Right Thought

As a Buddhist, I am used to thinking very hard about my actions in the world. One of the central Buddhist teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes in clear detail what it means to live a Buddhist life. Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. All eight start with the word “right,” but the same word can also be translated as “skillful.” For me, right thought is by far the most slippery of the eight, and therefore the most important. How does someone else get to decide if I’m thinking the “right” things?

You might think that your thoughts are private and that they affect no one but yourself, but there is a tremendous body of work that explores the relationship between your attitude (your thoughts) and your behavior. A Google search on the phrase “attitude behavior relation” yielded 1,420,000 results. What you think very clearly manifests itself in what you do.

The place that unskillful thinking hurts the most is when we’re in our peer groups. We think of our friends as those people among whom we can really be ourselves. How many of us have been in a situation where someone in our group made an unkind remark, and everyone else piled on, thinking that it was okay to talk disrespectfully, even hatefully, because “it’s just us”? Think all the way back to junior high school – you know you’ve done it. And the truth is, even at the time you probably thought to yourself “This feels wrong.” The “unskillfulness” of groupthink lets our desire to fit in with the group outweigh our own sense of what’s right.

If you were talking smack about a fellow student or a teacher, you might have worried that the person would hear about your remarks and feel bad. If you were generalizing about an entire class of people, like “boys” or “kids from our rival school,” you might even have thought “but I like this particular boy,” or “one of my friends goes to that school,” but you went along with it in order to go along with the group. You knew what was being said was wrong, but those people weren’t around and therefore couldn’t possibly be hurt by your words, right?

This is the kind of thinking that leads to mob behavior, where the loudest, most extreme voice in the crowd is the most persuasive and can cause a group of otherwise-sane people to do crazy things like the Watts Riots, the Los Angeles riots, and most inexplicably, the Chicago Bulls Victory Riot. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to lynching. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to the sort of attacks that both ends of the American political spectrum are unleashing on each other.

Policing my own thoughts, forcing myself to think, if not positively, then at least honestly about things is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken. But the payoff has been the feeling that I can trust my own judgement and my ability to make good, unbiased decisions. It has meant that my dealings with other people have been more respectful and honest, and people respond to the feeling that they are respected by acting more respectable. Given the chance, people step up to your expectations. Forcing yourself to confront your own negativity about yourself and others gives you the chance to rid yourself of prejudices that do nothing but hurt you. Letting other people know your high opinion of them gives them the chance to reinforce that opinion. Doesn’t that sound like a better deal all the way around?

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