Skillful Speech and Skillful Action in Uncivil Times

“When they go low, we go high.”  – Michelle Obama, former First Lady, 2016

“When they go low, we kick them.”  –  Eric Holder, former Attorney General, 2018

During the raucous months leading up to Election Day in 2016, Democrats across the country – establishment and progressives alike – were inspired by Michelle Obama’s iconic statement, “When they go low, we go high.”  For many of us, hearing that often-repeated phrase throughout the otherwise disturbing news cycle that marked (and marred) the final days of the campaign was one of only two things that constantly lifted our spirits – the other being those daily polling reports that consistently gave Hillary Clinton upwards of an 85 percent likelihood of winning the election.

Well, we lost the consolation of those polling predictions when we lost the election.  But throughout the raucous two years that have followed Donald Trump’s inauguration, we could still take heart from going high no matter how low his administration went.

Until recently, that is.  Eric Holder’s unfortunate revision of Michelle’s phrase into “When they go low, we kick them” has struck a chord with some prominent Democratic leaders.  Not all of them, though.  Many continue to plead for civility, and caution that such uncivil behavior will only further inflame an already polarized public, and may have the unintended consequence of firing up wavering supporters of the Trump administration and coaxing them back to the polls for the midterm elections.  But many others, outraged by the increasingly inhumane words and actions of this administration, argue that incivility needs to be met with incivility, that expressions of outrage are necessary to protest outrageous policies, and that only intense methods of protest can rally an increasingly demoralized Democratic party.

For a liberal Buddhist, these conflicting arguments from pundits and politicians on the left can be perplexing. After all, among the many different – and most difficult – ways of practicing the Buddhist virtue of “not clinging” is by avoiding attachment to being correct.  And so, a Buddhist strives to listen with an open mind – a mind willing  to have its own views modified by a better view, rather than a mind determined at all costs to defend those views even when they are demonstrably not better. 

When I read, or listen to, an appeal from either side of this debate among liberals with this kind of openness to being influenced, I find myself being pulled in the direction of whichever position is being espoused.  Both sides have appealing arguments on behalf of their point of view.  On the one hand, I don’t want to permit myself to be dragged down to the levels of incivility that Mr. Trump and his cohorts have ushered into the national discourse.  “When they go low, we go high” has always seemed innately correct to me, and in the current climate, indeed more indispensable than ever.  But on the other hand, their words and especially their actions are stirring up an anger in me that cries out for expression.  A few rough words, or some occasional rowdy behavior (including some kicking??), could be most cathartic.

Fortunately, Buddhism offers some very straightforward guidance to perplexed liberals such as myself.  I’m speaking, of course, of those two closely related virtues prescribed in the eightfold path – skillful speech and skillful action. 

“Skillful” in this context means that the speech or action in question has the effect of lessening suffering  (the inherent stress and/or dissatisfaction) implicit in whatever situation the speech or action is addressing.  So, the question to be considered is whether or not uncivil speech and uncivil actions as a response to inhumane government policies can ever be deemed “skillful” in this Buddhist sense.

I would argue that they cannot.  

First of all, uncivil speech and uncivil actions inevitably increase stress for all involved – the speaker/actor as well as the recipient of the speech/action – in the immediate situations in which they occur.  And secondly, in our day and age, such speech and actions are all but certain to fan the flames of intolerance and hatred across the social media landscape and the cable news networks.  On both counts, then, uncivil speech and uncivil actions fail the Buddhist test of skillfulness, because they invariably increase, rather than decrease, suffering.

Which is not to argue that liberals must politely accept the torrent of hateful speech and the flood of inhumane actions continuously being emitted by the Trump administration.  Rather, in the spirit of “When they go low, we go high”, let’s undertake a serious, sustained look at appropriate forms of civil, nonviolent speech and action – skillful behaviors, in the truest sense of what Buddhism teaches.

We have Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela to serve as our models.  And we have the Buddha himself to serve as our guiding teacher.  What a remarkable group of wise leaders.  Long before Michelle’s felicitous phrase, they each knew exactly what it means to “go high”. 

So can we.

Review: Joseph Goldstein’s most recent book, “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening”


There’s not a single reference to politics – liberal or otherwise – in this scholarly book by the renowned co-founder of Insight Meditation Society, Joseph Goldstein.  Nonetheless, this comprehensive treatise on mindfulness, written by such a gifted teacher of meditation and Buddhism, is essential reading for every practitioner, regardless of one’s level of political or social engagement.

Here’s the review I’ve posted on Amazon and Goodreads …


“A Master Class in Mindfulness, Conducted by a Master Teacher”

As the word “mindfulness” increasingly comes to be featured in the titles of books, blogs, apps, websites, online courses, corporate seminars, and meditation retreats, one might wonder whether there is room in the marketplace of ideas for even one more such entry bearing this remarkably overused, and perhaps somewhat misused, word.  Renowned meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar Joseph Goldstein’s latest book, simply but confidently entitled “Mindfulness”, answers this query with a resounding “Yes, absolutely!”.

Using one of the most well-known discourses in the Buddhist Canon – the Satipatthana Sutta, which he translates as the “four ways of establishing mindfulness” – as his foundation, Goldstein embarks upon on a 400-page exploration into the historic roots of mindfulness, based upon the instructions laid out with such specificity in the verses of this discourse.

The suttas can be challenging to read in direct translation from their original format, but there’s no need for alarm at the central role the Satipatthana plays here.  Its demanding, intentionally repetitive style is simply the core around which Goldstein constructs a thoroughly engaging and erudite narrative, enhanced by a generous supply of personal anecdotes drawn from a lifetime of practicing meditation and immersing himself in the teachings of the Buddha.  Reading this book is as pleasant and educational as sitting in the meditation hall listening to one of Goldstein’s dharma talks.

Which brings me to the one caution I feel bound to include in this review.  Goldstein makes so many repeated references to incidents and insights that have occurred to him on the countless retreats he has either attended or taught over the past five decades, that it could feel overwhelming – perhaps even somewhat off-putting – to readers not all that familiar with sitting in meditation, listening to dharma talks, or attending retreats.

But this warning is not meant to discourage anyone – novice or otherwise – from undertaking to read Mindfulness.  Rather, it’s intended to guide everyone – and especially beginners – in setting appropriate expectations for their reading experience.

And here are two expectations every reader can bring to this incomparable and invaluable book: you will finish it with a much richer understanding of mindfulness than when you began it, and you will almost certainly return to its pages again and again in the future to continue enriching that understanding.