In the Spiritual Naturalist Society – in all of our articles, correspondence, in-person conversations, online conversations, and local events – we always try to encourage mindful discourse. Therefore, it is worth looking at what we mean by mindful discourse in more detail.
The distinguishing characteristic of mindful discourse, is that we want the values and practices of our spiritual path to manifest themselves in our behavior, including in our interaction with others. It is one thing to talk about compassion, for example, but cultivating it ourselves is our aim. And, importantly, outward larger actions alone don’t do the job. We might contribute a sizable amount to important causes, and may even volunteer our time toward them. This may help others, but ultimately the world is most helped when we transform ourselves. This way, we become the kind of beings that are more likely to continue those outward actions into the future, to be more likely to deeply influence and inspire others, and be the kind of beings that will be more capable of enjoying the flourishing life.
Part of the process of achieving that transformation, affecting our inner motivations, is being mindful of the little moment-to-moment things. This touches intimately on what I have described in our Resources section as Demeanor Practice. Often the discussions in our organization involve topics dear to us. This has the potential to throw us into reactionary states of lower mindfulness at times. Recently I had a wonderful discussion with a friend on a very interesting topic. But I noticed afterward there were some times I was not as mindful as I could have been. So, let’s look at some specific characteristics of unmindful discourse, which may be red flags for us to watch…
One of our tendencies when in less mindful discourse, is to be so anxious to get all of our views out that we go on and on without stop. This gives little time for listeners to ask for clarifications or, more importantly, to even follow and consider what we are saying properly. This happens because we imagine that making the others know our point, or see our full position ‘right now’ is more important than it is. Buddhism is one philosophy that helps us with such ego-driven behaviors. In any case, this impatience and/or urge to dominate is a sign we are not being mindful in our conversation.
Revving on the Start Line
This is when another person is speaking and we are simply waiting for our next opportunity to speak, as though we were a runner on the starting line of a race, waiting for the gun shot. During this time, we are not living in the present because we are not appreciating the value of what the other person is saying. We are also not being very considerate. Both of these facts will hamper our ability to connect with the conversant.
Have you ever had a discussion with someone, and noticed that they never seem to ask what you think or elicit your thoughts? We have all probably done this before. It is often assumed that both sides will throw their lot into the mix, but this isn’t always the case – especially if they don’t feel welcome. We can always learn from others, so it is helpful to ask them what they think. And then, most importantly, really stop and consider it deeply.
Jumping the Gun
This act of impatience and assumption is when we hear the first few bits of what a person is saying, and then assume we know what the rest of their sentence or point will be. Often we may interrupt them, which ramps up the volley of exchanges and lowers mindfulness. But even when we bit our tongue, the internal assumption often turns off our true listening, and puts us into ‘Revving on the Start Line’ mode (see above).
This is similar to ‘Jumping the Gun’ but here, we imagine we know the other person’s entire viewpoint, in addition to many other views unconnected to their statements. We do this because we imagine whole packages of positions to be a part of larger general ‘types’ of people. But all too often, people aren’t like the stereotypes we imagine. And, just because they have a view on one position, doesn’t mean we can assume we know their other positions. Stoicism teaches us that judgments we make connect to values and labels and these can often blind us to the realities before us.
Planting Seeds in Infertile Soil
Sometimes our enthusiasm or desires may encourage us to force our views down others’ throats. We end up banging our heads against a wall because the other person is simply not ready or willing to be open to the views we are sharing. It is in this time that teachings such as the Taoist Wu Wei (effortlessness) can be helpful. Here, we move with the flow of things – in this case, we act in conjunction with the current disposition and nature of the conversant. If they aren’t ready or willing to give some things a fair hearing, we are patient and accept that it is not the right place or time, or that more productive approaches may be possible.
As we read the above, let us not consider this list in the light of “all the things other conversants have done to us”. While those times may elicit emotions which cause them to stand out in our memories, we cannot control what others do, and certainly cannot control the past. Instead, let us consider the above in terms of our thoughts and actions. That is what we control, and where our concern should lie if we are to make progress on our path.
These instances may be good reminders for us to check our motivations. Often, when we are not mindful, we end up having discussions for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps our real intention is to show off, or to ‘be right’. Perhaps we are trying to belittle the other person. Perhaps we have an inner need to assert our ego. Instead of ‘winning’ as a debate might encourage, mindful discourse happens for completely different reasons. Instead, the goal is to share ideas and learn from one another. By suspending harsh judgments or assumption or interjecting or comparative-contrasting language for a time, we are more able to listen deeply and consider that which we may have not considered before. We are more able to see through the other person’s eyes and broaden our understanding. In mindful discourse, the ‘winners’ are those who come away with greater understanding than before – not those who have merely convinced others of their previous understanding.
Most of all, if we are wise we will remember that mindful discourse is compassionate discourse. It is important that we try to keep loving-kindness for all beings at the forefront of our consciousness as we discourse. Love for everyone involved in a conversation will keep our attitudes charitable, our tones inviting, and everything conducive to greater understanding and communication. Along the way, we may discover the extra dividend that our own faculties of empathy, patience, tolerance, and love are improved.
If you’d like to experiment with this practice, strangers could be considered the ‘easy level’ because there is a kind of ‘polite shell’ we are typically trained by our culture to have. For more advanced challenges, try this practice with close friends and family – the more emotionally invested you are in the topic, the more challenging this practice will be. If you’re not where you’d like to be with it, don’t be frustrated – compassion, patience, and forgiveness is something to show ourselves too. Just keep trying and focus on the present. In time you’ll get better at it!
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.