If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all—but that’s a lot easier said than done. Sarcastic scribe Michael A. Stusser tries right speech for a month. From the January 2012 issue of Lion’s Roar.
Perhaps it was the corrosive nature of the websites I frequented. Maybe it was the inebriated pack of blowhards I hung out with and our constant blasphemous banter. Could have been the incessant 24/7 cable news cycle where frenzied and extreme viewpoints crowd out reasoned deliberation. Or maybe it was my wife’s affair that finally sent me over the edge. Whatever the last straw, there was an omnipresent cloud of negativity slowly but surely poisoning my (potentially) bright future—and I aimed to flippin’ do something about it.
For the last twenty-five years, I’ve made my living as a humor columnist, hired to rant wildly about fat-ass southerners, rabid vegans, sell-out politicos, and closeted Christian fundamentalists. Despite being labeled an “over-caffeinated sex pundit,” I genuinely tried to be a conscientious, thoughtful, rational, sometimes sardonic but generally pleasant human being. Notwithstanding this upbeat self-perception, the smart-alecky satire was starting to creep into my personal life, as I recently heard the following words come out of my mouth:
“Did you see Tommy last night? Guy was hammered! Though I’d drink heavily if I was married to Sandy, that’s for damn sure. I can’t believe their marriage lasted longer than mine! Did you check her out? She’s lookin’ like a combo of William Shatner and Chaz Bono on steroids.”
As my pal silently picked at his blackened salmon Caesar, dumbfounded and losing his appetite for my company, it became clear that an internal intervention was needed. I’d become a poor-man’s Don Rickles, but more vicious. Queen of Mean Lisa Lampanelli had nuthin’ on me—at least she picks on public figures like the Kardashian sisters and Trump. I was tearing apart my own loved ones.
In an effort to reprogram my brain toward a less foul-mouthed future, I decided to take the radical step of removing all trashtalk, mud-slinging and taunting tweets from my everyday existence for an entire month. There’d be no more sarcastic smack talk, gossip, pissy texting, or foul language of any kind.
In my case, simply embracing the notion that it’s “better to light a candle than curse the darkness” wouldn’t fly—I was too far gone; it would be like letting Charlie Sheen do in-house rehab. (Wait…) This was serious business and would require a Seal Team 6 approach: tactical advisers, military discipline, and, with any luck, one of those really cool invisible helicopters.
For the first few days I shied away from conversations, not wanting to launch into my customary overly reactive hyperbole on any one of a thousand subjects and blow the whole gig right off the bat. Pleasantries with baristas are easy enough, until someone approaches with a chance for hate speak: “Did you hear what Sarah Palin said last night about teachers’ unions?” I bit my tongue. Literally.
The concept “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is a helluva lot easier said than done. For one thing, it means you have a lot less to say. My sister called and wanted to know if I’d had any interactions with my soon-to-be-ex wife. “No,” I lied, “Vanessa and I are each working on our own stuff and giving each other the space we need right now.” Truth was over the last few months we’d had several screaming powwows including a Please Take Me Back session, followed by a My Therapist Says It Must Have Been Over Before the Affair discussion, and the ultimate I’m Struggling With My Feelings conversation. The chances of us getting back together were already slim to none (let’s just say forgiveness isn’t in my Top 10 qualities).
Given that my previous efforts at major life changes—losing twenty pounds, quitting weed, laying off the West Wing DVDs— had failed miserably, I knew I’d need an experienced sponsor to keep me on task: someone like Dr. Drew, only less egotistical and incompetent. So I called on the most dedicated and fierce influence in my life: my yoga teacher.
If the Dalai Lama and J-Lo had a love child, it would be Dawn Jansen. For fourteen years now, this gorgeous and brilliant yoga instructor has twisted me into a pretzel, cured my sciatica, and gently placed positive mantras into my thick skull. Hearing about my grand experiment (and knowing my extensive weaknesses), Dawn understood the need for a game plan; going in cold turkey wouldn’t cut it—the epic charge was too general, too abstract.
She arrived at my house with no fewer than a dozen books intended to impart some structure and words of wisdom. “You’re not going to be perfect in your practice,” Dawn noted in her nonjudgmental yet powerful way, “but if you ritualize the way you go about it, and proceed with compassion, you should be all right.
As we reviewed the various scriptures and guidelines, the Buddhist concept of “right speech” came into focus. “The first element is abstaining from false speech—basically lies and deceit,” Dawn noted. I don’t do a whole lot of lying (anymore), so I thought avoiding flat-out fibs for the month shouldn’t be a problem. “The second notion is abstaining from hateful or slanderous speech.” Hmmm. Slander: making false and malicious statements about others. Okay—I can stay away from that. “Third element is avoiding harsh words that hurt or offend other people,” she continued.
I must have looked dumbfounded. “It’s not like you can’t say anything negative,” Dawn explained. “There’s room for straightshooting, so long as it’s truthful. At the monastery the Buddhist nuns would say ‘You look sick, today. Face is all red!’ or ‘You seem puffy. Don’t get any fatter!’ So you can point things out, but not if the intention is to hurt someone.” Sounded good to me (I was looking for breathing room or a gray area). “And finally, there’s abstaining from idle chatter.” Idle chatter? But idle chatter’s my specialty! “You just don’t want to get involved in conversations that have no purpose or depth,” she clarified. “So, no bullshitting?” I clarified. “Is that necessary?” she replied. So much for small talk…
My sixteen-year-old son is a kid of few words and a good example to learn from. Full of “thank you”s, “please”s, and “may I”s, he’s shy around adults, but always pleasant and speaks when spoken to. After my wife moved out (she took Riles with her), he and I started spending more “quality time” together—by that I mean less of me yelling at him to pick up the towels on the floor or turn off the X-Box, and more shopping at UpperPlayground. Today he was particularly quiet and I felt the need to check in, inquiring if he was enjoying our newfound time together, or if it was pure torture. “No,” Riles replied with a shy smile. “It’s not torture.” “Okay,” I said, “so hangin’ with me is something less than torture. We’re goin’ with that!” And we proceeded to enjoy our giant pile of hot wings in noble silence.
One of the challenges is to avoid my natural tendency to be a loose cannon. I wish I had a shock collar or zapper of some kind that would snap me back to virtuous words when I began to stray. But people are so annoying! What am I to say to the whiner who fills out his deposit slip AT THE WINDOW, the cell-talker in the movie, the passive-aggressive cousin texting throughout a dinner party? Taking a page from Robert Thurman’s book Inner Revolution, I need to understand that being upset or angry about others serves no useful purpose. As Thurman notes, this doesn’t mean clamming up or being walked on—I’ll let my neighbor know they need to pick up their dog’s crap from my yard—but then I’ll move on. Cheerful assertiveness, “Love your enemy” and all. My favorite Thurman quote about sums it up: “Why be unhappy about something if I can do something about it? Why be unhappy about something if there’s nothing I can do about it?”
I had lunch with a buddy who needed to vent about the onagain, off-again relationship with his gal pal; I know both well, and suffice to say they have an extremely volatile courtship. I thought it would be difficult to stay silent—in days past, I had enjoyed jumping into the fray. But turns out, most of the time no one’s really paying any attention to the listener anyway. My friend went on and on about petty grievances, breaches of privacy, and major philosophical differences without taking a breath. I smiled and tried to find constructive places for my two cents. (“Well, everyone’s on their own journey” and “you really feel passionate about this!”) It didn’t matter—I could have been a blow-up doll (which, come to think of it, is what he really needs). Mainly I was simply present, a listener among the chaos. And simply present I can do.
Speak no evil, hear no evil, tweet no evil?
After emailing my wife a lovely poem titled, “When Did You Give Up On Us?” I realized any attempt at uplifting my communication would also require an effort on the electronic end of things. So my tendency for hitting the “Like” button on YouTube videos where rednecks shoot themselves in the face or emailing attachments of Dorothy Hamill to mock a friend’s haircut needs to be curbed ASAP.
Facebook and Twitter may be aiding revolutionaries all over the Arab world in their march toward democracy, and that’s great. For the rest of us, the nonrevolutionaries, social networks are a massive waste of time. That said, I got online this morning and realized that I have seen the Cyber-Bully up close and personal, and he is me. Within fifteen minutes of perusing my feeds I’d been an ass to no fewer than four virtual amigos, including sarcastically congratulating my friend on her kid surviving his second year (he did eat a few cigarette butts at one point).
With too much time on my hands, I then moused over to my Twitter account to do a little more damage. Things began pleasantly enough, as I decided to “follow” a few random (but suggested as “Similar to you”) Twitter accounts, in hopes they would, in turn, follow me. Then I scanned the feeds, including a link from Shambhala Sun (an amazing video of the Dalai Lama on Australia’s Master Chef!), then one from Keith Olbermann dryly reading James Thurber’s “Recollections Of The Gas Buggy.” It was the most boring thing I’d ever seen, and I shot him a tweet suggesting he stop doing that: “@keitholbermann I need you reading to me like I need car advice from Pam Anderson. Stick to what you do best, and let us read on our iPads.” Clever, mean, and most likely, emanating from my own embarrassment about wasting so much time on Twitter. Within seconds, I got an actual reply! “@michaelstusser Then don’t watch it. This is difficult for you to game-plan?” On one hand I was thrilled to get a reply from a famous motor-mouth. On the other, it’s no fun realizing one of your role models is as much of a pinhead as you are.
With more opportunities for the anonymous everyman to enter the digital conversation via online news forums, comment sections, and blog posts, there are also more chances for these internet communities to vent their pent-up anger. To wit, no fewer than eighty-four individuals felt inspired to reply to an online opinion piece I wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about cleaning up the famous Pike Place Market. (Negative: 81. Positive: 3.) In addition to being called a mental midget and an “annoying YUPPIE whiner” and repeatedly told to “go back to Los Angeles or wherever you came from” (Seattle, if the truth must be told), the majority of comments had very little to do with the point of my piece. While I suggested that we spend some money and time finding housing for the homeless who were turning the market into a public urinal, the masses jumped to their own erroneous conclusion: Some out-of-town snob didn’t like the true grit of our wonderful market.
The faceless and mostly anonymous nature of the web seems to have empowered the previously meek and pleasant. Unfortunately, this tweeting, Yelping, Trip-Advising mob has turned into a pack of snarling dogs. With a culture geared to anyone from Jersey willing to humiliate themselves to become a “star,” and a polarized cable “news” lineup geared to incite extremists, it’s no surprise that we’re all becoming a bit “quippy.” It doesn’t help that networks like CNN and FOX go out of their way to encourage viewer involvement, begging audiences to tweet their opinions live during shows, participate in insta-polls, and send sound bites and videos of their own to be uploaded and aired.
“Right now, our culture really is perpetuating the notion that everyone’s a critic,” notes relationship guru John Gottman. “For some reason we have the idea that anyone who takes notice of what’s right must be an idiot. The skeptical mind, or cynical mind, is approved in our society.”
Since 1972 Gottman’s been using couples as guinea pigs, observing them in what’s been dubbed The Love Lab (at the University of Washington), and, most recently, The Gottman Relationship Institute. “What we’re seeing is a negative habit of mind,” he says. “Instead of being respectful, we’re tuned into people’s mistakes.”
My wife and I attended several of his workshops over the years, on everything from keeping marital love alive (oops), to limit-setting parenting. I told Gottman about my experiment (as well as my failed marriage, making sure to clarify it wasn’t his fault), and asked his expert opinion about the testy, narcissistic tone in the Era of Twittering Ids.
“Think about it: in schools, we call critical thinking ‘logical’ thinking,” he replied. “That implies that, if you’re not critical, you’re uninformed! The mark of intelligence somehow is now to be critical. We fall into it. It’s a tough pattern to break out of—and it will take practice.”
I wondered if he had any ideas on how we got into this crabby place. “I think we’re running on empty with negativity. People aren’t spending time doing activities they like, they’re not working out, not eating right. All these things are crowding out enjoyment, and it’s our own fault. We need to have some self-care to get back on track.”
For the past twenty-five years, part of my “self-care” plan has been pseudo marathon therapy sessions with my best friend— and one-time best man—Doug Hamilton. Three or four times a year each of us shows up with a laundry list of items for discussion. We then head off to a remote campsite or cheap motel, eat crappy food, I get loaded (he’s been clean-and-sober for twenty five years) and we troubleshoot our lives until the other guy flies home. His trip up from San Fran this weekend for moral support presents a challenge, to say the least.
“I can’t believe I gave that $#@! woman my dead grandmother’s wedding ring from 1919!” I screamed, as Doug loaded his backpack into my car. “What happened to the whole positive speech deal you’ve been babbling about?” he replied, cracking the first of two dozen energy drinks. “Oh, right. THAT !” Everyone needs a confidant, someone you can riff with, uncensored. As Gottman said, “When your heart is racing and you’re physiologically aroused, you need access to someone’s cerebral cortex, because you don’t have access to your own.”
Going through a divorce during my Speak No Evil experiment is challenging, to say the least. One thing I’m absolutely sure of: regardless of what I think, it’s not gonna change a damn thing. Her growth or awakening or misery don’t affect my life. Everyone goes their own way, we do the best we can with the cards we’re dealt, and the world continues to turn. I take solace from one of the essays Dawn brought me by Pema Chödrön: “To stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening… We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation—harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration. Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves: ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’”
Yoga has “four gates of speech”: ask if something is true, if it’s kind, if it’s necessary, and if it’s the right moment to say it. Using this barometer, I should usually keep my mouth shut about my ex-wife. It’s not necessary to speak just for the sake of being “right,” or to make myself look better. Given enough time, anyone can justify anything. If I want to be emotionally honest, I’ll have to look at my own piece of how things fell apart. The truth, it seems, isn’t just factual, but can reveal a far deeper state in the heart. I can tell you this: My truth hurts.
On my friend’s morning podcast (“The Marty Riemer Show”), I fell off the salubrious yakkin’ wagon. Before the show was even five minutes old, I’d threatened to kill one listener (I was joking, but it’s not exactly positive talk) and declared how our previous episode sucked canal water. In a segment about my Speak No Evil experiment, Marty pointed out that I was failing—miserably. In my effort to be “honest” I thought I could get away with loose lips, but there are all kinds of ways to speak truthfully without threatening others or maligning creative efforts. I was spending far too much of my time looking for a punch line (which, by the way, has the word “punch” in it). Frankly, I needed someone pointing out my failure—Marty had done me a favor—telling me to sober up and fly right. Eliminating decades of public smack talk is going to take some time.
To help get me back on track, my spiritual mentor Dawn decided to bring in the big Buddhist guns, introducing me to Tulku Yeshi Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who lives at the Sakya monastery in Seattle. As we sat over tea, I began to understand the much bigger picture that loomed over my Speak No Evil experiment. “Words not like horse,” Tulku noted. “Horse you can catch once it is out and gone. Words, you can’t catch. Mouth make trouble.”
I had been worrying about slips of the tongue, when apparently the key is not to stifle words when they’re in your mouth, but long before. As we sat, Tulku used one word over and over: silence. “When upset, silence is best. Just (pause) silence. Smile. Enjoy. Be happy. Silence. Gives time to think. Silence!” Whereas I was struggling with the concept of not sticking my foot in my mouth, if you look before you leap, there won’t be a time when something “just slips out.”
Tulku also suggested wearing something that would remind me of my right speech journey, a ring or bracelet that might reinforce thinking before opening my yap. So I’m now wearing a ring with a blue agate stone setting. It looks kind of like a mood ring, but the mood is not “lovestruck” or “adventurous,” but “less talkative.” “In public, check your mouth,” Tulku intoned, “when you are alone, check your mind.”
Inspired by Tulkula, I decided to go quiet for a day to see how that changed my outlook. For me, arranging a day of silence was a whole lot easier than it would be for most folks: no job, no boss to report to, no water cooler, no spouse, no live-in kids, no problem. I turned off the ringers on my phones and explored the sounds of silence.
I don’t know about golden, but silence is quite pleasant. The day was peaceful, even oddly energizing. Tulku had told me a fable about a man who was screaming at the Buddha for five straight hours. As the Buddha sat quietly, the man returned and yelled at him for another five hours! Buddha said nothing. “To the Buddha,” Tulku explained, “it was as if this man was running up to him and stacking giant stones at his feet saying, ‘Take care of these!’ Then he run off for more rocks. At the end of day, man is exhausted. Not Buddha. He is refreshed!” Talking, it turns out, is very demanding.
I ventured away from the homestead only twice, once for coffee (figures my barista would become Mr. Chatty on my Silent Day) and to the supermarket for the mile-long salad bar. Took me a while to realize that blaring my iPod and bombarding my brain with channel-surfing doesn’t exactly count as quiet time. As soon as I set aside the multimedia, I began to hear the world around me. Birds were singing, seaplanes soared overhead, sounds of the city floated by, the pack of toddlers next door punted recycling bins down the alley. I had to ignore several urges to make phone calls, and, in a pantomime that would have made Marcel Marceau proud, somehow managed to get the neighborhood gardener to mow my lawn.
I always have plenty of conversations going on in my head, so there was no lack of “communication,” but the imposed silence slowed the pace, and, though not sending me fulltime to the ashram, centered me in a nice way. Everyone should try it, starting with Piers Morgan. Or Lady Gaga.
My parents are amazing examples of the Speak No Evil philosophy. Maybe it’s generational, or maybe it’s that Herb and Isabel are from an ethically superior age bracket, but over the years I have rarely heard either of them speak negatively about anyone. I’ve even tested their limits by talking badly of individuals, trying to provoke them into a little reputation-bashing. The most I could ever get out of my father was, “He does tend to get quite animated after a few pops.”
I knew at some point I’d have to give them the details about my wife’s affair—otherwise they’d wonder why we weren’t in constant couples counseling, or if it was their son who had screwed up a marriage with a wonderful woman whom they had grown to love. “Vanessa made a few bad decisions,” was all I could get out before choking back the tears. No dummies, they read between the lines. Stoic and supportive as always, my dad told me to let them know if I needed anything. “Okay,” my mother said, “now let’s have a drink.”
With a week to go, my main problem is no longer being a mindless smartass (now I’m a mindful one), but staying away from the plethora of meanspirited websites I troll for hours on end. Looking at their lessthan- pure content with a new perspective, I now realize they feed the evil frenzy I’m attempting to avoid. “Celebrity Womanizers: The Sperminator’s Love Child!” (TMZ) “Steven Tyler: Gay Sex Doesn’t Do It For Me, But I Did Like Heroin in My Butt.” (Gawker) “New Princess Di Death Pics!” (National Enquirer) “Sarah Palin Buys Arizona Home: Will Keep Bristol from Becoming Slutty Liberal.” (Jezebel)
To help curb my paparazzic instincts, I had a second meeting with Tulku Yeshi. I shared my predilection for celeb mug shots, pics of Monica Bellucci, and Michelle Bachman gaffes. For a guy who lives in a monastery, he has an amazing understanding of the crap that’s out there: “It is very difficult to control the mind, even without the distractions you speak of.” Just when I thought he was going to forbid me from watching cable, Tulkula surprised me, as usual. “I also watch TV, the news, BBC. It allows me to have compassion, for the people struggling with addiction, the disasters, the wars, and murders. I pray for them. Must know their suffering to be able to help them.”
But what about the hours I was losing to The Soup, Celebrity Rehab, and The Drudge Report? “If you need information, make a list of what you want, go to your computer, find this, and turn it off. You have control.” Not much. “Look for what you need. PBS! Beautiful programs. Animals! NASA ! Share with your son this science and culture. History Channel is very good!”
The man was starting to sound like a PBS telemarketer, but I got the picture: Focus! Use the media for tasks, but don’t aimlessly surf without purpose or it’ll suck the life out of you. To curb my cruel tabloid urges, I went home and deleted all my bookmarks. Next time I needed to hit the web, I’d have a particular question in mind, and my Google search wouldn’t be “Before and after pictures of Angelina Jolie’s plastic surgery,” but “Fixing Running Toilet,” or “Symptoms of Gout.”
There was one event on the calendar I was dreading: my friend Lauren was having a birthday party, and her friend Jenna would be in attendance. “Please don’t ruin my birthday,” Lauren begged, “like you did last year.” Let’s just say Jenna is an individual with whom I’ve had a difficult working relationship.
Dawn had warned that the compassionate road would not be easy. “Transformation stirs shit up,” she cautioned (in what I assume was not an exact Sanskrit translation). “There’s going to be some resistance. And the only way you’re going to create a pure realm is through hard work. Practice skillfulness in action.”
As I saw Jenna from across the room, I unconsciously ground my teeth to nubs. I couldn’t say “Nice to see you again,” as it was untrue. I didn’t want to compliment her because I didn’t like her. So I went for something bland, without ill will, and—hopefully—unlikely to provoke more conversation. “Hello Jenna,” I said, extending my hand, “Lauren always tells me such great things about you.” She would have none of it, and cut to the quick: “Listen, Michael, I really want to apologize. The last few times we’ve met I’ve been in a horrible place and…”
Having positive interactions with people— getting along—isn’t brain surgery, but it does take an effort. After probing, monitoring, and recording couples in his Love Lab for decades, Gottman found that the key to marital stability was as simple as a compliment. Couples that succeed (The Masters) have a five to one ratio: five positive statements and interactions for every negative one, even during an argument. The Disasters, on the other hand, couples who fail, get caught up in what Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. With this Positivity Playbook in mind, I decided to give each and every person I encountered today a compliment: the waitress at the diner, the mailman, my mom, the random dude at the gas station, and so on.
Without exception, with each compliment delivered, each and every individual lit up. I found myself in surprising affirmative conversations: A pregnant lady whom I told looked radiant shared her struggle with getting knocked up and how happy she was inside and—apparently—out. A teenager wanted to give me a demonstration of his skateboarding prowess after I told him his deck was rad. At the end of the day I approached an elderly homeless gentleman and extended my hand, not sure what kind word I’d lay down. After a crushing shake, I had little option other than to tell him what a warm and firm handshake he had. Thirty minutes later I’d learned about his recently deceased wife (the love of his life) and our mutual passion for the blues, and we’d scheduled a walking date the following Thursday. (FYI, he stood me up.) Not to be too Oprah about it, but cultivating the habit of being positive is contagious.
The ongoing struggle in my mind regarding the failure of my marriage is not that it ended—but that it did not end on my terms. I am quite happy to have my freedom once again: I’m not at all opposed to living alone, doing my own laundry, eating takeout 24/7, or dating online. For it all to have come to a crashing end with the discovery of an affair is the unpleasant part.
Of all the people who rang in on my union’s demise, the best guidance, surprisingly, came from a man who does his damnedest to keep people together. “You’re a young guy. You have your whole life ahead of you,” Gottman advised. “Do you really want to be with someone who hurts you like that when you’re older?”
Turns out, the woman I waited forty-one years to marry just wasn’t the right girl for me. Separate out all the unpleasantness, and you’ve still got two people who loved one another for a spell and couldn’t find a way to work things out. News Flash: Successful, long-term, committed relationships are a difficult proposal. It wasn’t that we didn’t have solid role models to observe: my folks have been married for fifty-six years, and hers almost forty. During those decades, issues arose, times got tough. But they worked through it. They made the effort. They put in the time and stayed dedicated. Not us.
On the last day of my Speak No Evil experiment, with Tulku’s mantras echoing in my head, I got online with new intentions. I set my browser to open to Gimundo.com (“Good News… Served Daily”). I visited the neighborhood blog for traffic and local burglary updates, then Facebook to see if anyone had “poked” me. (What the hell does that mean?) Stifling the urge to ridicule several friends, I managed to “Like” three of four posts, including one from an acquaintance who successfully ran a marathon over the weekend, and (yet another) photo of a friend’s dog—this time in old-fashioned sepia tone! “He’s a GOOD BOY!” I commented. “And is that a new collar? So handsome!”
My fellow scribe A.J. Jacobs posted a note about how the TV show they were making out of his book, The Guinea Pig Diaries, didn’t get picked up by NBC. I looked over my initial comment (“They’re all pissants!”) and revised it to: “The writer crowd is damn proud of you, young man. It’s an amazing accomplishment for your project to have been taken this far, and will definitely lead to even better things: I heard they’re auditioning Mel Gibson for your book The Year of Living Biblically! Anyway, way to go, pal.”
I then logged on to Tweetville to post a quote from legendary coach Knute Rockne: “One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than a hundred teaching it.” My modus was simple enough: comment if necessary, be nice, have some fun, then get the hell offline.
I picked up my son for brunch, and he handed me a Tupperware full of cookies from my ex. Dozens of thoughts ran through my head: Were they poisoned? Was this supposed to make up for her abandoning our marriage? Did she give the other half of the batch to the man she betrayed me with? I took a breath and thought about my month, and all that I’d learned. What—if anything—did I really have to say about the matter? (Pause. Ponder.) “Thank Mom for the cookies, will you? It was a thoughtful thing to do.”
What started almost as a lark wound up a grand blessing, and is now a powerful piece of my everyday existence. I look down at the banded blue agate where my wedding ring used to be, and instead of cursing the stars, appreciate the moment, for I am not dead or in pain, but far from it. My life is rich and full. I am surrounded by loved ones and my learning curve is inching toward equanimity.
As I packed up my notes at the monastery and began to leave my final interview, Tulku said something that put my experiment in perspective. “Perhaps you will come meet with me again soon, and we shall have tea and continue to discuss this honorable notion of right speech,” my Tibetan friend offered, countering my idea of deadlines and firm endings and meetings wrapped up in tidy bows. “Or we will sit together (pause) in silence.”