Mind Your Own Business
April 30, 2024

We come to a quiet place like this looking for seclusion, and what do we run into? People—other people here at the monastery—and we also run into ourselves. You can sit under the trees with no other human beings around and yet there can be quite a lot of chatter going on in your mind. This is where the Buddha pays careful attention to what he calls directed thought and evaluation: This is how you talk to yourself. Sometimes you break into speech based on your directed thought and evaluation. In fact, without directed thought and evaluation, there wouldn’t be any speech at all.

Our problem is that often there’s not much of a filter. We have to learn, for our own sake and for the sake of the people around us, to put a good filter on our conversation. Part of this has to do simply with the amount. We don’t have a vow of silence here because there’s work to be done, there are things we have to talk about, but we can take that as an opportunity for right speech: speech that’s true, speech that’s not divisive, speech that’s not harsh, and speech that’s not idle chatter—just shooting the breeze for the sake of having something to say. You want to watch out for those kinds of conversations, both inside and out, because they have an influence on your own mind and on the people around you.

When you’re passing judgment on something—it’s a necessary part of evaluation to pass judgment—the question is: using what standards and for what purpose? You have to remember that your primary purpose is to clean up your own mind and to watch out for any behavior on your part that’s not in line with the Dhamma. As you’re trying to keep yourself in line, you can’t help noticing other people, whether their behavior is in line with the Dhamma or not, but you have to ask yourself: Is that any of your business?

Ajaan Lee makes it a principle that if you take other people’s bad points and spend your time thinking about them, you’ve stolen their bad points. You haven’t asked them, “Do I have your permission to think about your bad points?” So he counts it as a kind of inner theft, because when you start thinking about other people’s bad points and just keep the focus out there on how bad that person is, you’re bound to start breaking into speech that’s really not skillful. You have to remember: The purpose of judgment is to judge your own behavior.

When the Buddha taught Rāhula the basic principles of the practice, there was nothing about judging other people’s behaviors. It was all about judging your own intentions before you act on them, judging your actions while you’re doing them, and then judging the results when the actions are done. If you’re really paying attention to that, you don’t have much time to be judging other people. So if you focus on yourself in this way and learn how to make your own inner judgments useful, then it’s very unlikely that your conversation outside will be disturbing to the others around you. Because remember, everybody else is looking for seclusion, too, and the way we talk to one another can have an impact that lasts for a long time.

Years back, I was on a plane flying to Thailand. That was back in the days when there was one movie on the plane for everybody to watch. It was hard to avoid it because all the screens had the movie. You could turn your own personal screen off, but there were a lot of other screens that were not personal. One movie in particular stuck with me for days afterwards. I’d be sitting and meditating in Thailand, and images from the movie would come up. I kept wondering, “What do people do who are watching movies every day? Isn’t their mind a cacophony?"

Well, the same principle applies to your conversations, because the things you talk about to yourself and to other people start reverberating around in the mind. Then when you’re sitting here trying to get the mind quiet, and particularly if there’s been something really strong in terms of an opinion you’ve expressed or an opinion you’ve been chattering to yourself about, it’s going to keep on echoing in the mind. What you’ve got to do is make your mind like the broken gong: You hit it, but it doesn’t reverberate. In other words, thoughts can come through, but you have to learn how to filter the ones that you’re going to focus on: which ones are useful, which ones are not. Be really be careful about this because that will then extend to your speech: which kind of speech is useful and which kind of speech is not.

The Buddha’s own speech, as he said, was true, beneficial, and he knew the right time and place to say pleasant things, and the right time and place to say unpleasant things. He was clear on the principle that saying unpleasant things is not necessarily harming anyone else, but you have to know the right time and place, and the way to do it. And you have to ask yourself: Is this really for that person’s benefit? Is it really for your benefit? If it doesn’t pass that test, it shouldn’t come out of your mouth.

Then you ask yourself, “If there’s speech that shouldn’t be coming out of my mouth, why even bother thinking it?” This is a good way of getting a filter on your speech, both for your own purposes and for the good of the people around you.

So you want to keep your speech dealing with things that really are your business. One of the first lessons I learned from Ajaan Fuang was just this: to have a clear sense of what is your business and what’s not your business. Then you realize that there are a lot of things in the world that you can know about and you could possibly comment about, but they’re not really your business because you’re not responsible for them. So you leave them alone, because the things that are your business are a real handful already.

As the Buddha said, that’s a sign of a wise person: to know which duties fall to you and which duties don’t, and to focus only on the duties that do fall to you. As for the ones that don’t fall to you? You let them go. And the duties that do fall to you are what? As we chanted just now: Suffering is to be comprehended, its cause is to be abandoned, its cessation is to be realized, and the path to its cessation is to be developed.

That’s a pretty demanding set of duties. If you focus on that, you don’t have much time for idle chatter, you don’t have much time for negative judgments about other people because you realize you’ve got a lot of things you need to judge inside.

You’ve got to train the voice of your inner critic so that it’s not passing final judgments that you’re a lousy meditator. You may be a lousy meditator right now, but you have potential. Everybody has potential. Once you focus on figuring out how to cultivate your skillful potentials, you can regard yourself as a work in progress and not as a finished product. The role of judging finished products is whether you’re going to buy them or not, or praise them or not. But here you’re not up for sale, and you’re not finished. You’re a work in progress—and the whole point of judging a work in progress is to make it better, and to notice, if there’s a mistake, how to improve on it.

It’s like being a carpenter working on a table: You use your plane to smooth the table out and every now and you notice, “Oh, there’s a nick. The blade dug a little bit too deep. What do you do?” You don’t throw the table away, and you don’t give up carpentry. Just tell yourself that there are ways to hide the nick, and you work on those so that the table comes out looking good regardless of the fact that there may have been some mistakes in the process. In other words, you learn how to compensate for those mistakes. That’s when judgment is good: It not only notices mistakes, but also gives you some ideas about how to compensate for them.

So as you can see, your inner voices have to be trained, your inner critic has to be trained. And it’s got a lot of work to do inside, so there shouldn’t be much time for judging outside. If you find yourself focusing outside, then it’s a sign that you’re abandoning and neglecting some of your duties.

So try to have a clear sense of what is your business here. If each of us were looking after his or her own mind properly, there wouldn’t be many issues aside from the issue of why there’s a mouse in the wall—but those kinds of things are minor. Those are things you can talk about, deal with, and then put them down.

It’s when we start commenting on other people’s behavior and deciding who should be here and should not be here, that’s when there’s trouble. If those are the kinds of conversations you carry around with you all the time, if you don’t put them down, they reverberate inside and get in the way of your own practice. So for your own good and the good of others, keep your focus on your own behavior—that’s what you’re responsible for: realizing that you have so much to look after in your own mind that you don’t have time for idle chatter or even chatter about the Dhamma.

Ajaan Fuang and Ajaan Lee both made the point that if your discussion of Dhamma is not in line with the right time and the right place, then it counts as idle chatter.

So be very careful. Focus on your duties and you’ll find that you have your hands full—but they’re full of good work.