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Dhamma Comments: An Experiment

collage of feuding Buddhist bloggers, by Stephen Kroninger
Awesome image © Stephen Kroninger for Tricycle magazine. This is what we'll try to avoid. 🙂

Hey, friends!

How’s things?

Goodness gracious, it is a pleasure to be here. Been following this blog and its community for years now (even wrote part of my college thesis about it!), through many changes in my own feminist life. I’m super thankful for the opportunity to participate as a guest writer, exploring a bit of Klonckedom outside of my cozy lil’ blogging home, and I hope that many of us will find something useful in what unfolds over the next two weeks.

My own Feminist Vital Stats (race, gender, class position, etc.) will follow tomorrow, but for today, in order to start crafting a container for our conversations (which, for a discussion lover like me, is one of the best parts of blogging as a medium), I wanna talk a bit about comment guidelines. And comment guidelines is a topic that leads beautifully into one of the main themes of my own blogging work: dhamma (a.k.a. dharma).

Dhamma, as a praxis, has probably impacted me the most out of any consciously/voluntarily adopted system of thought so far, besides feminism. (Not that they’re mutually exclusive! Lots of intersections. But. You know what I mean.)

So how does this relate to ‘crafting a container’ for threads? Are you gonna, like, only allow Buddhist comments or something?

Sort of.


Well, kind of….but not really.

Don’t worry — I’m certainly not about to impose some sort of Buddhist requirement for comments! In the first place, dhamma is not totally a Buddhist thing. The word (with its slippery, multiple translations as “teachings” or “the way things are”) is largely associated with Buddhism, insofar as it is what the historical Buddha taught. But one can also be a student of dhamma without being a Buddhist [raises hand], or even while being a devout Muslim, Wiccan, Hindu, Jew, Christian, Jain, atheist, etc.

I’m not here to force any part of my spiritual praxis on anyone, but to invite everybody to test aspects of it for themselves, during this brief two-week period. I think it’ll be a great chance to experiment together, as a community, with some dhammic practice principles, and see where there might be resonance — and dissonance — with our feminist discursive modes.

Some of you might be familiar with the Eight-Fold Path of dhamma, one aspect of which is “Right Speech.” (Also called Noble Speech, Wise Speech, or my personal favorite, Ennobling Speech.)

Ennobling Speech can be described in positive and negative terms. In the negative, it means avoiding lying, gossip (“divisive speech”), harsh words, and idle chatter. Positively, it means choosing speech that is (a) truthful, (b) useful, (c) timely, and (d) kind.

Now, I gave a lot of thought to whether and how I might try to incorporate an Ennobling Speech practice into comment moderation here at Feministe. It won’t be easy — these are tricky waters to navigate, for various reasons.

For example, take kind speech. How many times have people tried to shut down our feminist criticisms because they didn’t like the tone we were using? People oppressed in myriad dimensions — class, race, gender, physical appearance or ability, etc etc — are constantly getting told: Maybe if you didn’t sound so angry/loud/shrill/mean, I would be able to listen to what you have to say. For women in particular, society often demands kindness (or, we might say, palatability) at the expense of truth.

So how do we establish guidelines for dhammic speech without bolstering these messed-up ‘tone arguments’?

Here’s a start. In these comment threads, we can all do our best (and I tend to be very active in threads, so I’ll be in on this, too) to observe the following:

1. Abstain from snark. Without condemning snark or sarcasm, we’ll leave them aside while participating in these discussions. We might also try to notice the moments when we get the urge to be snarky, and just observe the qualities of that feeling.

2. Prioritize the positive. No need to ignore the negative, but we don’t have to feed it, either. Not a hard-and-fast rule, but we can actively seek out the points on which we want to build, or to which we want to offer another perspective. Ideas we want to question openly, and understand more fully. Again, we can notice the times when we feel drawn to straight-up, intense criticism, and observe what that’s like.

3. Honor our bodies. Bringing awareness to our posture, to our physical interaction with our computers, is so, so key. We’ll try to stretch, to take breaks and rest our eyes, to notice our breathing, to relax our shoulders, and to treat our bodies as kindly as we can. It’s super-difficult to stay conscious of our bodies while we’re consuming media, particularly on the Internet. And the ‘usefulness’ of speech is diminished when we sacrifice our health — even in minor ways — in the process. So for purposes of these threads, whenever possible we’ll make a special effort to notice and care for our corporeal experience.

4. Be honest(ly). We can be truthful in communication, and we can also try to be precise in our honesty with ourselves, outside of (or underneath) speech. Are we feeling defensive? Frustrated? Uncertain? Insecure or vulnerable? Lonely? Livid? Compulsive? All of those are fine to experience. Same goes for feeling inspired, joyful, sexy, bad-ass, calm, numb, curious, sympathetic, satisfied. These states are subtle, with many layers and contours — and are also always changing. Returning to #2 and #3, we can acknowledge our own negative states (along with their physical manifestations) without acting them out, staying patient and returning again and again to cultivating our positive qualities.

5. Get friendly with silence. When we look closely, we begin to see that much of our speech (and thought, for that matter) is habitual, not deeply intentional. Bringing mindfulness to commenting might mean taking more time to slowly digest what we read, rather than immediately filling up mental space by composing a response the instant we reach the end of a post. (Or even midway through!) Quiet, relaxed alertness in the mind, on the other hand, can make room for more organic and creative insights.

Obviously, there’s no way for me to enforce most of these. I don’t have some kind of secret omni-meter for measuring your mental and physical processes! (Though sometimes you can just kinda know.) So for moderation purposes, snark will be the main point for practice, along with all the standard rules against derailing, oppressive language, and so on.

Let the experiment begin! 🙂 Please feel welcome to join in — I’m eager to hear what you think. How do these guidelines sit with you at first blush?



21 thoughts on Dhamma Comments: An Experiment

  1. Funnily enough, number four and number five are essential to being a Quaker. I’m supposed to be honest at all times and since unprogrammed Friends like me worship in silence, I am familiar with its virtue as well.

    I will conclude by saying that a willingness to be vulnerable for the sake of growth is the sign of a healthy community. Snark has become less and less attractive as I have gotten older.

  2. I kinda like it! I think for me #1 and #5 would be the most difficult.

    I’ve actually at times been uncomfortable with the way snark seems to be the best way to fight against a major flaw in my own writing. My first inclination is to speak very earnestly, sometimes to the point where my writing comes off as much too sappy and sentimental. Using snark is a way for me to combat this tendency to be eyerollingly sentimental. It’s also a defense because laying your personal emotions right out there is a lot less safe than snarking about people.

    It’s been hard for me to find a balance that will let me be true to my own writing style, be heard and not dismissed for not conforming to others’ expectations of what my style should be, and also feel — if not completely safe — then safe enough.

    All of this is to say that I’ve long been troubled by my own relationship with snark but have not been successful in figuring out a resolution that I am happy with.

  3. Nice post Katie. I just had an interesting experience with a fellow sangha member I ran into at a coffee shop. She came up and said “How’s it going?” I looked at her a moment, was silent, then said “I’m miserable.” I added, “it’s work related,” to be clear that it wasn’t about my whole life. She asked about it more, and I just said “It’s really not worth going into because I’ve gone into it so many times before and it doesn’t help.” Which is true. It’s been habitual for me to bitch about my workplace, to get into all the various injustices and messes going on there. But sitting there looking at her, I realized that going into all that wouldn’t help either of us, nor do anything for the situation.

    To me, this is where discernment about speech comes in. What comments might help illuminate the struggles or problems going on? And what comments simply are wallowing in the misery mud, and really don’t lead any of us to a better understanding, and thus more healthy place? It’s not always easy to know what to say, but if you do come to a place of clarity, it’s worth it to say (or refrain from saying) your words from that clarity.

  4. Interesting, Comrade Kevin. I wonder where there might be other parallels.

    @human, yes, that sounds like a big part of my experience with snark, too: kind of overcompensating for a tendency to be very earnest, which can come off as boring (particularly in writing). In the short run, well-executed snark (in my political writing) attracted more readers, who were drawn by the fireworks. But in the long run, and particularly in my more personal writing, it’s the simple, genuine, unspectacular reflections that have proved the most useful to people — or at least inspired them to write me and tell me how they’ve benefited from the ideas.

    I also really hear you on snark being an antidote to fear. Reminds me of that conversation over on Tiger Beatdown, where Sady Doyle talks about her jokes as power: making herself “feel safer and more in control” by telling jokes — first to herself, and then to others. I’m not saying that all of Doyle’s humor is snarky and therefore wrong/bad or anything simplistic like that. But I think it’s a really crucial point to notice how we *do* use sarcasm as a defense mechanism, even in very casual ways, and then to ask ourselves (a) What are the advantages and disadvantages of this tool? and (b) Are there other tools that we might prefer to use, that would be just as effective and help us feel just as safe?

    One disadvantage of snark and sarcasm, for me, is that even though it hones my critical mind as a weapon against an opponent, that same critical, judgmental mind can also very easily turn against myself. And almost always does. May even sideswipe a few of my friends and loved ones who encounter me when I’m tired or cranky or less in control of my words. So there are these negative peripheral effects for me, even if the primary outcome is successful.

    Dhamma and meditation, on the other hand, tools that I consistently rely on when I’m feeling scared or intimidated or upset or powerless. And so far, for me at least, they’ve been orders of magnitude more effective than sarcasm.

    I’m interested to hear how your relationship with snark continues to develop — please check in over the next two weeks as more insights come up!

  5. Aw, nathan! So good to see you here! Thanks for sharing that story — sounds like a really simple but powerful moment of clear seeing, chipping away at the habit pattern. Nice.

    Yeah, and I think that especially for those of us who live in our heads a lot (like you, I’d venture, and maybe even most avid, critical blog readers?), it often seems like the answer to our dissatisfaction is….more speech! More thought; more speech! It’s a big part of how we problem-solve: maybe even THE biggest. So being discerning about our speech, like you say, can actually be really challenging, because it robs us of one of our identity strongholds. Or at least it feels that way to me, sometimes.

    Many hugs to you. 🙂

  6. “So being discerning about our speech, like you say, can actually be really challenging, because it robs us of one of our identity strongholds.” Yes. Yes. I hadn’t thought of it like this, but certainly, there are times when this feels so true. That sense that I need to say something, that the situation is one I can comment on, and maybe even have an impact on, but I realize that what I have to offer in that moment won’t help and might make things worse. That’s a tough place to hang with. But I can think of several cases recently where saying nothing turned out to be the best I could offer, and looking back, what I would have said in some of those cases certainly wouldn’t have been beneficial to anyone.

  7. For some reason, this makes me think of an experiment I did with radical honesty (a la Eli Loker on Lie to Me). I tried to go a week without telling a single lie or bending the truth in any way. I made it three days; it was hard. (And potentially career-limiting.) But the biggest thing that came of it was having to stop every time a question was asked and consider what the answer really was, rather than the answer I gave out of habit. It was #4 – I had to be honest with myself before I could be honest with the person I was talking to, and being honest with myself was a bit scary at times. And my relationships with other people changed as we discussed things that had never come up before when I was holding back.

  8. Ennobling speech has high stakes, my friend. But ever so worthwhile. Of course I struggle with snark, as it’s my primary mode of moving in the world, particularly in engaging others. In my most intimate conversations and comments, though, and in my most important writing, I find the snark is forced and what emerges in its place is a lot of heart-writing–honest, heart-writing. I always feel better after a whole lot of heart-writing.

    And the honesty piece…the highest of the stakes in high-stakes ennobling speech–particularly honesty with one’s self. We always know the truth, but we do a whole lot of justifying and deflecting and fort-building in order to speak an outer truth to others that does not always mirror our inner truth. I’m happier when I tell the truth, even though the short-term impact of honesty is sometimes painful; it’s invariably cathartic, though.

    Thank you, once again, and always for that matter, for being the teacher. The best student-teacher/friend-friend relationships in my mind and heart are where the teaching and learning is in a constant state of reciprocity.

    Also, congrats on your two-week stint on this blog!

  9. I just wanted to say thanks for this opening blogpost, and I really look forward to more. The timing of this topic has been, for me, personally very on-target.

  10. klonke, thanks for such a thoughtful reply to my comment! I’ve sometimes tried using snark online and in RL both. In RL it gets a very positive reaction when it goes over well but sometimes it falls flat and it can be embarrassing or make me look stupid or things like that. I also noticed recently, when I make a snarky aside comment in a meeting, everyone laughed. A lot. Which on the one hand was a positive reaction. But it also kind of derailed the discussion for a few minutes. And that was counterproductive to the purpose of the meeting (something quite important to me actually; this wasn’t just a BS meeting). So even the positive attention that snark can get you is not always a net positive in terms of what you are trying to accomplish in the world. This was the lesson I took away from that.

    I feel kind of worried and sad that leaving snark behind altogether as a tool would make me a poorer writer though. But, what seems helpful to me is to think about what I do really well as a writer. In my best writing, one of the reasons it’s good is I’m very direct and clear and to the point. Snark can kind of resemble that a little bit because the main reason the “best” snark is so biting is that it drives right to the point – bam! But you don’t need snark to be direct and clear and to the point.

    What gets in the way of direct, clear writing? One thing is not fully understanding, yourself, what you want to say. The best fix for that is to write it with as many words you need to and then revise.

    Another thing is being afraid to say what you want to say. I had that problem earlier today when I wanted to say on my blog that something was racist. I found I was afraid to just come right out and say “yo, these people said this stuff that was really racist and that is messed up” because, even though those particular people are highly unlikely to read my blog, I was afraid of what they would type in response if they did.

    Maybe that tendency toward over-earnestness is in a way a defense against that same kind of fear. If I make myself too vulnerable in my writing, nobody else can make me more vulnerable by their own words. It’s a kind of weird faulty emotional logic at work.

    There’s so much fear in writing, and it can really get in the way of things (says the one who has been procrastinating working on a certain writing project for um… about 12 hours now! whew!) But the thing about fear is that it doesn’t have to stop us from doing what we want to do. But it helps to recognize it and acknowledge it. Then it’s easier to go on.

    So maybe that’s the key to all of this: to be mindful, when writing, of whether we are reacting to fear, and if so, to think a bit about why. Then, maybe we won’t feel as if we need to rely on snark, or to be over-earnest in an over-sharing kind of way, or use any other weird and not-very-writing-effective defense mechanisms.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think all this out loud! 🙂

  11. @Hypothetical Woman: I don’t know much at all about Zen, so if “A fish” has some meaning, I don’t know what it is! Would you mind sharing? Thanks!

    @Roger: Thank you so much — what a delight to see you here.

    @ACG: Wow, what a great (and brave) experiment! I think this

    I had to be honest with myself before I could be honest with the person I was talking to, and being honest with myself was a bit scary at times

    is so, so on-point, as well as recognizing how often we speak out of habit. Yes. Especially when I come out of 10-day silent meditation retreats (I’ve done three so far in my life, all in the past year-and-a-half), I notice how much effort it actually takes to speak at all, let alone to speak the truth. It’s like I have to pause and consider for at least 30 seconds before responding to anything anybody says. Plus my vocal cords feel all weird and foreign, hehe. I’d be curious to hear some more examples of what came up during that trial for you, and how it’s affected you since.

    @Lori, this:

    We always know the truth, but we do a whole lot of justifying and deflecting and fort-building in order to speak an outer truth to others that does not always mirror our inner truth. I’m happier when I tell the truth, even though the short-term impact of honesty is sometimes painful; it’s invariably cathartic, though.

    is big wisdom, I think. Trusting ourselves to know and stick with the truth, separate from what we would like the truth to be, is often hard, as is trusting the outcome to prove beneficial when we tell the truth in difficult situations.

    (Thank you for all your support and for talking through these things with me, by the way. [Full disclosure to others: Lori was my 10th-grade English & Literature teacher — one of my best instructors ever, and one of the funniest, smartest, most thoughtful people I know.] I love our student-teacher/friend-friendship, too.)

    Damn, human! Gettin’ all deep with it! 🙂 Thank you for those insights. Yeah, like you say: the way to be clear? Take our time, be deliberate, and when we make mistakes, acknowledge and address them, then let go and move on. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? (hehe)

    And I especially love this:

    Maybe that tendency toward over-earnestness is in a way a defense against that same kind of fear. If I make myself too vulnerable in my writing, nobody else can make me more vulnerable by their own words. It’s a kind of weird faulty emotional logic at work.

    Super important, I think. The ways we seek security, protection, and control may vary. One person puffs themselves up to appear big and menacing; another tries to disappear. One person swears like a sailor; another always employs the sweetest, softest language to avoid offending anyone. Of course, different strategies are often gendered, race-specific, class-specific, culture-specific. It’s not the form that matters, exactly (though understanding our own forms can certainly help), but more the internal sense of contraction, of “fort-building,” as Lori put it, or our “chief feature,” as Zen author Charlotte Joko Beck calls it, which is designed to manipulate a situation in order to make ourselves feel more comfortable, less at risk, in the face of an unwanted reality. It’s the opposite of opening up — which means having curiosity and confidence that we can face, with grace and fluidity, whatever comes our way.

    I singled out snark specifically because (1) in most cases it’s simply easier to identify or name, on account of being intentionally peppery; and (2) it’s especially prominent, in my experience, in the U.S.-based feminist blogging subcultures I’ve been a part of, so we have a good opportunity to work with it. But I am totally with you that the larger point is to become more mindful, in writing and In Real Life, of the many ways that we react to fear with contraction, rather than expansion and openness. Thank you for illuminating that.

    Good luck with your writing project! 🙂

    Gosh, thanks so much everybody — and Tracy, I’m looking forward to talking more with you as the weeks go on. Thanks for the warm hello.

  12. Thanks kloncke! This is such an enjoyable conversation.

    Is your belief that we should always avoid “fort-building” and be open to everyone? Because it seems to me that, while it’s not good to let fear hamper us, there are people in the world who do not mean us well and who will hurt us if they can, either directly and personally, or indirectly by the actions they take to make a world that is inimical to us. It seems to me entirely appropriate and necessary to find a way to defend ourselves against such people.

  13. Yes, great question — I’m really enjoying this, too. I’m hoping to talk more about safety and self-defense as the weeks go on, but a short version of my thoughts has to do with the topic I posted about today: the difference between harm and suffering.

    If someone is hurting or harming us, then yes, I think we should do our best to stop the hurt and harm from occurring. But in my experience, that doesn’t necessitate fort-building, or inner contraction. On the contrary, those extremely common (practically universal) reactions often worsen the situation, or at least our experience of it — generating suffering for ourselves on top of the harm.

    The more we can maintain inner openness and expansion, the calmer and steadier we can keep our mind. And this not only reduces the suffering we feel, but also helps us respond to the harm in the most skillful, creative, organic, and holistic way possible.

    We don’t need to ‘be open to’ letting people or systems abuse us, or abuse others! We don’t need to be open to oppressive ideologies, in the sense of believing in them or lending them credence. It’s not an argument for relativism. But through openness — in other words, accepting the truth of what is actually happening, rather than mentally resisting, disavowing, or hating that truth — our actions become responsive, not reactive.

    There are some exceptions: for instance, trauma-inducing harm makes it extremely difficult or impossible to maintain openness in the moment, and probably for a considerable time afterward. But that’s ok — really it’s more of a life-long practice, not an event-specific remedy. Over time, we’ll likely have plenty of low-risk opportunities to test it out. And the more we practice it in small ways, the better it will serve us when bigger storms come.

    Does that make sense? I should say that none of these are my original ideas — they come from dhammic/Buddhist teachings I’ve encountered, then confirmed through my own experience. Pema Chödrön, for one, talks really helpfully about inner contraction — I think it’s her book The Wisdom of No Escape I’m remembering…

    Thanks again! G’night; see you soon, I hope.

  14. That makes so much more sense, thank you. I had read the other post and didn’t completely understand it but I think I maybe have a better handle on it now. What you were saying sounded similar enough to the idea in some strains of Christianity that it’s bad to defend yourself against people who are hurting you because it’s better to be like a martyr or something — which I knew you weren’t saying, but your words reminded me enough of it that I was reacting against that and having a hard time understanding what you were saying.

    I think I get it though, because it’s really not good to tie yourself up in knots trying to deny that a bad thing is happening, or wish really hard that it weren’t happening. Instead it’s better to understand and accept that it is happening (not accept as in allow it to continue or be okay with it, but as in see the truth of what is going on) because then it’s much easier to figure out how to respond in a useful and helpful way.

    That must be what you meant by suffering – the tying-ourselves-up-in-knots that keeps us from responding in a healthy or useful way to being hurt.

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