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?

Love and Courage

Today is Michaelmas. My daughter’s school holds a celebration of Michaelmas every year with a play to celebrate the victory of the heavenly host over Lucifer (God’s apparently a delegator) and a picnic to celebrate the harvest. The play is always adorable with the 7th grade playing the part of Lucifer in the person of a giant dragon who ravages the village, much to the consternation of the 4th grade villagers. The play emphasizes that love and courage overcome evil better than might.

While on the 45-minute drive to the school, I thought about love and courage and faith. I was raised a Catholic. The thing I love the most about Catholicism is the amount of ritual. If you go to Mass, there’s going to be standing, sitting, kneeling, talking, singing, eating, drinking. And there’s the best part – the kiss of peace. You turn to the people around you and say “Peace be with you.”

While I was saying those words and shaking hands and kissing people on the cheek, I meant them. I loved those people. I completely forgot that this one had cut me off in the parking lot, or that one had spoken sharply to me or another one owed me five dollars I wasn’t going to see anytime soon. In that moment, I truly loved them and wished them peace.

Later, I became Buddhist. Let me clear something up for you: there’s nothing in Buddhist doctrine or in Catholic doctrine that says you can’t be both. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddha is not a god, nor do Buddhists worship him in the same way that Christians worship God. The big difference is that, while Catholics filter their experience of God through priests and other church hierarchy who put a lot of rules in place, Buddha encouraged his followers to believe only what they could prove to themselves. Catholics have ten commandments and a million other rules, but Buddhists only have one rule: every action has consequences.

If you open your hand and drop something, whether you’re the president or a prostitute, whether you’re a stockbroker or a stock clerk, it’s going to fall. There’s no judgement involved.

Being Buddhist has meant that I now spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of my actions, but nobody is good at that 100% of the time, and every time I make a poor choice and experience negative consequences, I feel like a failure. And, like everyone else, I’m hungry for success. Humans are all hungry. We’re hungry for love, hungry for money, hungry for approval. Starving for it.

Here’s where love and courage come into it: you can’t feed yourself. No amount of staring into the mirror and saying “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you” is ever going to fill that hole of doubt inside you. But you can feed other people. Everyone around you is as starving as you are, and the easiest thing in the world is to feed them. You feed them by actually listening when people talk. By paying strangers compliments. By smiling at people. By asking someone who looks upset if they’re okay.

The flip side of only being able to feed others is that when others feed you, you have to open yourself up to the nourishment they’re offering. When someone smiles at you, feel the goodwill they’re giving you. When they compliment you, don’t just say “thank you,” but really feel grateful. When someone offers you that kiss of peace, kiss them back.

Happy Michaelmas, everyone.

I’ve Been Promoted!

I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for decades now, and it’s less a religion than a lifestyle. I make it a habit to think very long-term about the things that I do, making sure that I’m doing the right thing. I try very hard to practice the whole “right speech, right action, right livelihood, right thought” thing, although I must admit that my own personal weakness is right thought. My biggest indulgence is a constant stream of mental snark that occasionally spills out of my mouth as speech.

One concept that colors my thought is that of the ten worlds. These ten worlds are ten different states of being, and while they are typically presented from lowest to highest, you can move from any one of them to any of the others. For a list of the ten worlds and how they interact, go here. I’ll wait.


For the first half of my life, my normal state was hunger. As a middle child, I craved attention from those around me and often acted like a drama queen to get that attention. I was a young child in the early 1970s and suffered the double whammy of a terrible recession and hippies. That meant two things: we had no money and everyone was on a health food craze that meant that “treats” looked like carob and sesame seeds, which are (and let me be perfectly blunt about this) NOT TREATS. Treats are candy and potato chips, and I desired them inordinately. When I got them I hoarded them, guarded them jealously, ate them quickly.

The interesting thing I’ve come to realize, though, is that my normal state has changed. I’m decades away from childhood and privation, and I’ve come to realize that there are very few people whose attention I actually want. I’ve worked hard in life to make a career for myself and to become good at the things I do. For my husband and myself, hard work has paid off and we’re doing very well for ourselves. I feel very lucky in that regard.

But I’ve come to realize that I’ve lost patience with people.

I no longer work a paid job. Nowadays, all my work is volunteer work done on behalf of my chosen charity, but right now I’m frustrated because I’m trying to accomplish a set of tasks, but nobody I work with believes that I know what I’m doing or can accomplish what needs to be done. I want to yell “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the woman who makes other people jump to do her bidding because she’s the god of Getting Shit Done!” I have similar frustration every time I read a short story or novel that’s just bad. I think to myself “I write better grocery lists than this! Why am I still getting rejections?”

My life is particularly blessed right now, but I find myself prowling, growling, scowling, howling. I’m not recognizing what’s going right because I’m so busy railing against what’s going wrong.

The nice thing about the ten worlds is that it takes so little to go from one to another. Buddhism is not about striving to achieve anything: it’s about striving to give things up. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be working hard to give up resentment and the need to get people to acknowledge my superiority. Because Buddhism is about giving up one’s illusions about life, and if there’s one thing that I do know deep down inside, it’s that I’m not superior to anybody.