Helpful Acronyms (written 2016)
Some time ago I read a talk by a wise teacher that referred to one of those handy memory acronyms I hope I'll recall at important times. The acronym, intended to be of assistance in the pursuit of Right Speech, is simply WAIT. The letters referring to “Why Am I Talking?”
At the time that I read this, I thought how life-changing it could be if I could learn to insert this question into the mental pause that opens in mindfulness before I speak. The pause needs to come first, of course, and anyone training in mindfulness knows that this is an ongoing practice. When we begin, ordinary mind is like an untrained puppy and speech the wagging tail that goes wherever puppy-mind goes. How often do we find ourselves in uncomfortable places because of hasty responses, angry retorts, sarcastic replies, unkeepable promises, exaggerations and humorous anecdotes? As we learn to pay attention to our thoughts and the actions they lead to, speech is just one of the elements of our behavior that becomes a little more disciplined. On a good day, in the right circumstances, we might have reason to be pretty impressed with our well-behaved mind and thoughtful speech. But there are times when the puppy and his tail simply run amuck.
A question like the one this teacher raises though might seem to go a little too far. Do I really need to examine why I am talking every time? Well, if you try this, you'll find it quite revealing. We talk for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with communicating anything at all. We talk because we're nervous or bored, we talk because someone else is not, we talk because someone else is talking too much, we talk to stop thinking. Talking can become as meaningless as the fretful barking of the puppy at the window of a busy street. So, while it is a difficult thing to do, it can be interesting to let this question float through from time to time in the process of practicing mindfulness.
A new aspect of this was opened to me recently on retreat, where speech is not permitted. When talking outloud is so restricted, it's interesting to note how the mind gears up for awhile, and does even more talking to itself. Incredible dialogues may take place within, without any input from anyone else whatsoever. The beauty of this is that, in time, we tire of hearing the barking inside the mind. And somewhere in there the question can be raised again: Why Am I Talking? What purpose does this constant narration of experience, recall of the past, planning for the future, analysis of opinions, listing of accomplishments, whatever we're on about in this internal speech, serve? When the answer arises, a blessed quiet descends. I remember a playschool teacher who would flick off the lights in the room to get the attention of her too excited, babbling young charges. Surprised by the dark, they'd stop their wild chatter. When the chattering mind is surprised by this question (WAIT), it too goes quiet.
In one of his teaching talks on this most recent retreat, my teacher referred to the voices that will arise when conscious mind makes room. When conscious mind, the mind of mundane chatter, makes room, wisdom is permitted to surface. We can be surprised in times of extended silence, outer and inner, by insights and truths that are not heard in words at all, understandings that arise and give clarity where confusion reigned. “Voices” in the stillness. Some mystics have spoken of these voices as being the voices of God or of angels. Rumi would speak of “the beloved”. In Buddhist psychology, these voices of wisdom are not “other”, but what is known in the luminous mind, the original mind Zen may refer to, before we cloud it over with too much selfing and analytical thinking.
Even if you have never been on a retreat, are not a meditator, you've likely felt such moments. Strolling by the ocean at sunrise, standing in the woods in a gentle spring rain, feeling the tiny fingers of a sleeping infant reflexively wind themselves around your own finger, listening deeply to or making music, reading a poem that moves your heart, lying still under a star filled sky. There are endless moments that arise in life where a natural quiet opens. A quiet of the mind, a peace of the heart. And if we're not in too much hurry, we remember to WAIT, and let this linger and we listen for the wisdom. I've come up with my own acronym for this process. LOL. Oh, I know, it's fitting perhaps that most of us think this means laugh outloud. I suggest it also could mean Listening Opens Learning. It isn't talking, diverting ourselves and others with questions and answers on the level of rational thought, that holds deep answers. It's being quiet. Listening to what the “voices” in the stillness have to say. The joy of that may make us laugh outloud.