Say What You Mean (But Don’t Say It Mean)

By observing your brain at work and play, you become more aware of judgments bubbling up. And when you are aware of them, you can choose whether to act on them.

One of things that books and teachers will tell you about Buddhism is that meditation makes you less judgmental. That’s not really what happens, though. You never stop making judgments. But when you meditate, you don’t attach as much weight to them. They’re just more thoughts, more ephemeral, effervescent brain bubbles. They are no more urgent or important than the bubbles that say “my nose itches” or “the room is blue.”

By observing your brain at work and play, you become more aware of judgments bubbling up. And when you are aware of them, you can choose whether to act on them. You can question them — really, is he an idiot? is that word hate speech? is it really important to correct their error? does it matter than my opinion is that those pants are ugly? — or investigate them, find out whether they are arising from some old injury that’s bubbling away slowly in the tar pits of your mind or from some giddy advertising or beauty magazine-imposed standard.

There is always the chance that the judgments contain wisdom, that they represent clear seeing, or discernment. Sometimes that voice says, this is not how to treat people if you value them. These are not appropriate words. This attitude spreads hate; it is not of benefit.

A lot of people think that Buddhists “accept” what is. “This is just how it is now.” But that’s a misperception. We try, constantly, endlessly, to see what is, without imposing our preconceptions on the situation. Seeing what is allows us to make real change. Seeing clearly that a relationship is abusive does not mean accepting that is how it is and will be. It means you can stop denying or excusing or dramatizing or lingering and act.

I’ve been following reports last month about Rush Limbaugh‘s comments about a young woman who testified in favor of requiring insurance plans to pay for birth control. He’s a sad man, a hungry ghost who can’t get enough attention, affirmation, strokes, no matter how much he gets. A hell-realm dweller for sure. He’s miles away from seeing his own inherent compassionate nature, let alone anyone else’s.

Seeing that does not mean accepting what he said as appropriate. His words were mean. Such speech contributes to a culture of meanness. And so do we if we don’t say something.

My first reaction is to meet nasty words with nasty words (not that my words reach even a tiny fraction of a percent of, but they do influence the environment around me). But as I sit with it, I lose my desire to do that.

This is where I arrive: I don’t want any particular result for Rush Limbaugh. I’m not attached to getting him fired. But I do want to say that how he chooses to talk is hurtful and unacceptable. If I don’t say that, I am part of it. But I can say that, to his advertisers, without attacking him. As many others have done.

I don’t want to add to the meanness in the world. I don’t want to contribute to building a culture where meanness and ridicule is how we communicate.

There’s a saying in recovery: Say what you mean, but don’t say it mean.

Or, as I said to my kids during their contentious years, I don’t talk to you like that, so please don’t talk to me like that.

Golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

With a Buddhist coda: Because they are you.


(This article also appeared on the Interdependence Project Blog, March 2012)