Discussing Ethics With Children and Teenagers

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Should ethics be taught in schools? Many people shudder at the thought. It would be like teaching religion in public schools, some respond. It would be like teaching not just how to make a rational decision and think critically, but how to live one’s life.

 

And I am sure that position is valid in many cases. Some people think teaching is about telling students what is right and true—how to interpret historical events or understand a character in a novel. They would teach science or social studies by having students memorize facts from a textbook. So, to teach ethics in schools would mean having students memorize rules and make their thinking and behavior consistent with what is prescribed by the teacher or school system. So, maybe the first question needs to be, what does it mean to educate a person?

 

If education means something like providing the background knowledge and ability to analyze information, and think clearly and critically. If it means learning how to raise questions and cooperate with others, so children can live a meaningful life and contribute positively to their community, then how can ethics not be part of education?

 

In fact, how can ethics not be taught? Ethics means learning how to inquire into and figure out how to act morally, understand right versus wrong and what is good or proper. It has to do with figuring out principles to guide your actions. To provide any guideline on social behavior is thus teaching ethics. Don’t schools begin to teach ethics on the very first day of school, when children are given rules for classroom behavior? And do you want students to graduate without having examined how and by what principles they make or could make ethical choices? Or how to evaluate the implications and consequences of those choices? Considering the political climate in this country, can we afford to graduate students with a distinct lack of such understanding?

 

And students, particularly in secondary school, yearn to ask ethical or moral questions. They want answers. They want to know how to act, how to live, what is right.

 

So, to teach ethics, teach students to question using real, ethical questions. Such questions are essential to any discipline. In English classes, you could study the consequences of ethical choices made by characters in literature. In Science you could not only study atomic theory but the ethical dimensions of using atomic energy. Imagine asking the following in a class: Should you always try to tell the truth?

Imagine one student responds: “There is no truth.” Or asks, “How do you know what’s a truth or what’s a lie?”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is saying something you know to not be true.”

A third student: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale?”

 

Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They enliven a classroom and intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.

 

What are the consequences, if any, of lying?

One student says: “None— unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Another: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

A third: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”

 

So you suffer when you lie? The students said it. When you lie, you can create a fictional self that is weak and lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community? Conversation or speech is not simply self-expression. When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being. It’s a relationship. Lying, or any unethical behavior, has consequences. It can cause suffering and distort thinking.

 

So, why lie? What are your intentions? Your intention, if you lie, might be to help others or to advance yourself at the cost of others. Should the intention behind your actions be important in evaluating your choices?

 

What do you do when you act ethically? Which principles or ethical systems do you apply? Study this deeply and honestly and question your understanding of any topic or situation that calls for action. Study the ethical systems used by different people, systems like J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, Greek or Confucian virtue ethics, Kant’s idea of universalizabilityBuddha’s 8-Fold Path, or the Golden Rule. Students can work to discern if the principles or values they use to make ethical decisions actually make their lives, and the lives of others, better or worse. What role does compassion play in acting ethically?

 

And besides applying an intellectual and personal moral analysis, you need training in social-emotional awareness so you can actually do what you intend and think is right.

 

*The photo: a part of my yard after rain ended, hopefully, the drought.

What Will the Future Bring?

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You can’t help but sometimes wonder about the future. Thinking about what will happen next, will I graduate with honors, will I ever find love, will I die alone, will my book get published, what will I have for dinner? Isn’t this what all of us do at times? Prognosticating the future is not just the realm of scientists, weather people, soothsayers and diviners.  To understand anything or know what actions to take, to know what is ethical or even practical, I need to examine what fits, what feels right, now. But don’t I also need to examine the consequences of my actions? “If I do this, what will the result be?” Each action in the present presumes a future, a particular future. Each step I take, each act and view I express, helps set the conditions for the next moment. So, I need to carefully consider what future I am helping to create.

 

Barbara Ehrenreich recently reviewed two books, “Rise of the Robots” and “Shadow Work” which look at present trends and try to read the future those trends are creating. Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots” documents how our push to embrace technology and automate everything threatens everyone, threatens 100% unemployment. Although “we the people” are getting better and better gadgets, wealth and power gets increasingly concentrated.  The threat of a dystopian future (as portrayed in Hunger Games and other movies and novels), of a plutocracy living in “gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots or drones” looms over us—or so sspeculates Martin Ford. What happens to “we the people” when we have no meaningful work to do? What does this technological push tell us about ourselves? What can we do about it? “Shadow Work” by Craig Lambert documents all the unseen jobs that technology adds to our lives—deleting spam from our email, reviewing “terms and conditions,” creating passwords for websites, etc..

 

Of course, this concern about technology is not new. Possibly ever since there were people (or possibly even before modern humans appeared in the world), there were those who looked to new tools and weapons to make a brighter future, to make life easier or safer or more enjoyable, as well as those who doubted the efficacy of looking to technology to improve life. For example, people in my school have sometimes been called Luddites for doubting claims made by computer companies, school administrators, and even other teachers that computers would reduce our workload or improve our ability to teach or make teaching easier. According to a recent NPR program on All Things Considered, the original Luddites were cloth workers fighting to preserve their livelihood. They rebelled, during the English Industrial Revolution, against the introduction of machines to displace workers and were labeled unthinking opponents to progress. They said machines would not only displace workers from sometimes good paying jobs; they would concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The Luddites not only argued against but physically acted to destroy those machines and were jailed or executed for their actions. The spokesmen for the wealthy machine owners argued that the Industrial Revolution would make life better for everyone. The industrial revolution did bring huge changes to human culture. But it could easily be argued that it wasn’t until after the depression of the 1930s and after World War II was over, that substantive benefits from this revolution would begin to reach most people in Europe and the US, let alone the rest of the world.

 

And now we have a new revolution, a new realm of machinery displacing workers and concentrating wealth—information machines. So, were the Luddites actually correct? And will the new “Luddites,” who advise caution on information technology, also be correct about the negative effects of this technology hidden behind all the glitz and conveniences?

 

I have to admit that I’m divided. I fear Ford is correct, yet don’t think his view of a bleak future will come to pass. I think that as we create new technology, we will also create better ways to live with it—or so I hope. I hope more humans will learn that a good life doesn’t come through projecting emotional fulfillment into a gadget. It comes through better understanding of our own mind and how our actions in the present help shape the future for everyone. I hope this isn’t just hope.

 

*Photo: Trojan Horse from movie Troy, in Canakkale, Turkey.

 

Discussing Religion

Discussing religion in public schools is obviously controversial. Religion (and opposition to religion) is very close to the core of many people’s understanding of reality and so must be treated with sensitivity and awareness. There are also constitutional and legal constraints.

 

Although the implications of the first (and fourteenth) amendment are still argued in some circles, the purpose is to protect a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and religion. It forbids congress from promoting one religion over another. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson and before him, Roger Williams, spoke of a “wall of separation” between church and state. The prohibition against religion in public institutions is a prohibition against combining church and state, or making church the state.

 

But does this mean that religion should not be discussed in schools at all except in very limited circumstances? Circumstances such as world history classes, where history textbooks give relevant dates, name important people, central practices, teachings and terminology? These references are usually very superficial, dry, and do little to help students understand or learn about religions other than their own (if they have one).

 

I think religion must be discussed in schools. For one thing, students have many questions. It is in the headlines, often in very negative terms. We hear about religion fighting religion, about religious extremists and terrorists. A report by Media Matters, in 2007, found the coverage of religion oversimplified, with a consistent bias in coverage in favor of conservatives. “Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.” Some students have no experience with religious teachings at all. Others go to a church, synagogue, mosque, center or whatever but rarely do they get to ask questions or think about religion from a perspective of someone not a member of their community. Students need a deeper and more inclusive picture. A reality ignored or oversimplified is a reality distorted and abused and we have enough of both in our world.

 

The questions about religion that concern secondary students most and I think should be predominantly examined in schools are psychological and philosophical or ethical. What is religion? Why has it been part of human life, history and culture since the initial days of humanity? What is the place of reason and doubt in the face of belief and faith? Discussing religion easily leads to deep questions and concerns, about purpose, morality, mind, soul and death, about truth and how you know what’s true, about compassion and love. Throwing out religion as a topic of study often leads to throwing out what is crucial to the lives of each and every human being. Do we want to empty schools of the deepest and most meaningful questions and concerns? If so, we know why many think of school as a wasteland. In fact, is religion another way to speak about one’s central concerns in life? Is religion so tied to culture that the two can barely be separated? If you can’t discuss religion, at least discuss these philosophical questions and how to humanize and respect those with views other than your own.

 

The discussions need to be real and in-depth, the questions mostly open-ended, with no one right answer. There are not “two sides” to any deep religious or philosophical question (or maybe any important question) but multiple sides. There are also factual questions that need to be researched and reliable “experts” in the field interviewed (historians, psychologists, philosophers of religion, theologians, and spiritual leaders, in person, or through YouTube and books). For example, students told me that in many classes when religion was discussed, it was portrayed as a way to explain the unexplainable or to give people comfortable answers to uncomfortable questions. Although I think there is some truth to this, this explanation of the “why” of religion is woefully inadequate. It might even be a way to sneak in a dismissal of the religious as lazy or poor thinkers. Anyone who argues this has never read the writings of, or listened to, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama or others. Also, it is untrue. Some religions do not give comfortable answers. One example is Buddhism, which speaks of the suffering common to most people’s lives. Overcoming suffering does not come easily and is not from belief but through an almost scientific examination of how the world is, of mind and awareness.

 

Of course, I am arguing this viewpoint with some trepidation. Open-ended discussions of religion can be difficult to lead, very personal and require great trust on the part of students in the teacher and the classroom community, a trust that has to be earned. And schools are already being attacked from many sides and often unfairly so teachers might feel themselves vulnerable to attack. Religious groups pushing their particular doctrines and corporate groups doing much the same assault them.

 

But schools are the closest we have to common places where, maybe, perhaps, wisdom might be found and encouraged, even taught, along with compassion and understanding. Or where there are people, namely teachers, who are deeply committed to developing such attributes in themselves and young people. It’s about time to let schools attempt such a mission instead of being bogged down with test prep and superficial knowledge. And discussing meaningful questions might actually increase engagement and learning in the classroom.

 

Next week: How do you foster and lead such discussions without distorting the discussion with bias? What do you think?

 

 

**The photo is of my wife, Linda, in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

 

Why Do We Shop?

It’s the season for shopping, both for others and oneself. And if you’re a teacher, it’s a good time to raise questions about our consumer society.

 

For many years I had a clear distaste for shopping, especially in malls. I’m not talking about buying necessities, like food when the refrigerator is empty, or a new coat when it’s winter and your only coat is torn. I’m talking about recreational shopping. When you feel you need a new shirt when you have several or a lightweight down coat when you have two already. But once and awhile, the urge creeps in. One minute, I can feel that I have everything I need, for now and years to come. And then, a few minutes later, maybe influenced by a catalogue arriving in the mail, and I feel a desire for something new. Why shop for things other than necessities? Why is shopping so seductive?

 

There are many reasons, but I want to pick out a few. Of course, we are bombarded with messages in the media. Our society is built on social conditioning to look to possessions to solve our emotional needs. Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses ” but I sometimes wonder if it’s shopping. After 9/11, as our economy was dipping towards recession, our President urged us to do our civic duty and “go shopping,” as if that would solve our national problems. We are taught to think how we look and what we have gives status.

 

Some of my students over the years denied this conditioning and claimed that advertising did not affect them, so I tried various strategies to increase their awareness of the influence of media and the importance of examining the ethical implications of actions. I sometimes taught the psychology of persuasion and mindfulness of thoughts and self-images. I also had students read reports from the riots of Detroit and Watts in the mid-1960s, where the goods most stolen by looters were the most advertised [I couldn’t find the source for this] and were in stores where African-Americans were not respectfully treated.

 

To some degree, buying something is getting oneself a present. Presents show care, that we’re loved and valued. Shopping can be an adventure, if you care about what you’re shopping for. My favorite shopping is for books. To find a book that meets and expands my knowledge in an area I value is exciting. And what about clothing? Most clothes shopping bores me, unless it is for what I consider “different” or beautiful or when the very act of buying is more personal, like an acknowledgement. For example, when I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I loved buying shirts made locally and from the craftsmen and women who made them.

 

Often, people try to define themselves with clothes and other possessions and this is where many problems arise. Maybe you see an ad for running shoes, and you imagine yourself as a runner or an athlete. You project yourself into this external image as if your joy or happiness resided in the clothes or shoes—or books. A new you is born. It’s like magic. You pay money and you turn a mental image into a physically new you.

 

You might feel, “If only I had that, I’d be so much more attractive”? Or, “If I had that car, I’d be free!” But what happens to your sense of yourself without that possession, or if you can’t afford it? You feel poorer. When you crave an object, you desire it because you make yourself feel deficient without it. In fact, creating an image of a self dependent on external factors for happiness, is part of the Buddhist analysis of suffering. Advertising throws in your face what you don’t have. Our consumer economy is particularly oppressive to those with little money. And even if you do have the money, what happens after you spend it? Maybe a few weeks later, you feel the same as before, or worse. You crave a new identity, maybe this time with a new jacket. But the self-image we create out of this possession is just an image in the mind. It’s ephemeral; it disappears like smoke. And when it does, we are once again left emptier than before.

 

Actually, I left out a step. When I returned home with my new jacket, I knew exactly where I put it in the closet. I created with the jacket a zone of aliveness around it. When I put it on, I felt new. When something new or fast moving enters the scene, we give it our attention. The new and surprising attract us, and the chronic and the everyday escape our notice. A new possession can awaken our sense of aliveness.

 

Yet, everything is changing every second. We know this. We are change. To breathe, our lungs expand as we inhale, contract in order to exhale. To speak, my mouth must move, change. That’s life. Why don’t we feel it?  We dull the perception of constant change with possessions, self-images, ideas, expectations, habits, and things we ingest. But the reality can’t be long suppressed. It must find a means of expression. So, for many, we shop.

 

Why not learn how to keep the mind fresh without depending on possessions? Why not sharpen awareness instead of dulling it? Many people have raised these questions. Can our world continue to support us at this rate of consumption? Can we create an economy that fosters social and political awareness and compassion instead of consumerism and competition? Can working for a more equitable distribution of wealth lead to more resources for more people? We must answer these with the way we live our lives, not only for ourselves but for our students and our world. This is the ultimate homework assignment.

 

 

*Photo By Ben Schumin (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Teaching With Ethical Questions

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Here are three books that I think will help teachers enliven any classroom. The first was published in 2001 and is out of print for the moment but its message desperately needs to be heard. It details how to teach with essential moral questions. The second is a relatively new book (published in 2012) and illustrates how dynamic a course can be that is centered on a moral issue. The third is easily available and gives a Buddhist perspective on morality, and the nature and causes of human suffering.

 

Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork by Katherine G. Simon. This book reminds me of what makes teaching real and learning inherently motivating. Morals: we often think of morals as in moralistic. But morals are what guide our behavior. When we think about reality and try to figure out what’s true, we are usually doing this so we can know how to act most appropriately. So the two questions, what is true and what is moral, are tied together. In fact, many of our most important questions have a moral dimension to them. How shall we live our lives? How should I earn a living? Should I go to college? Should we go to war? What is the best business strategy? Does thinking of my own self-interest help or damage society? Should I tell my mother the truth? How shall I relate to my best friend? Should we build the Keystone pipeline? All of these are moral questions and can excite student engagement. They are easily used to teach critical thinking skills. Kathy Simon spells out strategies for discussing, analyzing, gaining clarity on these often emotion packed questions.

 

High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community by philosophy professor Lawrence Blum, details a rigorous high school course he taught on race and racism. The book shows us how teachers can lead students deeply, sensitively and meaningfully into a burning issue of our time. After reading the book, you can no longer harbor the illusion that racism does not affect you. Classroom discussions are included so the reader is drawn into the class and can actually hear authentic student voices. We often think about how society should educate students. This book illustrates how students can educate society.

 

Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution, by Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy. Why behave and think ethically? What makes an action ethical? What is the tie between ethics and clarity of mind, or unethical behavior and suffering? What are the traps society conditions in us that lead to suffering? For our own health and happiness, we need to understand these traps and free ourselves from them. In Buddhism, ethical understanding and action is tied to mental and emotional freedom. Without such freedom, the very continuance of human life on earth might be threatened. In a very clear and comprehensive manner, David Loy spells out the nature and causes of suffering and the Buddhist path for ending that suffering.

 

At a time when schools are often criticized for being boring, educationally deficient or just irrelevant, these books show how to change all of that. Excite students with meaningful learning that gives them insight into themselves, their world, and how to act to better that world.

Political Speech

Last week, I wrote about using essential moral questions to teach students how to be aware of the suffering which can result from lies and inauthentic speech. Today, even though the midterm US elections are over, I’d like to speak about political speech. I think most teachers recognize that it is our duty to educate students to be responsible citizens. One aspect of acting as a responsible citizen is taking part in democratic decision-making. To vote, you need to not only be informed on the candidates and issues, but to critically examine those issues. What are different ways to discuss politics and examine political speech in the classroom?

 

Some teachers think that in a public school, politics, like religion, should not be discussed. They are afraid that, since teachers have their own political views, these views will inevitably make their way into the classroom. One proposed solution is that teachers honestly state their political party affiliation, if any. I totally agree with honesty, but I don’t think this solves the problem. A teacher or any person is not a Democrat, Republican, Independent or otherwise. The views they hold are just views they held in the past and might hold in the present, and can change like anything else. The Declaration of Independence says that all people (men) are created equal in terms of inalienable political rights, but all viewpoints are not equal. They need to be examined independently of the people who hold them. They can be true or false, confused or clear. Of course, most issues have no one right answer and some issues are just too complex to fully understand what is the best solution. What do you do then? For one thing, recognize the limits of your understanding.

 

We all know that political discussions easily become intractable debates or intellectual wars. Instead of looking to increase their understanding, many look for ways to win the war. So, I will re-state my question: What are different ways to discuss and examine political speech in a manner that encourages openness, aims at increasing understanding, respects and critically examines diverse viewpoints?

 

If you like debates, ask students to take on a viewpoint they previously disagreed with. For another, teach a vocabulary of critical reasoning. Teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.  Teach about fallacies of reasoning and how to spot them. Analyze: What is a fact and how is it different from an opinion or theory? I know that many teachers argue that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates but themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.

 

I would also teach mindful awareness, so students can recognize when they are beginning to feel threatened or anxious and then can act to lessen that anxiety and increase the clarity of their thought process.  Ask students early in the year, after already having some practice with mindfulness: What are the sensations that  arise when you feel threatened or anxious about someone else’s viewpoint? Or you hear a fact that opposes one of your own? What do you feel? Where? Just take a moment to close your eyes and just feel the sensations. Just notice. There’s nothing you have to do. Is your breath calm or agitated, slow or fast, or maybe something in-between? Just feel yourself breathe in. Then breathe out, and let the breath go, let the tension go, and let your body settle down. Just breathe in and out. Let your focus return to the breath. Now, was there a moment that you felt calmer? Are there places where you’re feeling more relaxed? What does it feel like when you’re relaxed and quiet? When you’re open in how you feel and look at the world? Can you imagine listening with a sense of inner peace to someone who you disagree with? Just sit with the sense that you could hear someone speaking a viewpoint that you disagree with, and you hear it calmly, fully, without feeling threatened. Afterwards, ask students to share the sensations they identified of feeling threatened, and then of feeling relaxed. In this way, they learn from others how to more fully identify their sensations and more easily be able to let them go.

 

I recommend actually bringing into class speeches by politicians (maybe with no names attached) and have students analyze them using the following questions:

  1. Is the argument valid? Does the position taken by the speaker follow logically or naturally from the statements or facts offered as supportive evidence? Is the reasoning a form of a formal or informal fallacy?
  2. Is the argument sound, meaning based on evidence that is reliably verified and truthful as well as valid? Research, and not just with online fact-check sites but sources with diverse viewpoints, the facts and statements offered as supportive evidence. Are the supposed facts really facts?
  3. What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?
    1. Intent: Is the statement consistent with other and previous statements? Is the speaker changing his or her position with each audience? Is there evidence that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
    2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?

 

The citizens of the US and of many nations today are not only very divided but confused about many issues. There is too much information that is highly relevant, even crucial to the lives of most people, which is misunderstood. It is our job as teachers to do what we can to improve that situation.

Teaching With Questions: Should I Tell the Truth?

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Should you always try to tell the truth? Such essential moral questions liven up a class. Imagine student engagement and responses when you ask this question in a classroom.

 

One student, let’s call him Dylan, responds: “What is the truth?”

Can you say more? I’m not sure if  you are diverting us from the question or saying the question can’t be answered.

Dylan: “Ok; maybe it’s a diversion. But I also mean it. My truth is not always your truth.”

Then you’re asking an awfully big question. For now, let’s refer to your own truth.  Can you know what that is?

Another student, Carlotta, jumps in: “He’s asking about lies. You know your own lies.”

Dylan: “But what’s a lie? Sometimes I don’t know when I’m lying. What’s a lie isn’t any easier to know then what’s true.”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student, Sage, replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is opposite of the truth.”

Carlotta: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale.”

I agree. I think they depend on each other. By ‘truth,’ in this case, do we mean something we think of as real?  If so, why not tell the truth?

 

Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.

 

What happens if you don’t tell the truth?

Dylan: “Nothing happens, unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Carlotta: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

Sage: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”

 

When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being; it’s a relationship. Speech is not just self-expression. And it’s always in a context, in a situation. When you speak, you create both a sense of whom you’re speaking to and a sense of who’s speaking. Without that sense of yourself and of the other person, you can’t say anything. Even when you’re out in the woods, by yourself, and you scream just to scream, you have others in mind that you’re screaming at—or for. Words emerge from formulating yourself in a particular situation. So, if you lie, what are you saying about yourself?

 

Part of the central teaching in Buddhism is the Eight-Fold Path to ending suffering. The steps in the path are right view, thought or intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. These are divided into three categories: wisdom/understanding, ethics, and meditation. Speech follows intent or thought and is the first step under ethics. Ethics has to do with how you act, how you live your life, how you influence others. In Buddhism, it is made clear that how you speak influences not only others but yourself. There is not only an ethical component to speech, but a way towards awakening, enlightenment or, in modern terms, mental health. I think this is a tremendously useful approach. Depending on your intention, for example, whether you lie to help others or you do it to advance yourself at the cost of others, when speech is a lie, suffering is the result.

 

How do you suffer when you lie? Sage and Carlotta said it. When you lie, you create a fictional self that is weak, “off” or wrong, lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? Does the lie make it easier to hurt both yourself and others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community?

 

So, what kind of speech leads to the end of suffering? To answer that question, you must feel what’s true in yourself. Speech that recognizes what’s true in you and others leads to the end of suffering. When you’re open and fully acknowledge who you are, how does that feel? And what else ends suffering? How does it feel when you’re kind? When I’m open and kind, I feel strong, because I feel capable of taking in whatever I’m facing. As I format how I relate to others, I form how I feel about my own life. So the speech that ends suffering is kind and open, compassionate and loving. I think that such speech is also what turns a cold classroom into a welcoming community.