I love gossip. And my best friends love it as well. I love watching Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. I flip through all the gossip magazines at the grocery checkout, I keep up with the Kardashians; I felt excited when Beyoncé gave birth to Lucifer’s Daughter, and had a horse fly named after her all in the first month of this new year. And I was sad to hear about Kobe and Vanessa, and Will and Jada, and Heidi and Seal all biting the dust. As it is so skillful in doing, each of their Wild Storytelling Brains apparently successfully seduced them into believing their own crazy-suffering thinking.
Speech Just Wants to Be Free
I have friends, of course, who do not love gossip or gossipers. They don’t think there’s any such thing as “Intelligent Gossip,” a phrase coined by Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman. He thinks gossip works to improve our ability to understand errors of judgment and choice, first in others and then eventually in ourselves. But hey, what does Kahneman – considered (with Amos Tversky) one half of the dynamic duo known as “the Lewis and Clark of the Mind” – know?
Those gossip-disdainers would most often be my Christian and Buddhist friends who believe in things like the guidelines of Right Speech. Right Speech admonishes against gossip. Dedicated formal practice only allows for speaking on ten topics: discussions about modesty, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, arousing persistence, virtue, concentration, discernment, on release from suffering, and about the knowledge and vision of release from suffering. Truthfully, that feels a little constricting to me. I’d rather be offered ways of skillfully relating to lay people in everyday life who do gossip, who enjoy it and who use it as a tool for learning (or not). Not feeling comfortable with gossipers, it becomes easy for me to begin unconsciously seeing such people as “less than.” People with whom I shouldn’t be spending valuable time. People my mother warned me about: “Those people.”
Gossipers of the World, Unite!
If he was still around, I bet Buddha would have LOVED gossipers. Why? Because Buddha was deeply awake to and loved reality. And one reality in the world is that there are people who gossip. Always have been and always will be. Buddha would have had no choice but to love them. Anything else would have shown up as dualistic separation. And Buddha wasn’t much into that.
As far as Right Speech goes, Buddha offered that up as one of eight practices any of us might want to try on in order to reduce or eliminate suffering in our own lives. He didn’t offer up the practice of Right Speech as a “should” that every gossiper in the world needs to begin practicing so that I can feel comfortable spending time with them. Rather, he offered it up to me as something to consider practicing for my own benefit. Should I so choose.
Forgiving Us Our Trespasses
Buddha also didn’t say that Right Speech means we should never talk about other people when they aren’t present, either. Ben Wong and Jock McKeen drove home the complexity of this lesson quite memorably for me one day in graduate school when they broke me and my classmates into four groups. Each group was then instructed to gossip about someone in another group. Afterwards, a few courageous souls elected to speak their gossip aloud so the person gossiped about could hear it. I stood up and spoke about how William had “confessed” to me about experiencing incestuous feelings towards his daughter. As soon as the words left my mouth, I could feel the embarrassment, shame and pain of betrayal flood my nervous system. William was at little risk for actually incesting his daughter, and in fact, erotic feelings in fathers towards children occur commonly. Healthy fathers like William, undeniably know what line not to cross.
Fortunately, William forgave me for my demonstration of non-intelligent gossip. By that process I did learn how we might use gossip intelligently, as a gauge – discerning how what I say about other people makes me feel in my own body. If we’re speaking about others intelligently, then the chance is pretty high that we will feel perfectly fine in our body. Or at least okay. Parents or teachers talking about children and their development, or therapists talking about a client’s lack of healing progress with a supervisor are some ready examples that come to mind. Angry venting in the presence of a trusted friend about a third person is also an example of Right Speech in my view. Why? Because it can work to lower retained levels of stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. It might also work to catalyze and discharge buried neurological “dissociation capsules.”
But if I’m only talking about others in disparaging or demeaning ways for the sake of idle chatter, talking in ways that might feel shameful were the people actually present, then odds are pretty good that I’ll be feeling pretty poopy in my body. Not to mention that I might very likely be flooding instead of discharging adrenaline and cortisol, and impoverishing important nerve cells in my heart and brain in the process. We actually can trust our body’s response to gossip to guide us, I think. Provided we’re using our brain and body’s inherent intelligence to help us pay undivided attention up close and personal-like.