Useless Speak – Karma and Ripples in the pond

Any and everything that helps to get things done is fine, but then, only as much of it as is necessary. Less is the best, so when in doubt don’t talk or stop talking.

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In Buddhism, something that I consider to be a valid approach to life and not a viable religion, they have a concept called useless speak. A lot of topics are lumped into the category of useless speak so a general definition or understanding will go a long way in making the concept clear. Useless speak is any speech, internal or external, or any communication, to the inside or to the outside, that has no purpose.

On the face of it, that doesn’t include a lot, but when you consider a number of the other notions that Buddhism holds, what it includes expands to cover almost everything.

First off, Buddhism believes in the notion of no self. They do not suggest that people do not exist, but they view the self as something rather different than what most westerners believe. You are a body and that is it. You have thoughts that come from you body. whatever narrative identity you hold of yourself, it isn’t something that is real. It’s just an elaborate story you tell yourself that, when interrogated, will not stand-up to the scrutiny. As such, any talk that deals with you, your thoughts, your wishes, etc…. is useless speak.

Next, given that the self does not exist, no other self exists either. So talking about other people is useless speak as is talking about their thoughts, actions, whatever.

Finally, for the purposes here, is the concept of impermanence. No matter what happens, it will pass away. Before you thought or felt something, you didn’t think or feel it, and since it will fade away after a moment or so, it doesn’t really exist. Everything in the universe is impermanent so there is no point in discussing any of it.

So almost everything is useless speak. You are encouraged to talk about the dharma, which is the way – the experience of being alive in the present moment; which is kind of a paradox so maybe it was just the Buddha being funny. I don’t know, but in the event he wasn’t kidding, your free and encouraged to talk about this.

You are also allowed to talk about things that are helpful and things that have a purpose. As a monk, you would likely need to discuss things with other monks in terms of preparing food or coordinating work. As a householder, you have a lot of responsibilities to look after so any speech that is critical and helpful in taking care of these things is acceptable. Banking, house work, job responsibilities, raising children, teaching people useful skills, etc…. Any and everything that helps to get things done is fine, but then, only as much of it as is necessary. Less is the best, so when in doubt don’t talk or stop talking.

Okay, so now we know about useless speak, what it is comprised of and what speech is not included in the category. If we were to stop at this point and implement what we know we would simply talk less and only about useful things. That would lead us to see a big improvement in our life, which is worthwhile. Life will become both simpler and easier. We’d have more energy, an increase in available mental capacity and we would find ourselves with more free time.

With this increase in mental capacity we would begin to notice the impact of our actions, or the impact of our non-actions, on other people. They too would enjoy the same benefits that are given to us, but to a smaller degree that reflected the elimination of OUR share of useless speak into their life. Whatever impact our unnecessary or unhelpful words were having on them would disappear and these liberated resources would become available to them. What they choose to do with them is their decision and in fairness to them, that is a much better way to let people live.

The concept of Karma and how it is involved with useless speak.

Karma is best understood to be the consequences of an action. It is neither good nor bad, it is intangible and it is not banked.

The common idea of generating bad karma for doing something crappy and later receiving your comeuppance as retribution for this act has no place in secular Buddhism; this notion is shared among particular divisions or sects but I find it unhelpful as a way of objective living because it introduces the supernatural into the physical world. Equally unhelpful is the opposite idea of good karma that will contribute to a future reward or positive occurrence in the holders life. The palatability of the idea of a fair and just world that good and bad karma create is just not worth the sacrifices we make for holding them as truths. The world and the universe just are and this is neither good or bad. Things occur, these things cause other things to occur, which cause other things to occur and so on. It’s objective and measurable, and simply stimulus response or cause and effect. None of it matters to the universe regardless of the impact on the living being. Actions have consequences in the physical world and these consequences are called karma. Release yourself from the idea of good and bad and gain the power of understanding things as they are.

Given that every action has consequences it is accurate to say that every action creates karma. It is helpful to imagine a small pond that has a few similarly sized rocks in it that are sticking out above the surface. Let’s think about what happens when we drop a rock of the same size into the pond. The first thing that will happen will be the displacement of the water where the rock first enters the pond. The water will be forced down and away from the rock and it will appear that the water is bending. This is exactly what is happening as the surface tension is holding the water together like a sheet. But the attractive forces of the water molecules are weak and will quickly release allowing the rock through. The water will do a few cool things. The first is the restoration of water level around the rock; the bending of the surface of the water will be eliminated and the flatness will be restored. Next, the level of the water will increase by the volume equal to the volume of the rock that is below the surface. Finally, and most importantly here, there will be the displacement of water at a volume that is determined by the mass of the rock and the speed at which is entered the water. This displaced water will move away from the from the the rock in predictable directions and speed based on newtons laws and it represents the energy transfer from the rock molecules into the water molecules.

This energy wave will be transferred through the water away from the rock as a ripple. After a few moments, it will make its way to the other rocks that are sitting in the pond. The wave will hit the rocks and appear to bounce off. It will continue in away from the second rock in predictable direction, with some of it moving back to the first rock. The wave or ripple is will be smaller because it will have transferred some of its energy into the second rock. After a few moments, the second wave will begin to hit the other rocks and the first rock causing the wave to bounce off them and move in predictable directions away, but with less energy than before. This will continue until all of the energy from the wave is gone and the pond water will settle down as gravity pulls all of the water molecules down and the flat still surface is restored.

It’s easy to think about all of this and imagine it happening. It is a clear example of chemistry and physics at play and we have all seen it in one form or another.

When thinking about karma as the consequences of actions, consider the action to be the rock getting dropped into the pond and the wave to be the consequences. Or, useless speak is the rock and the karma is the wave. When we follow the wave we notice it hitting other rocks and transferring some of its energy. This is the karma having a consequence on other people or things. The wave bounces off the rocks and comes back to the initial rock and has an effect. This is the karma coming back to us.

This metaphor works well because it is very close to what happens. Our actions do have consequences on our physical environment (the things, people and matter around us). The actions that are a consequence of our karma will have consequences on the environment (and potentially us). And all consequences spread out like ripples and have an impact on the things that are near to them. And the size of the ripple is related to the magnitude of the action meaning that bigger actions have bigger consequences.

Given that all actions have consequence it is clear that unnecessary actions will cause consequences that are, by definition, unnecessary, and these in turn will have consequences, etc…. Rephrased, unhelpful actions will have unhelpful consequences, etc….

When we take what we have just considered and take a second look at the notion of people getting what they deserve because of the karma they create, we are able to see that there is some truth in this idea, although it remains a mistake to imagine some bank that holds a detailed account of the good and bad that each of us cause. If we think about a helpful action that creates karma, it is easy to imagine that the helpful waves bounce back and bring us something helpful. The inverse is also easy to imagine, that being a dick creates negative waves that come back at us bringing us dickish consequences. This is something that happens, although there is often a time delay between when the waves hit the other side and when we are impacted by the karma they helped bring about.

This is part of why the karma bank idea is so sticky. Not only does it manufacture a narrative of a fair and just world, but we do see people who do good receiving good and the doers of bad suffering. But a consistent narrative is just a story that feel like the truth and plausibility is not evidence of fact. It is more likely, and demonstrably true, that when we take good and useful actions that we move the physical world in such a way that the outcome is more favourable for us. For example, when we work hard and consistently do the right thing, the karma we create shifts the structure of the brain in the people we impact to form positive long term memories and that in turn shape the way they act towards us, resulting in waves of good things coming our way. Someone who always phones it in and does the bare minimum will earn this reputation and this will impact how other people approach them.

With all of this being said, the nature of the waves we create does not actually mean that they will bounce back and impact us in the same way. Most of the good things we do will result in positive consequences in places we do not consider or intend. When we drive safely and act with courtesy we enjoy a driving life free of tickets and accidents, but there is a very good chance that we will never benefit from the courtesy of other drivers. Most people look after themselves only and are not obligated to pay anything forward. Even with those who do pay things forward, it is statistically unlikely that we’ll get it back when they make the payment.

How does this impact luck?

In an objective material world, every action has and equal and opposite reaction in the opposite direction. Acting in any way creates predictable outcomes. If we take enough actions, we alter the world in such a way as to increase the chances that something will happen. Over time, enough of these things will come to pass and the environment will be set-up in such a way that has positive waves come at you. When this happens, we’ll be “lucky” when compared to those who do not have the things happen. The hard-work we did to shape the environment will largely be ignored by people who see only the nice thing happening to us. Take the person who gets the promotion at work. Those who get passed over may feel that the freshly promoted was lucky. They may never have seen or appreciate the actions that the person took to place themselves at the front of the line when it came to getting the next higher level position. But not seeing something does not mean that it does not exist. The person who got the promotion did a lot of work to put themselves into the position were they could be “lucky”. The reality is that the actions they took created the karma that change the environment in such a way that made giving them a promotion the only reasonable choice.

Back to useless speak now. When we say anything we are creating karma and these consequences have an effect on the world. When what we say is not useful, the impact on other people is not useful. This is at the core of why certain speech is useless. Helpful actions have helpful consequences. Useless actions have useless consequences. When we teach someone how to read, the long term consequences have them reading books, learning new things and altering the course of their life by altering the structure of their brain.

When we gossip about something, we create useless consequences within the listeners – they end up thinking about something stupid or pointless, which is a waste of their time, and they end up having less time to spend on the things that are helpful or important to them. Consequently, they may miss out on an opportunity to act in a helpful way or engage in useful speak, which will mean there is no positive consequences. While the gossip may not necessarily cause anything bad to happen, it does prevent the opportunity for something good to happen by filling the space that the good thing would have occupied. At best, useless speak creates karma that results in time being wasted. The possible consequences get worse from here in terms of things not getting better, opportunities being wasted and potential not being actualized.

The best advice is to keep the pond as wave free as possible and, when making ripples, make only helpful or positive ones. Every action has consequences. Always keep this in mind when you are about to act. If what you are about to do has no purpose or if it has a clear and likely downside, just don’t do it. Use your energy for something else and give people the dignity and freedom to choose what they get to do with their energy. Useless speak is a waste of time, time that can never be salvaged. Use your time to be useful and helpful!