Why Am I Talking?

Ajahn Amaro • November 2008

I’ve been reflecting on the realm of right speech, an area in our lives that very swiftly gets carried away on the wind. Just as autumn leaves off the oak tree end up all over the landscape, so too our resolution to be more attentive and more mindful of speech gets carried away on the winds of circumstance. We might listen to a Dhamma talk on right speech and take in the various principles expressed by the teacher, but when we encounter each other we find ourselves wanting to comment on some event in the day that we’ve seen, heard, or read about. We overhear a conversation between others and find ourselves hanging around the edges, eager to chime in and say, “Oh yeah, I heard about that . . . yada, yada, yada.” And then off it goes. This is one of the perennial issues of community life.

The other day someone was quoting the little signs they have at Wat Mettā. One of them is the acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking? We can apply that sort of inquiry even before we start talking: Why do I need to talk? Is the world going to be a better place if I chime in at this point? Why do I want to get involved? Is it merely to engage for the sake of engaging? Is it an urge to burn some energy and connect? Is it just to fill up space? Is this actually going to be a benefit? Is this going to unite or divide? Is this going to bring clarity to others? Can I restrain the urge to comment, to speak, to put forth some opinion or some perspective?

We’re a very large community these days. The monks’ room has many people passing through at different times—just before morning pūjā, at morning teatime, preparing for a morning meeting, during bowl setup, preparing for the work period, getting changed after the work period, cleaning up after the meal, enjoying evening teatime, before and after evening pūjā. It’s good to be aware that the conversation we think we’re having with just one person in the monks’ room is actually involving other, unseen people, since the Dhamma Hall on the other side of the wall is like an echo chamber for the monks’ room. This is especially apparent if things are quiet in the hall and there are loud conversations going on in the monks’ room. Of course, sometimes there are things really worth talking about. But often, it’s simply random chatter and only for the sake of engaging. So I encourage us to apply mindfulness and consideration, asking ourselves, Is this really worthwhile? Am I considering that there are probably several people in the Dhamma Hall who will have to listen to all this? Is this something that’s really worth sharing with so many people? Do I need to engage in this, or can I put it aside?

In this way we can notice our accustomed patterns and see what situations draw us into pointless engagement and continuous verbal proliferation. When we learn to recognize those situations, we can take action to put ourselves somewhere else. Go sit on the porch, sit on the bench outside, or come into the Dhamma Hall. We can choose solitude over putting ourselves in close quarters where talking and pointless chitchat tend to launch themselves. This is one of the simplest and most direct ways the Buddha encouraged the development of mindfulness and the restraint of the āsavas, the outflows. We don’t put ourselves in situations where that outflowing is going to be encouraged. We put ourselves somewhere else. It’s very simple. We’re not creating the conditions whereby a lack of restraint is being encouraged. Rather, we’re inclining toward containment.

Every so often we need these kinds of encouragements to look at our own habits and involvements. When we make the effort to restrain and take the opportunity to disengage, then we can see for ourselves the results: how much quieter and settled the mind becomes. There’s no need to remember the pointless chitchat or inquire about information that’s not really benefiting our lives. We can recognize for ourselves, Look how much more peaceful my mind is while I’m sitting, how much more easeful it is on the worksite when my mind isn’t muddling around with all of this verbal engagement. To start with, we can learn to WAIT.