A selection from our upcoming book, Wisdom in Buddhism - from the chapter on conversation
As alluded to in the introduction of this book, a dark age has descended upon us. We are in a time of social and environmental degradation. We are witnessing a coarsening of words and muddled thinking. We are in a time of war, although, to be fair, humans always seem to be in a time of war, but the various forms of war we can wage now are greater than ever before, with wide ranging ramifications; psychological war, disinformation war, internet war, media war, political war, even war between the sexes. But the war that should concern us most is the war on reasoned thought.
We no longer seem able to know what to accept and what to spurn. When the leaders of countries label the press ‘fake news’ unless it agrees with their personal or political views, we can no longer be certain who or what to trust. When we are thus confused and uncertain, we can too easily be influenced by others who may not have our best interests at heart. When we are confused, we may grasp at the straw that seems most palpable, most easily consumed and digested, even if it’s not in our best long-term interests to do so. When we are fed a diet of delusions, we may be too easily lead by our greed and hatred.
When we take less time to think before speaking, we can, today, spread our poor choice of words around the globe, not fully realizing the almost immediate impact. Link this to the weapons that some countries have at their disposal, particularly nuclear weapons, and the destructive possibilities are terrifying.
Now, more than ever before, we need to choose our words wisely, offer council which is just and true, take actions that create harmony and build mutual trust. Every society knows (or once knew) that living together required decency, kindness and civility towards one another, but in societies like that which we’ve built in the West, we’ve become so focused on the gain of material goods, money or status in order to satisfy the insatiable individual that this civility has come to be seen as uncomfortable, limiting, unworthy or in some way unseemly. Today, little value is placed on common human decency and kindness and care for one another.
Yet, human decency and kindness, in this day where everything can be amplified and accelerated through our technology, is as important - more important - than ever before. Knowing how to have a conversation with someone that doesn’t send one party or the other spinning off into an abyss, dismissed, demeaned or devalued is one critical component of deep wisdom.
Words and Breath
When my wife and I have a conversation I sometimes wonder, “When is she going to get to the point?” Well, fact of the matter is, sometimes there is no ‘point’ to get to. Sometimes, a conversation doesn’t have a point, moral, reason or even need a justification. Sometimes, we just talk for the sake of talking; perhaps to reveal something of ourselves, our passions or dislikes or to feel a sense of connection or to tell how we feel without any judgement or reply even being necessary. Sometimes no decisions need be offered or made, no ‘solving’ needs to be done, it’s simply an interchange. It’s taken me forever to learn this … well at least 62 years in this lifetime.
When we speak with others, beyond a simple, “Hi. How’s it going?” the conversation typically has an ebb and flow or a natural wax and wane. Sometimes the conversation will be short while other times it may be long and wandering covering a wide range of topics. Sometimes, as noted earlier, there may be no particular point to a conversation beyond connecting with one another, while other times the nature and outcome of a conversation will be apparent from the outset - having a certain goal in mind.
The scope of a conversation might be wide or narrow. For example, two engineers may have a very specific conversation about whether a grade 5 or grade 8 bolt will be best suited for fastening hand rails onto a pedestrian bridge. Other times a conversation may cast a wide net. For example two business persons may discuss how best to market a product, including; ethical sourcing, pricing variables, distribution channels, after-market sales and service and market positioning.
Sometimes we feel ‘obliged’ to have a conversation and when we do, the discussion may be shallow and not overly enthusiastic. We may on be interested in saying what is expected of us, or quickly hearing what the other person has to say, and then be on our way. The topic or topics are touched upon but lightly and without vigour. Other times, when a topic or person deeply interests us the conversation may be fully engaged in and plumb the depths of a topic or topics with enthusiasm and zeal with each participant bringing their knowledge and experience to bear.
When we speak upon topics we are well acquainted with, the character of the conversation may be smooth and seamless, quick paced and focused. On the other hand, when we speak on topics we are less familiar with and using the time to ‘explore’ the topic, our conversations may be less smooth, a bit choppy or fragmented as we search for the words to use and a way in which to express ourselves. We may occasionally backtrack over points to clarify and refine. We may have blind paths which we run down that yield no way forward and we need to backtrack and start down another avenue.
A smooth interaction with someone flows easily from one topic to another, each feeling comfortable expressing their ideas, opinions, observations or comments and receiving the same from their conversation partner. Other times, a conversation may feel adversarial, where one person may feel hurt, dismissed, or undervalued. The conversation may feel out of balance with one side being more dominant while the other feeling they may not have fully participated.
In ancient Japan, Samurai warriors, were skilled in the use of weapons of war such as swords, knives, bow and arrow and, of course, hand-to-hand combat. These warriors, who were feared and respected for their fighting skills and special social standing, were also expected to train and become efficient in the arts,* such as flower arranging, tea ceremonies and, yes, conversation. Demonstrating their power in battle, then being able to contain and channel that power in delicate matters such as a tea ceremony and elegant conversation demonstrated discipline of the mind and development of the spirit and body.
Everyone knows that our words can be hurtful, dismissive, callous, cold and uncaring, but they can, with good intentions and wise choices, also be used to garner warmth, love, compassion, understanding, support and kindness for your conversation partner. It’s all about intent.
In order to help in selecting wise words, look for areas of common interest and common philosophy. We can’t always agree on everything, but some common ground can almost always be found. Where it can’t, there is no wisdom in inflaming the emotions of others with ridicule, harsh words or name calling. Rather, seek to mend fences, build trust and harmony with the conversation.
In short, the nature of a conversation is formed by the interplay of scope, quality and character. The wisdom is determining how to direct these forces to get the best from a conversation at any given time in any given place. To seek a smooth, engaged, energized, meaningful and balanced exchange of ideas within a conversation, should be our goal.
In This Moment
When we enter into a meaningful conversation with someone, it should be a priority. We might turn off our television, radio or cell phone. We might ask that we not be interrupted except for urgent matters. We might set aside a specific time and place where the conversation can take place. Above all, we need to be present, in the moment and focused.
No one wants to be in the middle of making an important point in their conversation and have the recipient look down at his or her cell phone to read an incoming text. It’s disrespectful of the point being made and of the person making it. Still, I see this all the time.
When I was the operations manager at Mountain Equipment Co-Op, I was once conducting an employment interview with a prospective employee for a senior store level position. He set his cell phone on his lap and looked down at it at least ten times during the ten minute “conversation” that we had about his possible employment with the organization. It seemed he was unable to disconnect from the outside world for even a few moments. It seemed that he wanted to be somewhere other than with me, in conversation about employment. He could not be “present” in the here and now to fully participate in our conversation.
I see people seemingly deep in conversation at a nearby Starbucks yet with rare exception are the cell phones not on the table in front of them, ready to relay some piece of information from the outside world to distract them from their talk. Some people seem literally addicted to their cell phone and its use, actually suffering withdrawal symptoms if separated from their internet provider for even a few short moments.
What all this seems to indicate is that have difficulty engaging with others in meaningful conversation because we have the pressing belief that we are ‘needed’ somewhere else or that something else requires our urgent attention.
Yet this belief is rarely based on any reality. Our untrained and unfocused minds are simply unable to ‘settle’ and be in the present moment as our ego is trying to manufacture some reason for us to be elsewhere doing ‘important’ things, or seeking some novel experience. We are undisciplined and unused to the idea of being in one place and engaging in something for more than just a few minutes.
* Japanese Samurai culture and code of conduct (Bushido) evolved to included the idea of artist-warrior. It was during the Muromachi era (1338-1573) that Samurai training began to include the formal and highly ritualized tea ceremony and flower arranging to add refinement and balance to the warrior persona.