HAVE YOU EVER gossiped about someone, then regretted it for years, unable to apologize because you lost touch with the person? That’s me. So Rosie Knox, wherever you are, I apologize for all the horrible things I said about you in sixth grade. And while I’m at it, I apologize to all the hundreds if not thousands of people I’ve hurt with selfish speech. And I apologize to myself for filling my mind with nasty thoughts and creating the karmic causes to be the object of others’ gossip in the future. Where did I ever get the idea that gossip would make me happy?
Gossip has many allures; otherwise we wouldn’t enjoy doing it. It has entertainment value, and anyone can participate. But what exactly is it that makes us tingle with excitement when using wrong speech? Do we think we’ll shine brighter by exposing another’s faults? Or that we’ll bond with others through maligning a common outsider? Or will we be empowered, especially if we feel oppressed by someone in authority? These so-called advantages of unskillful speech need to be investigated further.
Gossip can mean many things, from benignly shared information about someone not present to false rumors insidiously spread, to idle chitchat about someone’s personal life. The question to ask is: What is our motivation when we talk about others? From a Buddhist perspective, the value of our speech depends principally upon the motivation behind it.
When talking about others is motivated by thoughts of ill will, jealousy, or attachment, conversations turn into gossip. These thoughts may seem to be subconscious, but if we pay close attention to our mind we’ll be able to catch them in the act. Many of these are thoughts that we don’t want to acknowledge to ourselves, let alone to others, but my experience is that when I become courageous enough to notice and admit them, I’m on my way to letting them go. Also, there’s a certain humor to the illogical way that these negative thoughts purport to bring us happiness. Learning to laugh at our wrong ways of thinking can be therapeutic.
LET’S INVESTIGATE to see if we’ve had any of these thoughts. By unearthing them, we can check if they’re accurate or not. Do any of these examples sound familiar?
- “I’m so angry! I can’t believe that Gloria promised to help me on this project and then called today with some limp excuse for why she couldn’t come. Wait until I tell my friends about Gloria’s latest act of rudeness!” Armed with this assumption, we can talk for hours about all the awful things Gloria has done. We’re acting on the belief that venting our negative emotions and stirring others up will resolve our frustration with Gloria. Is that true? Often we have a problem with one person, but instead of working it out with her, we unload our negative feelings on our friends. If they side with us—and they should because, after all, that’s why they’re our friends—then we can sit back and feel like a victim, blaming Gloria for the bad feelings between us. Strange how ego finds making ourselves into a victim so comforting. If we can’t communicate directly with that person—maybe she’s a superior—why spend energy maligning her? Rather, why not turn our attention to doing something to improve our situation?
- “Larry is such a jerk, and everyone agrees. I’d never act like he does.” Motivated by the thought “If he’s so bad, I’m so good,” we’ll go on and on about how unfair the world is that such a jerk gets the good opportunities, while we, who embody unrecognized talent, are ignored. How does complaining make us feel better? How odd it is to attempt to prop up our esteem by badmouthing others.
- “I’m going to tell the managers that Stella only offered to take on the job because she’ll have her assistant do all the work while she gets the raise. Maybe if they know this, they’ll consider me for the job instead. ” Jealousy is often the motivating factor when we use our speech to create factions at the workplace. There’s never a dull moment when our envious mind is out to get someone, dethroning her and installing ourselves in her place. Are we successful in getting the positive recognition we seek when we create dirty politics and stir up discord in our workplace?
- “I’ll just tell everyone that Pat made the mess of our little do-it-yourself remodeling project. Then I won’t have to accept responsibility for how I botched up.” Bringing people together by sharing a condescending attitude is a strange way to bond with others. Do we feel good about ourselves when we do this
- “Ted really hurt my feelings after how much I trusted him. I’m going to get even by telling his secrets to others. Then he’ll have a taste of his own medicine!” How can intentionally harming another living being make us feel better? Instead, it usually results in our losing our self-respect.
On first hearing, the above examples may seem a bit crude. “Who, me? I wouldn’t speak like that!” ego innocently purrs. Or if we do recognize those negative habits of speech, our mind says, “That’s because everyone else talks like that.” But if we look inside ourselves with the searchlight of a sincere wish to become a better person for our own and others’ benefit, we will locate our own less-than-likeable motivations. When have we had those motivations? When have we gossiped about others? Initially, this kind of internal research may be extremely uncomfortable. After all, who likes to admit their faults? It’s much more interesting to address others’ defects. But that is precisely the point: what is it we’re avoiding by looking outward instead of inward? What are we achieving by holding up a magnifying glass instead of looking in a mirror? By ignoring, rationalizing, denying, and justifying our nasty motivations and unkind behavior we feel worse in the long run, not better. A tremendous sense of relief comes when we can be honest about what we’re thinking, feeling, saying, and doing. We take responsibility for our actions without feeling guilty about them because we don’t attach a big-ego “I” to them as in “I’m such a bad gossip.” By admitting our mistakes without exaggerating them, we’ll begin to clean them up. We’ll feel better about ourselves; and because our behavior toward others will change, their responses to us will transform as well.
HOW DO WE BEGIN to notice these motivations? This is where daily meditation practice is essential. Some quiet time alone each day to review our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds is essential for a healthy lifestyle. For example, when we wake up, we generate our motivation for the day: “Today, as much as possible, I won’t harm anyone verbally or physically or even with my thoughts. As much as possible, I will help others in whatever big or small way presents itself. And I’ll keep the long-term motivation of becoming enlightened for the benefit of all beings in my heart.” Starting the day with a conscious intention like this transforms all our interactions during the day. In the evening, we again sit quietly and evaluate our day: “How did living according to my motivation go?” When we see shortcomings, we apply one of the Buddha’s teachings to transform our motivations and actions. We rejoice at the thoughts, words, and deeds that kept true to our morning motivation.
Doing a silent retreat each year makes it easier to notice all the impulses we have to speak. Then we can investigate—“Why did I want to say that?”—and increase our awareness of habitual mental and verbal patterns. Also, a time of sustained intensive meditation helps us practice re-forming our motivations, emotions, and thoughts.
Clearly seeing the disadvantages of any harmful action halts the mind that wants to engage in it. For example, consider how gossiping hurts others’ feelings and causes dissension among people. When others discover that we’ve been gossiping about them—and they usually do—they may defend themselves or retaliate, causing us further problems. Even if they don’t react, they cease trusting us. And we all know that trust takes time to reestablish.
The disagreeable effect on others notwithstanding, how do we feel about ourselves when we gossip? Depending on the situation, we may initially feel that a weight has been lifted from us, that we have been vindicated, or at least that we’ve covered our rear end. But those feelings are false and ephemeral, for if we are sensitive to what is going on inside of us, we realize that we don’t feel good about ourselves. If we speak in this way repeatedly, we usually wind up with a bad case of low self-esteem. I’m a firm believer that our self-esteem is related to our ethical behavior. In other words, the first casualty of our speaking or acting with a harmful motivation is ourselves.
Thinking about the karmic effects of gossip throws cold water on quickly-moving lips. A complete negative karma—one with an intention, action, and completion of the action—brings four karmic results: an unfortunate rebirth, a similar experience happening to us, the tendency to do the action again, and residing in an unpleasant place. I, for one, have enough problems as is. Why should I create more for myself by mistakenly thinking that gossiping will bring me happiness? Furthermore, this negative karma will obscure my mind, making liberation and enlightenment more distant. Why would I do that to myself if I wish myself well? Being aware of the disadvantages that gossip brings both now and in the future helps us to drop the negative emotion fueling it as if it were a burning coal. When we’re really serious about avoiding gossip, we try to prevent the circumstances for gossip by choosing our companions carefully and being heedful of the topics we discuss with them. I do prison work, and one of the inmates commented to me that he’s noticed how idle talk usually leads to harsh speech, lying, disharmony, and malicious gossip. He may start out talking about sports, current events, or what was for lunch, but if he’s not alert, the topic eventually turns to someone else’s faults. His solution is to keep the chats short. That way he is friendly with others without staying around long enough for his own or another’s negativity about a third person to bubble up.
Sometimes we find ourselves chatting with a group when someone starts gossiping about someone who’s not there. We notice the urge to jump in and express our resentment too, but, mindful of the negative repercussions, we restrain our speech. Still, we know that we have to do something about our resentment, so later we meditate on patience and forgiveness. When we work with our hostile emotions in a suitable way and transform them, the impulse to release them through gossiping won’t arise. In the meantime, instead of following our urge to gossip, we can turn our internal focus to our breath or we can recite a mantra such as Om mani padme hum, the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
What can we do when we don’t wish to gossip, but the people we’re speaking with are really into it? The easiest solution, of course, is simply to leave the conversation, either quietly slipping away or excusing ourselves in order to do something else. But sometimes the situation doesn’t allow that. So we could say, “It seems people have issues with Ralph. How about talking with him directly about the problem? But first let’s spell it out in a less blaming way so that he’ll be able to hear you.” Another skillful option is to change the topic; this can usually be done rather easily and unobtrusively. In that way, the group can bond, but not at another’s expense. Later on, when we’re alone with the gossip instigator, we could say, “It sounded like you’re pretty upset. What’s eating you?” and in this way invite him to discuss his feelings, rather than someone else’s behavior. This can help him find another way to look at the situation so that his anger doesn’t destabilize the harmony of the group.
Sometimes we find ourselves on the other side of this situation: we’re really upset with someone and need to discuss it. So we approach a close friend and explain, “Something just happened between me and Sally. I’m angry and need some help dealing with it. Can you listen and help me?” In other words, we make it clear to ourselves and to our friend that we want to talk about ourselves, not bad-mouth Sally. By taking on our own anger, we avoid gossip. We also don’t put our friend in the uncomfortable position of having to side with us in order to maintain the friendship. Our friend can listen and reflect back to us what we’re feeling, which helps us to calm our mind. Or, if we’re open, she may even be able to help us look at our own part in the incident. In this way, our friend becomes a true friend, someone who helps us live ethically.
I’VE FOUND THAT the best antidote to gossip is deliberately and consistently meditating on the kindness of others and cultivating lovingkindness toward them. Sit down sometime and reflect on everything others have done for you since you were born. Start with your parents or another kind adult who fed you as an infant. Think about all the people who contributed to your education, all those who encouraged you to exercise your talents, and all those who supported you through ups and downs. It’s truly amazing how much others have done for us. When our minds become convinced that we’ve been the recipients of a tremendous amount of kindness in our lives, the wish to speak ill of others vanishes. Instead, we become happy to talk about others’ good qualities, virtuous activities, accomplishments, and good fortune. Then not only is our own mind happy, but everyone who speaks with us becomes happy as well. The goodness in our hearts overcomes any wish to gossip.
Imagine having conversations in which we talked about people’s good qualities and accomplishments behind their back. Think about it: wouldn’t it be fulfilling in a completely positive way? Speaking about how others helped us, praising their talents, rejoicing in their dharma practice, admiring and aspiring to cultivate their good qualities—speaking about all of these uplifts our mind, creates the positive karma of right speech, and helps spread happiness in the world.
If speech has five marks, O monastics, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, blameless, and above reproach by the wise. What are these five marks? It is speech that is timely, true, gentle, purposeful, and spoken with a mind of lovingkindness.—the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya)
Seven Tips for Giving Up Gossip
1. Recognize that gossip doesn’t undo the situation you’re talking about. It only puts in motion another situation based on negative feelings.
2. Know that comparing yourself to others is useless. Everyone has his or her own talents. In this way, give up jealousy and the wish to put others down.
3. Be aware of and transform your own thoughts, words, and deeds rather than commenting on those of others.
4. Train your mind to see others’ positive qualities and discuss them. This will make you much happier than gossiping ever could.
5. Forgive, knowing that people do harmful things because they are unhappy. If you don’t make someone into an enemy, you won’t want to gossip about him.
6. Have a sense of humor about what you think, say, and do, and be able to laugh at all of the silly things we sentient beings carry out in our attempt to be happy. If you see the humor in our human predicament, you’ll be more patient.
7. Practice saying something kind to someone every day. Do this especially with people you don’t like. It gets easier with practice and bears surprisingly good results.
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