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Lions Roar : July 2009
31 SHAMBHALA SUN jULy 2009 AN AVId GOSSIPER SINCE AGE TWElVE, I’d always thought of gossip as innocuous chatter about a third person. For me, gos- sip was less about describing an absent person’s faults than it was about indulging my ability to come up with some adroit sum- mary of them. My focus was always on my own cleverness, on kicking up shit to aggrandize myself. My teachers advocated right speech for years, but I just couldn’t get into it. You know, you might try to be a better person, but until you actually understand how you’re hurting people, it’s very hard to practice the precepts. I still remember the incident that finally made me consider right speech in a new light. I said something hilariously funny about a friend to another friend who knew us both, and he repeated it to her. What I said was something I believed, and I’d actually mentioned it to my friend before, but I’d been more brutally direct with my gossip buddy, instead of instructive and careful as I’d been with her. So the language was totally different. I was very embarrassed and chastened when she called me, deep- ly wounded by my words. I remember thinking, Oh, I wish I hadn’t done this. I wished that I could protest that our mutual friend had distorted my words, but there was no possibility of an escape route there. he’d repeated to her exactly what I had said to him. I apologized profusely and at length. I had done her a grievous wrong, and I was grateful that she cared enough about our rela- tionship to call and give me the chance to acknowledge my un- kindness and atone for it. Many relationships, after all, would just be over at this point, but she was the wise one here. The shame that I felt about my remarks to my gossip buddy centered on the fact that I’d been willing to sacrifice my friend’s standing with him for something as trivial as an opportunity to turn a phrase. I also became aware, for the first time, that I had always felt shame when I spoke badly of someone, a little ka-chung in my heart, but because the shame seemed tiny compared with the reward of be- ing thought clever, I’d always kept on talking. This incident led me to investigate right speech by making ob- servations when an absent person was talked about, to see whether I could come up with any conclusions about the benefits of the precept. Note that I did not make an actual vow to practice right speech—you can see how deeply reluctant I was to take that on. during my investigation, the first thing I noticed was that if you wish to stop hurting people, it unfortunately entails renounc- ing a feeling that you enjoy, and replacing it with your wish to stop doing harm. In other words, you have to see the emptiness of that feeling of pleasure, and decide that the pleasure is not worth hurting someone for. That’s easy to say, but it’s really hard to do. We’d rather not bother with the annoying question of whether the feelings of others merit forsaking a pleasure of our own. On top of that, we don’t even get credit for making a virtuous decision! When I realized this, I was in a very bad mood for weeks. But by then I was tuning in to what actually goes on when people talk with each other, and I was fascinated by all the little subtleties of verbal communication. I even started applying the standards of right speech to reality shows on TV to try to pinpoint exactly how it is that people don’t realize what they say because PhOTOBYzENSuThERlANdWWW.zENAShEVIllE.BlOGSPOT.COM No Harm in a Little Gossip, Right? When something Darlene Cohen said about a friend comes back to bite her, she reluctantly rethinks the value of right speech.