Some years ago, I knew someone who was fairly popular in a group I associated with. Being “in” with this person meant being in with the surrounding group. For purposes of ease and anonymity, I’ll call this person “They”. They were genial and charismatic, and appeared friendly to many, including myself. They were patient and intent on their spiritual journey. They had the ear of the leaders of the group and knew a great deal about what went on. They were the “one to know”.
It seems hardwired into our DNA to want to feel included in a group. To be included is to feel safe, to have access to opportunities that being alone doesn’t offer. Childhood conditioning says that being in with the cool kids is the place to be. It’s a hard feeling to outgrow, even when one is far into adulthood.
I spent some time with this group, and slowly realized that being in the “in” crowd meant hearing a lot of gossip. At first, it was gratifying. It felt good to be an “us” vs “other”. They don’t call it “juicy” gossip for no reason. There’s a satisfaction that often comes with gossip. I’m not saying it’s a skillful satisfaction by any means, but it’s an easy road to go down.
In time though, I noticed how these gossip sessions felt, and I found that the energy was not that which I enjoyed. I would walk away feeling aversion, creating stories in my mind about the people discussed. There was a sense of how “I” was better (yikes!). There was also a sinking feeling in my gut that told me that I wasn’t following my own values.
I also had other more skillful groups to compare this one to. Groups which I never heard speaking ill of others, and accordingly, how much better it felt to be around the more skillful groups. Slowly I came to a realization: I’d rather not be included in a group that regularly engaged in gossip. The “cool kids”… no longer seemed all that cool.
The more I saw how gossip had tainted the behavior of this group, the less I wanted to be a part of it, even though all of them had many other good qualities. These were people that I had learned from and even admired. I still look upon the members of this group as whole people who engage in skillful and unskillful behavior, just as I do. We’re all trying to find happiness, and usually we all go about finding it in a misguided or deluded way. This is only part of their behavior, and perhaps only my perception. I wish them all well. And if I only associate with perfect practitioners, it would be quite a lonely practice. I couldn’t even associate with myself. Yet at least at this time, I feel it’s better to avoid placing myself in company of those with which unskillful behavior is likely to follow.
There’s a saying, “If you spot it, you got it”, meaning that the things we find annoying in others are often the things we like (and see) least in ourselves. I know I’ve said things in the past that have not been skillful, and knowing how it has the potential to be painful to me (let alone the other person), makes me hope not to engage in such behavior in the future.
Sometimes there’s also a fine line with mixed intentions. I may relate an event or series of events to a friend to get their opinion. Yet I can’t say that there isn’t at least a small part of me that is hungry for that friend to help me build up my “he said, she said” story. But genuine guidance and reflection from a spiritual friend is always welcome in the long run, and sometimes that means relating details about others that may be negative. Where’s the middle way?
Even this blog post could be an example. My intention is not to point a finger or identify anyone. My intention is to reveal the difficulties I have faced with gossip in order to share with others that difficulty and also to offer reflections on what I have found helpful.
The Buddha offered guidance on things to consider before admonishing someone, which certainly would hold true for relating information to someone else:
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good will.” (AN 5.158, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation)
Guru Nanak said “Speak only that which will bring you honor”.
Perhaps the key is to remember to check in with the heart and with one’s intentions before one opens one’s mouth. Perhaps easier said than done, but as the saying goes, that’s why they call it a practice.
Be well and peaceful, dear readers. If you’ve found ways of keeping your speech skillful, please feel free to share in the comments.