Lately I’ve been thinking about gossip or secrets or knowing something I’m not supposed to know and I’m dying to share. Something that is not mine, not mine at all, and feeling that rush in my stomach as soon as I open my mouth to tell some else’s story. Maybe the word is gossipsecret. Or secretgossip. It’s “wait-til-I-tell- you-this.”

Person A told me fabulous news about Person B, a mutual friend. We laughed and clapped. Person A didn’t say that B wanted it secret.

I saw B the next day. I gave this friend a lift-off-your-feet hug and said, “I’m so excited for your great news. You must be …” I was about to say “thrilled” when B’s face dropped, smile froze, eyes widened.

I said, “Ahhh. Person A told me.”

B said, “Hmmm. That’s funny.” B was not laughing.

I waited for B to say more, something like, “That’s OK.” There was only stiff silence.

I knew I had broken an unstated rule. What is one definition of gossip? To talk about someone who’s not in the room? I had done that – revealed personal and sensational facts. Is gossip OK if it’s good news, if it’s not malicious? I wonder.

As an antidote to running off at the mouth, mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield offers the practice of Right Speech: to refrain from false speech: speak only from the heart. For one week, don’t gossip (positively or negatively) or speak about anyone not present. He added that we need a repeated discipline, a genuine training, in order to let go of our habits of mind, to find and sustain a new way of being. Kornfield says to mature on a spiritual path we must commit ourselves to spiritual guidelines in a systematic way.

I researched Right Speech more. Meditation instructor Joseph Goldstein also teaches about careful dialogue. For several months he didn’t speak to anyone about a third person. Through his non-gossip practice, he learned that a large part of his normal conversations involved “them.” He also noticed that much of what he usually said included comments and judgments about other people. Breaking his pattern of idle banter made him less critical toward others, and – as a side-effect – less critical toward himself.

I doubted I could be that mindful, or heartful, because a commitment to compassion-based practices seems so repetitive, boring sometimes. And I’d have to learn what to do with the adrenaline rush of being the first to say, “Have you heard about….?”

Then a friend asked me to write about the topic of gossip because he had been “destroyed” at work by rumors. I didn’t want to write about tittle-tattling before I experimented with kinder language. So I decided, for one week, to take on the moment-to-moment practice of Right Speech.

I wasn’t good at it. I bumped into so-and-so and he asked how our friend so-and-so is. Without a breath, we interrupted each other, hands flying in excited gestures, using run-on-sentences. “This poor dude is stuck in his life, alcohol isn’t helping, his relationships are a mess….” On and on.

In a moment of awareness I caught my gossiping and reminded myself, “Right speech, remember? What was it your dad taught you? ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ ”

I made an effort to silence my tongue but its flapping momentum was hard to interrupt. Clearly I need more than seven days to conquer gossipsecret/secretgossip.

This week I’ve talked less. I’ve listened more, been less reactive, more receptive.

I still have lots of questions about non-gossip. Is it OK to tell Nancy that I miss Diane, when Diane isn’t here? Can I tell my children, who live in New York and Virginia, reports of the family in Maine? If my motivation is to share news and not put another person down or puff myself up, can I repeat what’s been repeated to me, as long as I perform an ego check first?

Perhaps I’ve discovered useful guidelines in a universal philosophy espoused by Rotary Clubs everywhere. The Four Way Test suggests we stop before we do or say anything and ask ourselves these questions:

Is what I’m about to say TRUE?

Is it FAIR to all concerned?


Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Kinder speech will take pausing. Better communication will take attention. Compassion will take speaking from the heart. Anyone want to join me in the repeated discipline of Right Speech?

Susan Lebel Young is the author of “Lessons from a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart and Food Fix: Ancient Nourishment for Modern Hungers.” She can be reached through or [email protected]

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