Noble Eightfold Path

Right Concentration (Two Months Later)

As I mentioned in my previous posting, this was written as I was preparing to leave the tour of West Side Story, but it took me two months to actually publish these final two contributions, completing my rumination on the Noble Eightfold Path, as well as symbolizing the start of a new chapter of my life. Here is the original posting from August 1st.

If these last eight weeks of writing have taught me anything, it’s just how little I truly know about the Noble Eightfold Path. There’s always a new angle to explore, a new shortcoming to embrace and transform, and a new view that’s probably wrong. My ineptitude is perhaps most apparent in the final step of Right Concentration, because it isn’t something that can be turned on like a switch when I remember my values or feel a strong emotion. Right Concentration is the skill of truly sustained attention on an object or task of our choosing, and it isn’t mastered overnight.

We’ve all experienced this form of immersed concentration at one point or another (I hope), on the beach, playing an instrument, dancing, writing, reading, anything that puts us in a “flow” state and allows us to deeply connect to the world through some form of continued action. But in a world of iPhones, Facebook trolls, and distraction beckoning from every corner, we notice just how rare it is to find this type of immersion and connection.

In an effort to cultivate more Right Concentration in my life, I was inspired by the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. We both agree our best work comes when we carve out time for sustained attention on our craft, free from all the distractions we typically allow ourselves to indulge in. I decided I would treat my writing the same way (starting around my fourth post in this series), and wait for a dedicated block of time to arrive when I would devote all my energy to writing. It turns out just because you meditate doesn’t mean you’ll avoid staring at a blank page for ten minutes with no focus, no drive, and no concentration, just aching to watch a YouTube video or update your Tinder profile.

As the weeks have progressed, it has gotten a little easier, and my Right Concentration muscle has gotten nominally stronger, but it also opened my eyes to just how little time I spend in this state. That being said, there are limits to the amount of time we can and even should spend in these states of one-pointedness. We all need to eat, and we need time for our brain to just relax and gently calm down from whatever stimulating task we’ve just thrown at it (I recommend meditation if you haven’t guessed by now). But as I sit in my aisle seat on a plane to Los Angeles, I reflect on the last nine months and see a lot of opportunities for deep concentration, and a lot of them missed because I wasn’t willing to put my phone away, be vulnerable, or put it in the effort.

Right Concentration can be both exhilarating and exhausting, because it demands everything we have. In West Side Story, dancing the number “Cool” was probably the most consistent time I was able to find the symbiosis of intense focus and complete exhaustion. Of course, the only reason this is true is because my body was forced into giving every last drop of energy to the next dance step, and sometimes there wasn’t much to start with. There were days when it felt like trudging uphill, and days when it felt like magic, but when I allowed myself to be completely engaged in the step with an almost forceful insistence, blocking out everything but the movement, there was a huge difference in the quality of my work and how much I enjoyed it.

But there were too many days when I was checked out, thinking about lunch or some other trivial matter, for me to be able to say I spent every night on stage with Right Concentration leading the way. Some of those moments were unavoidable, but most were a product of complacency and lethargy. Perhaps we all need those moments of less-than-greatness to illuminate just how powerful concentration can be, if only we’d hear it banging at the door, waiting to throw us into the moment with full force.

I imagine in my mind a limited supply of Right Concentration energy, a rare plutonium of passion and immersion, refueled only by the richness of giving ourselves fully to a task greater than ourselves. The longer you do a show, work the same job, live in the same house, drive the same route, or eat the same food, the harder it can be to find that richness, but it’s always there. It takes dedication to build up this muscle, and to keep it strong in the face of complacency, adversity, and laziness. But you owe it to yourself (and I’m really just talking to myself here) to buckle up, be vulnerable, make mistakes, and devote yourself completely to whatever brings more meaning to your life.

Right after I wrote this post initially, I watched the movie Black Swan for the third time. Nobody should love dancing THAT much. So don’t go crazy. Don’t be too serious. Don’t stab anyone with a nail file in your quest for perfection. Right Concentration shouldn’t be obsessive, even if it is intense sometimes and gives us the gift of Barbara Hershey’s performance in Black Swan.

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Right Mindfulness (Two Months Late)

I successfully finished writing my series on the Eightfold Path before I left the tour of West Side Story on August 1st, but I neglected to publish the last two entries. Until now. Here is Right Mindfulness, in its unedited form, finished on July 31st:

A few weeks ago, I was in New Zealand reading a wonderful book called The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal. In it, she provides a list of values and asks you to pick the top three in your life. I loved this challenge (as my friends can attest after I asked several of them in the dressing room to take a look at the list and pick out their own), and it was soon clear which was at the top of my list: mindfulness. This word has been so powerfully influential in my life ever since I began dabbling in meditation when I was fourteen, sitting distractedly on the blue carpet of my dorm room in Lynchburg, Virginia. The first book I read by Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s tradition of Applied Buddhism I have been happily engaging with the last five years, was The Miracle of Mindfulness. I would even sneak my Kindle into math class and egregiously ignore the teacher to read it. Five years later I’m still messing up every day. It turns out Right Mindfulness is perhaps the most challenging of the entire Eightfold Path, because we can’t escape the constant working of our brain. Our attention is always being directed towards something, among billions of options. How do we know which ones are the right ones? Was it unwise to read the book instead of paying attention in math class? What are the habit energies guiding our attention throughout the day? I think our best bet of practicing Right Mindfulness lies in paying more attention to where our attention goes.

So what is mindfulness? Dozens of books are written on the topic, but I love the second definition my dictionary just gave me, so I’ll use that:

mindfulness: a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

I’d change “used as a therapeutic technique” to “WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE SO DO IT OKAY ITS GREAT,” but I am not a dictionary writer.

There are two ways we can be absorbed in the present moment: mindlessly and mindfully. Mindlessly dwelling in the present moment has its roots in greed, aversion to pain, procrastination, and fear. Our focus becomes obsessive, but almost always towards something that doesn’t benefit from obsessiveness. Scrolling Facebook, fuming over a passive-aggressive comment, thinking of how doing something just one more time would be okay even though you’ve been trying to stop for months.

If you’ve ever felt a strong craving, you know the feeling of urgency that arises when you want something a lot. It isn’t a pleasant feeling, this seemingly undying hunger ravaging your attention. My heart rate goes up, my mouth dries, and I get blinded to anything unrelated to what I want in that very instant. It’s funny, and sadly ironic, that I usually feel more “in the present moment” during those moments than when I sit down to meditate.

When we get in this state of mind, we are certainly being aware, but of all the wrong things. We forget the consequences of our actions. We forget our values. We lose track of the person we want to be, and we forget that we can actually take one step closer to being that person, but only if we re-engage mindfully with the present moment.

The only opportunity you have to improve your character lies in this very moment. The opportunities do not come in heroic spurts or sporadic moments of triumph. It is a constant stream of mini-challenges thrown at you from all directions. How you walk from the hotel room to the elevator; how you treat your servers at restaurants when you’re hungry and tired and alone in a foreign city; how you open doors and eat your sandwich and laugh with friends; these are the moments that define who you are. And the only way to carve out the character we desire for ourselves is by cultivating more Right Mindfulness in our lives so we can make the choices our mindful self wants to make, versus the impulsive-but-still-in-the-present-moment mindless self.

I think “Right” or “Wise” expressions of mindfulness manifest when we take stock of what’s happening with an almost-scientific objectivity behind it. Maybe this sounds cold and unconnected, but our biases, emotions, and desires can cloud the truth of this moment, and when we remove all that psychological dust, the world looks remarkably fresh and alive. Our egos exist in the world of “me”-colored glasses, and they particularly detest being ignored, so it’s challenging. But in order to cultivate Right Mindfulness, a spirit of inquiry and curiosity is required. We can direct it anywhere, towards our hatred, anger, tears, laughter, obsessions, thoughts, beliefs, whatever you choose. Right Mindfulness is the energy seeking the truth inside the pain and the joy. Right Mindfulness courageously and gently looks at what we are experiencing and examines it carefully and calmly, even if we’d rather avoid what’s happening and look at Instagram for the fourteenth time that day.

Lucky for you, there’s an entire lifetime of opportunities to practice mindfulness awaiting you! When you wake up, take a shower, walk, and eat. When you listen to someone who is talking. And talking. And talking. And you just want to go get a large fry from McDonald’s. These are all opportunities to ask ourselves which self we are engaging with right now. When we inject more moments of Right Mindfulness into our day, we slowly change the way we look at the world, solve problems, and respond to pain.

I’ll leave you with this. My junior year of high school English everyone had the opportunity to deliver a three minute presentation on literally anything they wanted, called our “You Variable.” Ms. Zeeb, my English teacher, is my favorite among all the teachers I’ve ever had. I adored her, and continue to adore her. Anyways, I wanted to use my three minutes to talk about mindfulness, but in a succinct and pragmatic way. I wanted to offer an opportunity to my fellow classmates to inject more mindful moments in their life. I came to the conclusion there was one thing everyone was forced to do several times a day regardless of religion, politics, gender, or academic ability: pee. Everyone pees. If you don’t pee, perhaps you are a ghost or in need of serious medical attention. I presented my You Variable and entitled it “Pee to be Free.” Nature has given us a wonderful opportunity to “relieve” ourselves not just of physical waste, but also mental and emotional waste. You can take some mindful breaths, let go of the past and the future and just be. Just pee, and enjoy every second of that pee. Maybe you’ll see a little more mindfulness slowly creeping into your days.

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Noble Eightfold Path

I WANT TO BE A BROADWAY STAR and other things I’m glad I don’t say anymore: Thoughts on Right Livelihood

Our ambitions say a lot about our values, as do the ways we earn money, support our families, and contribute to society. The historical Buddha gave five basic precepts to laypeople, all of which applied to their careers (don’t kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie, or ingest intoxicants). When it came to how people earned a living, there were some professions that clearly didn’t mesh with Buddhist values (butchers, assassins, bandits, hunters, etc.), but there has always been a deeper meaning to the idea of Right Livelihood extending beyond the surface level routines and functions of a career.

Thousands of years later, there are still bandits, butchers, and assassins. There are entire industries devoted to exploitation and/or relying on oppression. For employees in these fields, Right Livelihood probably requires some time looking for a new job or radical reform in their industry. But most of us find ourselves in an industry filled with contradiction, with no clear sign of the wisdom of our career path. I don’t think the industry we are employed in is nearly as important as why we are there. Our volition, intention, and ambition combine to determine the truth of how wise our individual livelihood truly is.

When I dressed as a “Broadway Star” for career day in the third grade, I wasn’t thinking about a community or being part of something greater than myself. I was thinking about me and my many future Tony awards for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and how I would be great as Annie in the musical Annie but only as Annie since I’m much too talented to play a stupid orphan like Pepper or Molly, like any fabulously narcissistic and super-gay third grader was (right?). I remember asking to play with a girl dressed as a Zoologist (my ex-girlfriend from the first grade), and when she refused I exploded into a rant about how I was going to be on Broadway and she was going to be scooping elephant poop for the rest of her life.

When I was sixteen, I got dumped by a twenty-one year old theatre major who told me I only acted for validation, and that was something he couldn’t look past. He had picked me up from Flamenco class and stopped in a parking lot before dropping me off at my voice lesson. Considering musical theatre was my everything, I was naturally offended. And heartbroken. And not surprised when he started dating his “straight” best friend less than a month later. But he had a point. While we were dating, he had asked me what success meant in my eyes. I wanted to respected in the acting community, be a full-time actor on Broadway, and other mostly-quantifiable and mostly self-centered metrics that I thought sounded much better than “Be a Broadway Star.” Selfishness was still the sole driver of my ambition, and I was soon to find out how much more fulfilling life is when the rest of the world gets a little attention, too.

Craving fame, money, power, and esteem are all classic demises and obstacle to finding our wisest expression of livelihood. Of course we need money, we need rights, and sometimes we can do the most positive change from a position of power. But when power and fame are the goal, all wisdom is lost. This isn’t a lesson I was ready to hear when I was in elementary school, or even in my late teenage years. I wasn’t craving fame like I was in the third grade, but at sixteen I was still craving the elusive ideal of Broadway, that glamorous Production Contract and the shiny Equity card (I have that shiny card in a drawer somewhere today). I was so nearsightedly ambitious that I often forgot my values and spiritual priorities. I wish I hadn’t waited until my career had already been put in motion to realize the most fulfilling joy comes from the work itself, and the rest is completely secondary. Being a “Broadway Star” may be a good goal for a third grader, but it’s a pretty horrible one for anyone over the age of 12. 

Selfish reasons got me into acting. The validation, applause, and attention all felt so good to a little boy desperately craving all the love he could get (even though I was already getting plenty of it at home). Unfortunately I didn’t go looking deeper until I took stock of my life from a spiritual perspective and realized just how empty, unsatisfying, unsustainable, and utterly isolating a life of selfish ambition is. It was a long and slow realization, and I didn’t find Right Livelihood until I lessened the taste for applause and supplemented it with a thirst for storytelling. I had to stop putting my career first, and, most importantly, stop being an actor first and a human second. I had to redefine my idea of success, and find the right hybrid of personal ambition to keep me improving and growing, and a deep wish to bring joy to others, tell interesting stories, and be of service to something bigger than my ego. It is a lifelong process to continue to align our ambitions with our values. 

I’m not suggesting we don’t give ourselves lofty goals to achieve and dreams to follow. Ambition took me out of my comfort zone and led to some of my dreams coming true. But when those goals are centered only around our own success, become the source of our self-worth, or aren’t truly in a partnership with whatever we value most in life, there’s no way we’ll ever find what Right Livelihood means for us as individuals. I am not even close to finding it completely. I’m far too proud and my ego is too strong. But I’m not yelling at Zoologists (which actually sounds like an incredible and extremely fulfilling job), I think I’m a little less validation-crazed than I was at sixteen (though that ex-boyfriend has not accepted any of my several Facebook friend requests so we’ll never really know now will we), and I’m trying to knock myself down a few pegs whenever I start feeling all uppity, so I’m hoping I’m on the right track with my livelihood. I hope you are too.

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Noble Eightfold Path

Your Phone Can Be A Buddha: 5 Apps for Cultivating Right Diligence

Traditionally on the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Diligence is referred to as Right Effort. Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t want westerners to view mindfulness as an exhausting or energetically draining practice, so he decided to use the word diligence instead. I think both play an important role on the path of living a mindful life, and I’d specifically like to talk about using our phones as resources for engaging our hearts and minds in a beneficial way.

I remember watching a DVD Dharma talk at Blue Cliff Monastery in 2014 about Right Diligence. Thây (Vietnamese for “teacher”) urged us to cultivate and prolong the existence of beneficial qualities (kindness, compassion) in our consciousness, while kindly inviting our harmful qualities (greed, hatred) to return to dormancy in our subconscious. This process of consciously directing our attention requires a great deal of awareness, and, as some would say, effort. But how is Right Diligence unique along the Eightfold Path? To me, Right Diligence is a very individual practice, one that serves as fuel for the other seven aspects of the path (you can check out the previous four posts for more info on those). And what’s the one thing every millennial spends the most time with when they’re alone? Their smartphone.

Persistence in cultivating the personal qualities we aspire requires self-discipline and motivation despite many moments of adversity that will inevitably come our way, and self-discipline and motivation are two qualities that consistent (often addictive) smartphone use can deteriorate by offering us a near constant distraction from the present moment. The good news is, we can turn our phones into a source of Right Diligence, pushing us towards the people we long to be, and aligning us with the values we cherish but often brush aside so we can scroll Facebook for another ten minutes.

I realized a little while back I had a strong habit of checking Facebook and Instagram obsessively. I asked myself honestly if spending this much time on social media was adding a significant amount of meaning to my life, and the answer was a resounding and disappointing “no.” The amount of meaning being produced was minimal considering how much time I was investing in these mediums. I took a look at what my deepest values and aspirations are, and I asked myself how I could use my phone to help bring more meaning to my life while simultaneously spending a little less time on my phone. This has been my personal way of redirecting my attention and energy towards the beneficial qualities in my life.

I’ve found some apps that have helped me stay persistent and diligent in staying mindful and on track with my goals. The first is called Productive.

  1. Productive: This app allows you to list your daily, weekly, and monthly goals in a very easy to use platform. The app sends reminders about your habits, and allows you to write notes regarding each individual habit if you want to keep more detailed track of your goals. My daily list includes:
      • brushing my teeth twice a day (believe it or not I struggled with years to regularly brush until I started keeping track every day)
      • take my multivitamin (again, something I would constantly forget)
      • floss (my teeth have never looked better)
      • morning and evening meditation sessions (Since tracking my progress, I haven’t missed a session, and when I inevitably do, I won’t have to look at a streak disappear, but I’ll have a new day of goals to accomplish)
      • meditating within ten minutes of my alarm (to avoid the deadly snooze button)
      • read something from a Buddha (sometime the historical one, sometimes Thich Nhat Hanh, etc.)

What would your list look like? Is there something you would do every single day if you had a resource to help you do that?

2. Momento: This is a journaling app I really enjoy using. I like typing more than handwriting, partly because I’m left handed and ink always gets on my pinky, and partly because I can type with my thumb a lot faster than I can write, so I can really fit in a lot to say in a short amount of time. And I can type when I’m on the toilet. I used this app initially to keep track of my daily goals before I found Productive, but I use it now to journal about more long term goals I have, and things I’ve been thinking about. It’s a wonderful practice to journal, and to be able to do it right when the inspiration comes (at line in Starbucks or in a crowded subway car) makes it a convenient thing to utilize in addition to or as an alternative to handwritten journals (plus it saves some trees).

3. Moment: This app is only one letter away from Momento, but it is worlds apart in terms of function. This app tracks your phone use. I was appalled to discover how much time I was spending on my phone (sometimes up to six hours a day) when I first downloaded it. It serves as a really valuable tool to see how much time I’m spending on my phone, and sends little reminders about my phone usage throughout the day.

4. Battery Usage: This one isn’t 100% accurate, but very valuable. If you go to the “Settings” app on your phone, scroll down to “Battery,” then click the clock button on the right hand side of the screen, you can see how long you have used each of your apps over the last 24 hours or the last week. What makes it slightly inaccurate is it only keeps track when your phone is unplugged, but it can be extremely eye-opening to see the patterns of just where your attention is going.

5. Enso: This meditation timer is wonderful (though after looking at number four, quite a battery consumer. Use this app while your phone is plugged in!), and allows you to have different preset timers for various lengths of time, with a bell sounding at an interval of your choosing if you’d like (I’ve been meditating for thirty minutes with a bell sounding every ten recently). It also keeps track of streaks (though these can be really dangerous and should be taken with a grain of salt so you don’t lose motivation if you miss a day) and has a fun feature of Total Time Meditated, where you can see how many hours you’ve meditated since you started using the app (I got this app 106 days ago and have meditated approximately 90 hours and 35 minutes since then!).

6. Whole Grain Apps: This is a general category of apps. If you, like me, have a desire to spend less time on social media and more time bringing meaning to your life, you’re going to need an alternative to fill in that vacuum that will appear. What the qualities you want to cultivate? What are your long term goals and dreams? Can your phone (or the pockets of time you would otherwise be on your phone) be used to help you achieve these dreams and cultivate these qualities?

  • If you’re worried about not being informed because you get your news on Facebook, try a news app that gives you everything you need to know without the endless scrolling (NPR One is EVERYTHING and gives you hourly three-minute news updates).
  • If you want to spend more time using your brain and less time playing candy crush, try something like the app Elevate, or something that requires skill like crossword puzzles or sudoku.
  • Download the Kindle app and read some poetry while you pee
  • Journal about your mood, your goals, or your relationship.
  • Write a haiku (On a bullet train, I’ve been writing this blog post. I hope you enjoy)
  • Download the TED app and watch some amazing talks (ask me if you want some recommendations)

Or, you could sometimes just put your phone down and take some mindful breaths. The possibilities are endless. Creating these habits and having a healthy relationship with your phone will make it easier to stay focused when things get tough. Your coping mechanisms can be creative instead of avoidant, present instead of denying. You can be diligent and effortful without exhaustion, and without heading to a monastery in the woods. Your phone can be a Buddha.

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Noble Eightfold Path

Smiling At Bad WiFi: Right Action

Action: the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim

I needed to look up the definition of “action” because I talk so much it’s hard for me to conceive of wordless actions. Every day, we are constantly interacting with both sentient and non-sentient beings in our environment, mostly in nonverbal ways (unless you’re me or Kathy Lee Gifford). Our actions, as the clichéd truth reminds us, speak louder than words. Our actions are a direct reflection of our intentions, a manifestation of the “aim” we are attempting to achieve. In Buddhist verbiage, this aim is often called our volition, the energy we put behind both our words and wordless actions. This is the hard-to-articulate-but-monumentally-important energy behind the way we approach a situation. Right Action, or Wise Action, is taking responsibility for the non-verbal energy we bring to a situation, and acting on the energies that reflect the virtues of kindness, compassion, and love. From putting the dishes away to holding a loved one, every minute of our day is filled with opportunities to practice Right Action.

Krista Tippett, the remarkable host of the podcast On Being, said something that charmingly reflects what Right Action embodies:

“Spirituality doesn’t look like sitting down and meditating. Spiritually looks like folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in the family even though you’ve had a long day.”

Every interaction we encounter, whether with our fingernail or a potato chip, is accompanied by an energy and an opportunity. Will we further develop the traits we want to embody (in my case those of patience, love, generosity, and compassion), or those we know bring more harm than good (greed, impatience, hatred). It’s easy to see and feel the effects of wrong speech, felt deeply and often quickly. But what about groaning at the bad hotel WiFi for not loading Orange Is The New Black? What about looking at your own body in the mirror with shame? What about rolling your eyes and fuming alone with a large fry from Wendy’s when you get a correspondence you didn’t want about a situation you wish didn’t exist? There’s no one there to respond and hold you accountable except yourself (and in one case, Wendy), but in these situations we are further strengthening the qualities we know are harmful.

Right Action is entering a room, knowing you cannot just drop your emotional baggage when you please, but making the effort to approach every situation with warmth and kindness anyway. Action manifests itself as a glance, a brush of the hand, a deep breath. The way we put on our costume. The way we brush our teeth. The way we listen.

Right Action is

  • stubbing your toe, yelling “OW,” then smiling at the door (since the door does not hate you).
  • taking a deep breath and waiting for the WiFi to come (since the Wifi isn’t mocking you with false ineptitude)
  • feeling hatred, taking the time to look at the pain underneath, slowly softening our hearts, and opening ourselves to understanding and compassion (it works, much to the chagrin of my hoping-to-be-righteous anger)
  • feeling hungry, but still holding the elevator door for that family of five (Wendy will wait)
  • washing the dishes without passive aggressively looking at who’s dishes you’re cleaning up (usually I’m the one not doing the dishes, so this one’s for my benefit)
  • listening deeply
  • loving hard
  • a lot of hugs 

Spontaneous compassion is a concept embraced by many Buddhists. Underneath our ignorance and fear, we always know what we must do, and it is possible to train ourselves to tap into that heartfelt energy (often called bodhicitta, the mind of love) and act accordingly, without the need to mull and ponder over what is compassionate. It takes hard work, and deep understanding. I have to admit that I purse my lips and furrow my brow more often than whole-heartedly embracing the mind of love in times of frustration. I’m more often Kathy Lee than Mother Theresa. It’s difficult to take responsibility for your energy when all alone and wanting nothing more than to watch Maya Rudolph shine as Dionne Warwick in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but being unable to. However, it makes a difference. Every moment we shift our mindset from frustration to patience, sharp to soft, furrowed brow to half-smile, we chip away at the ignorance deep inside of us, and we allow our virtues to grow. These moments are especially important when we’re alone and no-one is watching.

Our actions don’t need to reflect the energy of a cloistered monastery in the mountains. We all have places to be, quick costume changes to be done, short turnaround between flights in a big airport, french fries to eat, moms to FaceTime. We can do things quickly and kindly, smiling and hurried when we have to. Sometimes our energy is unavoidably sad. Sometimes all our energy is dedicated to not blowing a fuse. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is true. Life has suffering we cannot avoid. We are destined to be angry, frustrated, and mildly annoyed. But, we can take responsibility for our actions, and slowly change the way we see the world. Step by step, fry by fry, and smile by smile.

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Right Speech: Integrating Kindness and Sass

Perhaps the most simplistic way of describing Right Speech is quality over quantity. If you are my friend (and I’m guessing you are since I don’t think the twelve people reading this are strangers), you know I’m not always great at keeping things eloquently succinct. That being said, it’s much more important to focus on the quality of our speech, regardless of whether or not we’re going on a tangent about the spiritual merits of Colors of the Wind (specifically the spiritual merits of Judy Kuhn’s full belt). When I say quality, there are two different interpretations that are both essential in better understanding the effects of our speech. Quality in terms of value, and quality in terms of tone. Colors of the Wind excels in both (don’t worry, that’s the last reference to Judy Kuhn’s full belt for this particular post. But did you see her in Fun Home?! Ugh. So good.).

High quality speech follows the same trajectory as Right View and Right Thought. They are all unclouded by greed, hatred, and ignorance. There cannot be a high quality sentence dripping with contempt, regardless of how clever it is. I remember several years ago deciding upon the New Years’ Resolution of choosing kindness over wit. I’m still working on it to this day. It’s remarkably hard not to join in when others are making fun of someone who isn’t there, someone you also don’t particularly like, or someone perhaps you’ve never even met. I engage in hateful and selfish speech every day, and it’s usually only afterwards when I see the unhealthy and unhappy seeds I have just watered in the garden of my mind. Hateful speech doesn’t have to be violent or filled with profanity. It can be as simple as de-valuing someone’s suffering, using words that further a sense of discord between people, or saying a snarky comment with the aim of lifting yourself up and bringing someone else down. It’s all about intention in this world of sassy dressing room talks. And let me tell you, chorus boys love their banter. I’m not suggesting we eliminate all the sauciness, but I think we’d be better off filtering out the hate, contempt, and superiority, and only letting the playfully loving sass of a good friend out of our mouths and into the dressing room.

This leads me to the tonal quality of our speech. When it comes to our speech, style can be just as important as substance. Right speech happens when we combine good intentions and skillfulness. Returning to the subject of sassy (mostly) gay boys in dressing rooms before the eighth show of the week, sometimes rude words on paper are hilarious in person, because people can be sassy with good intentions. There are also times when people have good intentions, but lack the skillfulness of knowing their audience, and then you’ve got dirty looks and passive aggressive eye rolling. It’s a slippery slope, dependent upon who you are talking to, and how you are speaking to them. There exists a mythology that speaking to certain people using different tones and words isn’t authentic, but authentic kindness is understanding what will bring happiness and suffering to someone as an individual (and I’m sure you can think of two people who would respond differently to being told they sound like a dying cat when singing). There are situations when causing suffering is unavoidable regardless of your tone (telling someone a hard truth, like the fact their wig looks like an old mop), but it’s all about putting in effort to minimize someone’s suffering and maximize their true happiness.

Right speech is tricky, since there are times when you can’t win. You will inevitably hurt someone as you go along the winding path of human connection, whether through what you say (or don’t say), or how you say it. Sometimes just expressing your truth (my truth of believing that religious people who literally believe in non-scientific things like resurrections and raptures are decidedly and surely wrong, for example) will make someone uncomfortable, and sometimes this is for the best (science is real, folks). Pushing someone out of their comfort zone isn’t always a bad thing, but it must be done without contempt or selfishness. The best we can do as chorus boys and girls of the world is to put real time effort in understanding people, and actively working to choose kindness over wit (or better yet, kindness and wit working together in harmony). Imagine if we all upheld the kindergarten maxim of “think before you speak,” giving ourselves the time to ask the simple question of whether or not the thought we want to vocalize will bring more happiness and wisdom to the world versus suffering and ignorance. Right speech isn’t merely the words and tone of our speech, but the underlying and perpetual quest of understanding who needs to hear a funny story and who needs space, who will lovingly agree when you call them a flaming queen, and who will be upset, who to argue with on Facebook and who to leave alone. It’s a skill that cannot be perfected, and brings you back to square one every time you meet someone new. So I will keep on aiming for high quality speech expressed with the qualities of kindness and compassion, and I will inevitably go on a tangent about that time when I was playing Mary Sunshine in Chicago a friend’s dad told his wife I looked like a young Meryl Streep. I don’t know about you, but that was the rightest speech I’ve ever heard.

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Noble Eightfold Path

Overanalyzing, Anger, Celine Dion: Thoughts on Right Thought

Thinking is something I find myself particularly good at. I’m very skilled at overanalyzing conversations I had, obsessing about conversations I may or may not have in the future, and I am a PRO at having imaginary arguments in my head (95% of which never happen). When I get into these self-destructive habits, my walls fly up, my focus becomes shoddy, and all of my warmth and generosity leaks out of me until I’m as useless as a flat tire. Some of the imaginary conversations I’ve had have included phrases such as:

  • HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME??????
  • HOW DARE YOU!
  • WHY DON’T YOU GO F*^K YOURSELF!!!!
  • YOU SLIMY LITTLE TWAT
  • I COULD BE LISTENING TO CELINE DION RIGHT NOW
  • IT’S JUST FRENCH FRIES
  • etc. etc. etc.

That’s where Right Thought comes in. One thing I noticed a couple weeks ago was none of the steps on the Eightfold Path mention emotion. There is no Right Feeling, because the Buddha recognized that emotions don’t have to be the root of our words and actions, and in fact it’s probably better off that way. Our emotions, both positive and negative, can so quickly distort our perception of an objective reality and twist it into something completely different. These emotions stem from our views (see last week’s post about Right View), which inspire thoughts. And that’s the way it is.*

When it comes to thinking, we are all constantly experiencing two types of thoughts. There are those that arise subconsciously and impulsively, and there are thoughts we consciously choose to think. The tricky thing about thoughts is you’re the only person who can deal with them. No one can hold you accountable for what goes through your mind, and to be honest you can only be accountable to a limited degree. Right Thought specifically refers to the thoughts we consciously think (though the subconscious thoughts can sometimes be a good litmus test for how our right views are coming along), and it can move mountains*.

My criteria for right thoughts are pretty similar to those of Right View. Right thoughts are kind. It’s not a right thought to plot the revenge of my enemy. It’s not a right thought to spend my time contemplating how I can defend myself against the inevitable attacks by person A about situation X that happened three years ago. It’s not a right thought to still think venomous thoughts about that one guy who was a dick to me when we shared a dressing room several years ago (sorry for leaving out the juicy details, but I’ve got some Right Speech to cultivate, but if you asked me to…*).

I think angry thoughts a lot. Sometimes they’re compassionate, but most of the time they’re not quite Right. To me, anger manifests as Right Thought only when it comes from a place of deep care and love, and not a place of hatred. I thought some pretty vicious thoughts when the President (is it Wrong Speech to even say his name?!) pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, but mostly because I care about our planet. I had to be quick to make sure my thoughts weren’t those of hatred for him (is it a wrong thought to want to write President Tiny Hands?!), but rather of care and concern. The fact I initially thought hateful things about him (you know the guy, not Lord Voldemort, but not NOT Lord Voldemort) is a reflection of some wrong views, but taking the steps to consciously clarify my thoughts makes it that much easier to practice Right Speech and Right Action.

Right Thought comes into play when we still have a bunch of wrong views (if you don’t have any, why aren’t you in charge of everything?? Pls be president). When I use my energy to take the extra step and consciously wish somebody well through my thoughts (a vitriolic director, let’s say… not like I’ve been doing that the past eight months), it’s amazing the transformation that can happen in our views, speech, and even the impulsive thoughts that arise. We may not see much value in doing this. We may feel disingenuous for thinking something like “May you, vitriolic director, experience deep mental and physical health and happiness.” when we were just thinking about ways we could sue him, but any right thought is a step in the right direction (no pun intended)! Eventually you don’t even think about suing him anymore (or so I’ve heard… I’m not quite there yet). Right Thought, like love, can move mountains.*

When I was learning how to drive, I remember learning about the progression of competence (it’s all coming back to me now*). I started out unconsciously incompetent, because I didn’t know how to drive. Then I graduated to conscious incompetence, probably most notably when I turned into the wrong direction of traffic on a busy street (whoops). Then eventually I became consciously competent. I could drive pretty well, but I had to focus on it. Now I am unconsciously competent. I enjoy wailing and performing mild arm-based choreography while driving, preferably to a song sung by a middle aged woman (don’t worry, I drive with my left hand and do my choreo to “I Surrender*” only with the right unless at a red light).

Thinking is something similar. We might not realize we are incompetent at thinking until we take a look at how much of our thinking is destructive, distracting, and unnecessary. I spend my life shifting haphazardly between unconscious competence to sometimes conscious incompetence about my thinking and then spending a few moments being consciously competent and then starting all over again. It gets better as time goes by, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sing Celine Dion while thinking kind and warm thoughts about that director who told me I look like a muppet. But you never know. Either way, my heart will go on.*

*There are five references to Celine Dion songs here. If you got all five, congratulations! You’re probably gay. Or just awesome. See you next week.

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