I could feel my heart racing and tension building up with anger that this is continuing to happen with such regularity. Working with accepting what was arising internally helped me begin to accept what was happening externally, which lead to my anger turning to compassion for the people in El Paso and Dayton who are dealing with the pain of what has happened in their communities. It also directed my energy toward the question of what I could do to effect change. This wasn’t resignation, it was acceptance of the reality of the circumstances that exist and an exploration of how to skillfully deal with those circumstances.

This process is not easy, and we do have to be mindful to avoid the trap of confusing resignation for acceptance, but it is the only way that we can skillfully respond. In order to determine how to best fight the battle, you have to understand the battlefield. Not accepting leads to reaction, while acceptance can guide us toward skillful and effective response.

Using Meditation as a Drug

I’ve talked a little in a previous post about how difficulty in my personal life originally brought me to meditation. Discovering these practices helped pull me out of a dark period of my life, and have continued to be useful to me as a means of confronting difficult emotions and the events that lead to them. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I have seen that there is a difference between using my practice to skillfully face the things that arise in my life, and in turning to my practice as a means to numb myself to them.

As a culmination of a two year process, my wife and I recently came to an agreement that we would be separating. Although the events of the last couple of years have already caused me to deal with many of the most painful parts of this experience, this has still been a difficult development for me. I have been determined to be present with my sadness, anger, and the plethora of other emotions that I have been feeling this time around. In talking to my meditation and Dharma teacher this week, she brought up the fact that I needed to remain mindful not to use my practice as a means to numb what I’m feeling. I can honestly say that I haven’t been doing that to this point, but the reminder that this can be a seductive choice is a valuable one.

meditating by a lake
Photo freely given by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Looking back at my practice over the last couple of years, I can definitely see times when I used meditation as a means of getting over some difficult emotion or another. Joseph Goldstein often refers to this type of behavior as being an example of “in-order-to mind.” I am focusing on my breath in-order-to calm down my feelings of anger, or running to my cushion in-order-to get past my depressed feeling. In fact, my initial foray into meditation was all predicated on the idea that it could help me get over my depression and anxiety. While this kind of practice did sometimes give me temporary relief, it didn’t really treat the actual diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, which manifested themselves in my sadness and fear.

In working with the Fifth Precept, I’ve discovered that my practice can become an unexpected intoxicant that can cloud my mind. True mindfulness requires that I be aware of my difficult emotions, engaging with them fully. While relief from suffering can thankfully be a side effect of this practice, the real benefit is in growing in liberation from the root causes of my suffering. When we use our practice to avoid our feelings, we are basically just putting them on layaway, where we will eventually have to pick them up, and often the payment will have interest applied.

Every morning as I say the words, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind,” I have been examining my intentions to watch for the desire to escape my feelings in my practice. I don’t want to avoid these feelings. I want to be present with them, and learn what they have to teach me. This is all part of my path.

Beginning Again

For the last year or so I have been trying to start and end each day with a little journaling. Consistency in this endeavor has been spotty, but I do the best I can. As a part of this habit, I have a gratitude list that I write in the morning. Most mornings I start with a simple phrase that has become a bit of a mantra for me; “Beginning again.”

I first started incorporating this phrase into my life shortly after I began meditating. I noticed that several of the people who I was reading would describe the basic meditation practice as some variation of, “Sit with your back straight, focus on the feel of your breath going in and out, then notice whenever you get distracted, gently return your attention to your breath, and begin again.” The idea that I could begin again at any moment was so at odds with the way that I was raised, and I found the concept liberating in a way that I hadn’t expected.

begin coffee mug
Photo freely given by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

It is not uncommon to hear about “Catholic guilt,” but the guilt of those of us who grew up as Evangelical Christians hasn’t gotten as much press. I learned early on that I was a sinner, and that every sin that I committed was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross. That’s a lot for a kid to deal with, and as I went through life, I accumulated a collection of sins that weighed on me like an anchor. The guilt really got out of control around puberty, as I discovered a minefield of sexuality that had me spending countless wakeful nights lamenting the lustful thoughts that I had experienced during the day, fearful that I couldn’t be forgiven for such persistent sin.

I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t have a voice in my head that loudly and constantly told me I was a horrible person. I know the voice was there by the time I was 12 or so, because I can remember specific incidents where I would cuss out the kid down the street or lie to my parents, and would spend hours thinking about what a bad person I was, and that I was probably going to hell. As I grew older, the voice only got louder, and had begun to berate me for various other inadequacies, and not just my sins. I felt hopelessly caught in a loop of the same mistakes, and I had begun to genuinely hate myself.

We all have this type of voice in our head, although the contents and severity of this inner critic varies from person to person. This voice will tell us that we aren’t good enough, or that we are a fuck-up. It might compare what we have to what someone else has, or cast judgmental aspersions on someone we pass on the street. The thing is, we are not our thoughts.

you are not your thoughts
Bad photo by Ben 😉

I was thoroughly convinced throughout my whole life that this voice in my head was me, stating the facts about who I was. The very first lesson that I learned from my meditation practice was that those thoughts aren’t me. They are just thoughts, and I can notice when they are arising, watch them float by, and begin again. Not only that, I can apply the same practice off of the cushion. For instance, as a part of my 31 Day Precept Project, I have committed to eating a vegan diet. Somehow, when I ordered a butterscotch latte at the coffee shop yesterday (with oat milk, by the way,) it didn’t occur to me that butterscotch was not vegan. It has BUTTER in the name for crying out loud! In the old days, I would have beat myself up for failing in my quest for dietary perfection. Instead, I accepted that it was an honest mistake, and that this is only my fifth day of veganism, and today I can begin again.

In my practice it can be easy for me to get caught up in “succeeding” at meditating. I have days where my concentration isn’t what I would like it to be, or when I can’t shake a feeling of grogginess, and I can have moments of frustration with my perceived lack of progress. At times where I am more mindful, I observe that frustration arise and watch it pass away, and then I thankfully remind myself that I can always return to my breath and begin again.

The Precepts Project: Fifth Precept – Intoxicants that Cloud the Mind

Like all of the other Precepts, I’m finding that there is a lot more to consider here than just the obvious surface guideline. The point of this guideline seems to be the inhibition of mindfulness that is caused by the intoxicant, so if you really explore this Precept from a modern perspective, there are a lot of things that could be included here.

I won’t beat around the bush; even on the surface level, this is a complicated one for me. In some ways, this was the one that lead me to try this project. I’m sure I will discuss this further in a future post (possibly about Right Livelihood,) but I have worked in the wine and beer industry for about 10 years now. This is a difficult industry to work in and maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol, and I have definitely had the opportunity to explore the effects of drinking on my practice and on mindfulness.

Photo freely given by mnm.all on Unsplash

There are a number of ways that alcohol and drugs can effect mindfulness. Anyone who has tried to meditate while actually under the influence can attest to the effects that these substances can have on your practice. I have seen some people state that some strains of marijuana can actually help them with concentration, and I know there is a significant history of people using psychedelics in conjunction with meditation practice, so there is a lot that could be discussed about the use of intoxicants in practice. For the purpose of this project, I’m going to be working from a renunciation perspective.

I have occasionally used marijuana, but alcohol has definitely been my main intoxicant of choice. I’ve mentioned previously that I was using drinking as a form of self medicating prior to discovering meditation. Over the last year that hasn’t been as much of an issue for me, however I haven’t stopped drinking. In my practice, I have observed that even having a drink or two can effect my ability to concentrate while I’m on the cushion. As I’ve moved into my early 40s, I’ve also noticed that drinking in the evening can effect my sleep, which can leave me feeling foggy in the morning when I typically do a 45 minute sit. At times, it has made it hard for me to get motivated to get up to meditate, which either leads to a shorter sit or to sometimes not getting a good session in that day.

Photo freely given by Rahul Chakraborty on Unsplash

Another, less obvious, area that I have heard several Dharma teachers discuss is technology as an intoxicant. My teacher, JoAnna Hardy, has framed this as anything that we use to numb or zone out can be an intoxicant. We certainly can have addictive responses to social media. I have definitely caught myself posting an Instagram photo or tweet and them obsessively checking to see how many likes or retweets it got. I have also wasted a lot of time mindlessly scrolling down my various feeds. These platforms can also feed greed, hatred, and delusion in a really powerful way if we aren’t mindful to how we use them and how they are impacting us.

There are different ways that people have chosen to deal with the topic of intoxicants. Many Buddhists choose to completely abstain from drinking and drug use, but many others do not. I have heard some arguments that the Precept encourages not using any intoxicant to a degree that it clouds the mind, which can be a pretty vague line to draw. Ultimately, this is just a guideline that the Buddha gave us for practicing, so this isn’t a commandment, and we each have to choose how we will practice with it.

For the purpose of this project, I have chosen to completely abstain from drinking and using other drugs (Almost – I have chosen not to give up caffeine) for the 31 days of the project. I am genuinely curious to see how spending the entire month completely sober impacts my practice. Life has already been throwing some stuff at me this month, so I have had the opportunity to stay with some difficult emotions that might have been clouded by drinking under normal circumstances. I am also working with how I might use technology as an intoxicant. I’m not abstaining from social media, Netflix, or video games, but I am trying to be more mindful of how I might use these things to numb or distract. I did manage to spend at least four hours playing Playstation the other day, so looks like there is some work to be done here. Going into this project, I feel like this might be the area where I anticipate seeing the most fertile exploration in regard to my personal experience. I’m honestly not sure where this one is going to leave me at the end of the month, but I am excited to find out.

The Precepts Project: Fourth Precept – False Speech

Oh boy. Here comes the really tricky one. Today I am looking at the Forth Precept, which deals with the topic of speech.

From what I understand (I am not a Pali scholar), a faithful translation of the word used in this precept, musāvāda, is “false speech,” but you will often see this expanded to include all forms of false and harmful speech. If there is a single part of our outward-facing daily life that is most difficult to remain mindful in, it might be speech. When I was a young person growing up in the church, I would read the Bible, and I can remember coming across numerous verses about the power of the tongue for both good and evil. The apostle James probably had more to say on the topic than anyone, including this one –

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

The Bible – James 3:7-9

When I first heard my teacher, JoAnna Hardy, talk about this Precept, she used the guidelines, “Is it true? Is it usefull? Is it timely? Is it kind? Is it gossip or slander?” These guidelines seem like a good starting point for examining my speech.

Is it True?

There are numerous ways that our speech can not be true. Of course, some speech is just an outright lie. I’m resisting the urge to make a political comment here. Okay, so even that last sentence is not entirely true, as my words about resisting the urge were clearly made to imply a specific political statement. See how easy it is to be false in our speech?

In addition to lies, there are various other ways to be deceptive in our speech. Sometimes we can only tell part of the story to mislead someone to believe something that is false. We can also knowingly allow someone to continue to think something false because the misunderstanding benefits us in some way. I have worked in the wine industry for several years now, and I can remember being introduced as a sommelier on several locations, and never bothered to correct anyone because I knew people have certain status assumptions about somms. I also have had a tendency at times to add little embellishments to stories to make them more interesting, which is another way of speaking falsely.

Photo freely given by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Is it Useful?

I don’t remember the specifics of what I said, but I have a memory of a time when I was a child when I spouted off something in a family gathering, and my grandfather looked at me and said, “You don’t have to say everything you know.” I know I was embarrassed at the time, but this phrase has stuck with me, and seems to apply here. There are some times when you can say something that is true, but might not be helpful for some reason. Maybe it’s not an appropriate situation. Maybe it’s self-serving. The most common expression of this for me is when I have just grown uncomfortable with silence and I say something just to fill the void in a conversation. Another one that I have noticed in my own speech is a tendency to be in a conversation and feel the need to tell a “one-up” story. If we ask ourselves if what we are about to say is useful, we will doubtless find ourselves saying less, and perhaps listening more.

Is it Timely?

Sometimes what we are saying just isn’t being said in the right time. As I have begun to practice with this precept, I have found myself in conversations with people who are hurting to one reason or another. I find thoughts popping up in my mind about some piece of advice or statement of fact about their situation. When I ask myself the question about whether this is a timely moment to say this, I often realize that what I was about to say won’t really do the person I am talking to any good in that moment. It’s not that what I think about saying is false, it’s just that it isn’t the right moment to say it. I’ve found that taking the time to ask this question has generally lead me to a more compassionate response that lets the person know that I hear them, and that I care, which is often of far more use than whatever I was going to say originally.

Is it Kind?

Photo freely given by Robert Baker on Unsplash

I recently had an interesting experience with this question. There is a local figure running for office in my home of Spokane. I had made the horrible mistake of reading through a Facebook comment thread about the candidates, and one commenter was brutal in their words, calling the candidate a “fucking nutjob,” and another stated that “the blood of innocent people was on his hands” for his service in the military in Iraq. Although I don’t support this candidate based on his policy positions, I actually started to feel a really heavy heart for the candidate, as I’m sure he either saw these posts, or others like them. I thought about the fact that this person is a human being, regardless of what I think of his policies. A few weeks later, I was in a public place and overheard a conversation between two men, one of whom was tearfully apologizing for past wrongs that he had done to the other. I was moved by the man’s vulnerability and sincerity. Eventually the apology portion of the interaction had concluded and I overheard the same voice that had been crying expressing that he was having a hard time dealing with the comments that people had been making about him in his candidacy, and I came to realize that this was the very candidate that I had seen excoriated online.

In the example above, I wouldn’t say that the comments were really true either, but there are cases where we can speak the truth, but in a way that is intended to hurt someone else. To view this another way, however, sometimes not speaking can be unkind. A clear example of this that everyone will recognize is the Catholic church’s scandal involving child molestation. In addition to the harm caused by the actual abusers, there were countless others who are complicit in the suffering of the abused, due to knowing what was happening, and not saying anything. To ask whether our speech kind or not, we sometimes have to examine multiple perspectives.

Is it Gossip or Slander?

This is an aspect of this Precept that is tricky for many of us. I don’t think of myself as being an especially gossipy person, but when I make the effort to really examine my daily speech, I do catch myself talking about other people. Often we can even convince ourselves that we are showing how much we care about the person we are gossiping about. This kind of talk is typified in my original home state of Texas by the bless her/his heart story. We mask our wrong speech with a cloak of false-compassion.

In the same category of speech, we can find slanderous speech. Do we spread rumors designed to impugn or damage other people? Do we knowing share articles or memes on Twitter or Facebook that are so one-sided as to make a character of people who we dislike? Slander cannot really be true, as the best case is that the speech is only partially true.

So, What Does This Mean to Me?

This Precept is probably the most difficult one to work with. In the end, I have decided that the way I will work with it is to try to breathe more and talk less. I heard this phrase on an audience comment in the previously mentioned JoAnna Hardy talk on this precept. This practice is a mindfulness practice. I see it as being more present in my conversations; making sure I am listening mindfully when I’m engaged in speech with other people. I will try to take a breath and consider my words before I speak. If I’m doing this right, it will probably mean that I will talk a lot less, and hopefully will listen more.

In the modern world, this practice also includes an awareness of our online speech as being a part of right speech. Although it can feel anonymous, we are speaking with real people online, and should treat each other with kindness in digital spaces, as much as we would in person.

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