How Do You Like Your Coffee?

How do you like your coffee? The question implies that there a way we like our coffee, and the possessive your emphasizes the particularity of each person’s brew. What do you take in your coffee? says that we are fixed in our additives. Very rarely does anyone respond, “Oh, I’m not fussy, just make it the way you like it.”

   My coffee-loving friends are nearly all rigid purists with regard to their coffee; indeed, they cannot really be called coffee-lovers because each of them only ever tolerates coffee served in one way. I am no different. For years, every morning, I enjoy a large mug of black coffee, poured meticulously through a number 4 filter, which I lie in bed sipping for thirty minutes while I read. The coffee has to be a rich dark roast of the Sumatran/Indonesian kind; I do not like European-style coffee, or beans from Africa or South America, and what is called “coffee” in most hotels and restaurants is either, at best, hot brown tasteless water or, at worst, thinly disguised panther piss. With coffee I do not mince my words, because the perfect mug of it is the necessary prelude to a bearable day. 

   The filter has to be Melitta, because with all other filters the coffee tends to taste too bitter, or it pours too slowly. I grind the beans myself, to exactly the desired fineness; and I spend a few moments rejoicing in the aroma of the freshly ground grains. The mug has to be porcelain and twice the size of a normal mug, because the pleasure of holding a mug of that size is part of the ritual. A paper cup will not do. The coffee has to be either Sumatran or something like the Tres Estrellas blend from Ohori’s in Santa Fe; the latter blend is of African, American, and Indonesian beans, and has a complex, fruity taste that brings out the dark bliss of the Indonesian bean. Long ago I used to drink this straight, and it struck me then as more than sufficiently sweet; then I added two teaspoons of brown or cane sugar (because white sugar tastes harsh to me); and then I replaced the sugar with two teaspoons of raw honey (because processed honey has a thin, shallow sweetness). This mug of coffee has to be perfect, partly because it is usually the only coffee I will drink during the day. And it has to be strong — with a strength equal to about three extra shots of espresso in your latté. This black, potent density is purely for the jolt of taste and has almost no physiological effect on me (unlike strong tea, which does keep me awake at night). When everything is right, including the rhythm of the pouring and the imbibing, I can inwardly declare my day to have started off on the right footing; if anything is wrong, I go through the day feeling slightly off-kilter. 

   It did not seem possible for my one daily mug of coffee to be improved upon, but a month ago I discovered coconut oil: one teaspoon of this celestial balm brings a soft, caressing quality to the morning brew, deepening the taste, making the honey more honied and the coffee more coffeed. This addition has perfected the morning brew, and coffee is now unimaginable without it. But why did it take me so long to discover it? — when for decades I have read about cultures in which coffee and tea are both taken with coconut or butter, both of which carry health benefits and, so they claimed, make everything taste better. In South India, I had a cup of sharp local coffee brewed with honey, ginger, and pepper; and “milk coffee” flavored with cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. I enjoyed both, but left to myself, I still brew the same old mug. Why would a normally inquisitive person, who likes experimenting, stick so stubbornly with his one hyper-fastidious way of concocting coffee?

   I am not narrow-minded about other drinks. I will drink any fruit juice, and my partiality for fresh-squeezed orange juice means that I embrace the taste-du-jour; oranges of every kind are good and interesting. I consider myself to have good taste in beer, and while I loathe and despise the anemic commercial dribble that has no taste but only an aftertaste, the kinds of beer that people drink as thirst-quenchers, the beers that I have liked number in the hundreds and include about a dozen different types. With wine, I am a curious novice who enjoys tasting almost anything…The list goes on: with food generally, I am open-minded and find delight in the different ways people prepare my favorite dishes. All of this makes it even more perplexing why I have been so inflexible regarding coffee.

   To say that I “have developed a habit” of drinking my coffee only one way is not an answer but just another rephrasing of the question. Where do habits like this come from? Certainly, the same action undertaken at the same time and place every day for years must make some kind of “groove” in the neural system such that change becomes difficult — but why does a specific habit form in the first place, when an individual’s tastes in other things are not so inflexible? We know that it is possible for an ingrained habit to change overnight as a result of a thought — for example, when an eater of pork learns about how pigs are treated and can no longer stomach eating them, or when a heavy drinker witnesses the disgusting excesses of an abusive alcoholic relative and from that time on never feels any desire for liquor, or when after a divorce a person drops all the daily rituals he engaged in during the marriage. A habit like my coffee-habit is thus likely to have its roots in a mental action, but what does that mean?

   We all have detailed rituals for beginning a day and ending it. Our ritual before going to bed — in which brushing teeth, changing, reading, and positioning the pillows have to take place in a definite order — actually determines whether we are able to sleep or not. The wake-up ritual has the power to affect our mood for the rest of the day — which includes not just mental alertness and physical buoyancy, but also the moral emotions of generosity, kindness, and friendliness. The wake-up ritual affects who we are for that day and is thus a crucial part of our daily self-composition.

   We are constantly self-composing; in fact, what I think of as myself, a noun, is really a continuous activity of self-making, which mostly consists of the assertion of preferences through which we differentiate ourselves from everyone else and create a unique identity that stands out against the confused intermingling of phenomena. The self-making activity is carried out below the threshold of consciousness; in Sanskrit and Pali there is a term for it, ahamkara (“I-making”), because the early Indian philosophers became aware, through introspection, of the self as a formation in process. We can watch small children developing their identities through “liking” this or “not liking” that; many children are so picky in their preferences that they will agree to eat not just Mac and Cheese but only one specific version of it. Inevitably, industrial food-manufacturers make millions from individual consumers’ identification with brand-name foods: there are “Coke people” and “Pepsi people,” for instance. Clever marketers will strive to associate their products with attractive character traits, because they know that what they are selling is a personality or self-image. Coca-Cola people are happy and sociable, and they seem to like dancing and team-sports. Much marketing is therefore directed at children or teens, who have the most intense self-making urges. 

   People can be vehement about their tastes. Thus, as a proud connoisseur of the genuine article, I will not be “caught dead” drinking instant coffee — although if I find myself in an instant-coffee-drinking country, such as England or India, I will happily drink the coffee that is offered to me. Vehemence about taste is not based on reason or physiology but in the felt need for self-differentiation. We can see this writ large in cultural attitudes towards other cultures’ foods, which is most commonly “distaste.” Yet we all know that if we had been brought up in Iceland, we would not turn our noses up at Singed and Boiled Sheep Head, or Ram’s Testicles; and if we were born in Japan we wouldn’t find natto (fermented soy beans) repulsively smelly. The point is that the root of taste is not in our sense organs or in the food itself, but in our complex self-making activity.

    This activity never stops.  Since a self is not a thing that exists independently of its circumstances, our sense of self has to be maintained continually. Our external world is always changing, and our bodies are always surprising us; our internal world undergoes more thoroughgoing changes, composed as it is of perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that never cease to move. I might love black Sumatran coffee with raw honey and coconut oil now, but a year ago I did not lament the absence of coconut oil, ten years ago the brew tasted great without any sweetener, twenty years ago a normal mug of fresh-brewed coffee was a treat, and thirty years ago I knew only Maxwell House instant coffee. There will be some point in the future when I cease to drink my coffee with coconut oil.

    In each variation of my morning brew, the money I pay for my taste goes out to sustain an entire system that grows and gathers my coffee beans, roasts it, transports it, stores it, advertises it, and sells it. Because I like this coffee and must have it, I make sure that there is a world that produces it and delivers it to my mug. The same applies to my honey, coconut oil, mug, kettle, grinder, filters, plastic filter cone, electricity, and water — all of which, like the coffee beans, are the results of human activity and the economic, political resources that enable the activity. Thus I have made a world in my own image, to reflect and support my tastes. Self-making is also world-making. What I am tasting in my morning brew is the whole world as it manifests in a mug of coffee made for me, and I am sure that unconsciously this is an essential part of the pleasure of insisting on and getting my mug of coffee.

   All of this is equally of true of my other tastes — in clothing, health and cosmetic products, the furnishings of my house, my car and prefered gas stations, the venues of my social life, my devices, my books and entertainment media, and so on. Each preference does its part in creating a world that reflects me. What about my chosen activities, relationships, and work? With a little reflection, even those things are essentially like my morning mug of Sumatra brewed with honey and coconut oil. Only the families we are born into and the ones we give birth to are free of our self-making, because they are the only people we do not choose according to our preferences, and because in them we are forced to be with people we would otherwise not choose — who annoy us, exasperate us, and make us weep with their intransigence. We should be grateful for our difficult families, because without them we would be trapped in a human world made of our preferences. Our family gives us the friction necessary for sanity, and we give them the same painful benefit.

   Meanwhile, I nurse my mug of Sumatran as I wake up to the world, my world, on my own civilized terms. Since I now know that my tastes are malleable and my personality not fixed, I feel free of the need to have coffee prepared this way, and might well start drinking it next week with ginger, honey, and pepper. Or would this be identifying with a new image of myself as coffee connoisseur, roaming the town in search of new tastes? Could I even just return to a simple cup of unadulterated black coffee? Or water? But if water, which would be my prefered brand? Would tap water ever be sufficient? 



How to Teach History? Musings on my first Socratic Teacher

Why do so many high school students claim that their history classes are “boring”? — when we know that history itself is a combination of Game of Thrones and world travel, and that nobody finds those boring? I remember how, in a high school geography class in England in the 1970s, we had to spend three weeks studying the geology and terrain of Western Canadian provinces, memorizing facts and drawing detailed maps — without the geography teacher ever explaining why this should have been of interest to us. At the same time, in an English county rich with relics of industrial history,  no one ever taught us about local geology and terrain, or took us to see an 18th century factory. It is much the same with the teaching of history in American schools: the abstract and remote overview is given priority because it looks more like some curriculum designer’s conception of “knowledge.” In this essay I want to commemorate one particular teacher’s art of teaching history, because what he did really worked.

   Of course, I had my share of conventional history: five years of working through textbooks and class lessons. I remember nothing from age 11-13, but after that a lot has remained in my mind: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the development of labor laws and the long fight for universal suffrage. Every now and then the teacher, Mr.Shilston, would give an exciting lecture on the history of vampires or gangsters, his two set pieces. I learned a lot from my history classes because I enjoyed writing essays in which I had to articulate the causes and consequences of complex events — and it was always the why and how that interested me, not the what or when.

   Even so, Mr. Rawlinson’s A-Level Ancient History class was a revelation: it was the first time I encountered “Socratic” teaching, decades before I even knew the word “Socratic.” Mr. Rawlinson was a svelte, dapper, soft-spoken man with short dark hair and a vicar’s smile. He was always dressed in a light grey suit, with (as I think I remember) no tie but a white shirt buttoned up to the top. In our merciless gossip he was portrayed as “queer,” but this gossip never took off because we all had a genuine respect for him. He never exerted authority, never resorted to corporal punishment, and was always quietly matter-of-fact whenever he had to chastise.  I never got to know him as a person very well, because he was pure teacher: self-effacing, dedicated to the subject and to his students, he reserved his personality for his home life. His erudition was impressive but humble; he read his Greek and Latin authors in Greek and Latin, and he would guide us through difficult passages gently and deftly, without imposing himself.

   The remarkable thing about Mr.Rawlinson was that he taught almost solely by showing us things and asking questions. When studying the Romans in Britain, we would examine photographs of Roman coins and tombs, and we would translate and decipher the inscriptions; we would stare at shards of Roman pottery, note the potter’s mark when we could find them, look up the location of this potter, and then determine which legion must have come from that location to Britain. He would have us figure out which legions came from where, how many legions there were, how many troops in those legions, what these soldiers ate and how much, and then he would make us read the Greek and Roman agricultural writers to figure out how much land and what kind of work would be required to grow that food. Thus we could hazard a good guess at how much land Julius Caesar would have needed to commandeer to quarter his troops in England over the winter. When we looked at the archaeological evidence for Caesar’s occupation, we found our calculations corroborated. Mr. Rawlinson would present the materials and ask us questions. On a few occasions we visited nearby archaeological ruins and saw and measured with our own eyes and hands.

   When we studied the Roman writers, he taught us how to interrogate them. For example, as we pored over Caesar’s account of the invasion, we would ask about his political motivations in presenting his exploits the way he did, and attempt to correlate his claims with the material evidence. When reading Tacitus’ account of Tiberius, we noticed that even the author described  Italy as being fairly well-off under that emperor — so why was the portrait so devastatingly negative? We wondered if in fact Tacitus was using Tiberius to criticize his own emperor, Domitian — so did that mean we would have to take his account of Tiberius’ foreign policy with a pinch of salt, and how exactly? 

   After doing all this work in detail, we would pull our notes together and only then read the relevant chapter in the modern textbook. We would usually find that the textbook was a restatement of what we had concluded ourselves — and the discovery was pleasant and satisfying, because we had reached the same conclusion as the experts by thinking for ourselves. Mr. Rawlinson never made a big deal of this; he just quietly led us in this process of discovery and reasoning. The essays that we wrote for the external examiners were almost entirely the results of our own engaged intelligences — for we were genuinely engaged, activated, even electrified by this direct approach to history, such that even now I vividly recall my excitement at being able to connect this potsherd and that coin with these passages in Tacitus or Suetonius.

   The main thing I got from this was not an accumulation of “things known and remembered”; indeed, I have forgotten most of it except Tacitus and Suetonius, and the dates of emperors. It was rather the activity of figuring out who did what, when, where, how, why. Mr. Rawlinson involved us in reconstructing the past and got us to do it, so that not only did we know how the authors of the textbook had pieced together the fragments of the past to make a plausible story, but we ourselves had also pieced them together. Alongside the historians, we too constructed history, and because we knew what went into this process, we unwittingly acquired a dynamic, critical relationship to history — where “facts” are not simply givens, but actively constructed. Would the teaching of history today be less “boring” if students were asked to cultivate this level of engagement with the making of history itself? In my experience, most people come alive when they know for themselves why something is so and are not just told. Moreover, in our age of “fake news” and a posture of mistrust towards everything the “other side” claims to be true, would it not be better for us in our schools to focus on how we know whether something is true or not, and how to distinguish more from less plausible, than to insist on the primacy of surveys that have been decided by faceless experts? The same thing applies to the teaching of science.

   One night, after an especially exciting class, I had a dream about Mr.Rawlinson. We were in class, on a sunny Friday afternoon in May, and the windows of the classroom were open. His eyes twinkled as he asked a characteristic question: “Why do we have to dig up ancient remains?”

   We stared at him blankly. “We don’t know what you mean, sir.”

   “Well, why are they always underground, instead of just standing around on the ground like every other building? Why do archaeologists have to use shovels?”

   We fumbled around for possible answers, until I blurted out the obvious: “Isn’t it because of the natural rising of the soil, sir, from the activities of earthworms and microbes?”

   “Ah, good guess, Venkatesh! But why would the rise of the soil be so systematic, and everything be so thoroughly buried?”

   “We are completely at a loss, sir.”

   “I will tell you! The ancient Greeks and Romans meticulously buried everything themselves.”

   A long pause. “But why would they want to do that, sir?”

   He chuckled triumphantly. “It was part of their religion, of course! Burying all buildings was a ritual to appease the gods.” We must have looked incredulous, because he added — “Well, can you think of a better explanation?”

   I’m not certain that I ever really woke up from this dream.



Samma-Vaca: Speaking as Spiritual Practice

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.   (James 3:5)

Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.  (Dionysius Of Halicarnassus)
If you want to stop suffering, says the Buddha throughout the Discourses, there is an eightfold path of practice to that end, consisting of right view, right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samādhi. (The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, MN 10, tr.Bodhi Bhikkhu) With its connotations of orthodox correctness, the word “right” is actually a misleading translation of the Pali word samma, which means “perfected, completed, consummated.” The point is that working on ourselves entails a gradual completing of what we are supposed to do, until we find ourselves “fulfilled” and “accomplished” with regard to the eight limbs of the path. It is “eightfold” in the sense not of eight steps to be taken consecutively, but of eight branches to one trunk, or eight tributaries flowing into one river: each of these is essential to getting you there, but all eight have to be involved. Among the eight, some are more spiritually “glamorous” than others, and of the homely ones none seems plainer than “right speech” or samma-vaca. Yet samma-vaca turns out to be a powerful practice that we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, transforming us both inside and out.
   And what is samma-vaca? asks the Buddha. Refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech. This is called ‘samma-vaca’.
The statement seems innocuous and unobjectionable, but let’s see how the Buddha unpacks it.

   In one of the shorter suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha engages Cunda the Silversmith in a discussion of Hindu rituals of purification, and then describes what purification means for a follower of the new path. Quite simply, the Buddha undertakes “purification” of three things: bodily action, verbal action, and mental action. If these are “impure,” all the rituals with water and fire will do us no good; and if these are “pure,” the rituals with water and fire will be redundant. In other words, working on what we do, say, and think is a sufficient practice for “purification,” but if we expend no effort on what we do, say, and think, no ritual practice will be sufficient. Samma-vaca gives us an excellent example of the kind of thing the Buddha means by “purification.”
    Many have remarked that if you cannot control your mouth, you have no hope of controlling your mind. Most people spend the first decade of their lives learning Elementary Right Speech: how to interact politely, respectfully, inoffensively, when to speak, when not to speak, and so on. Then we spend another decade on Intermediate Right Speech, which involves techniques of argumentation and presentation, the expression of more complex feelings and ideas, the heuristic and forensic uses of language. Some of what we study on these two levels is bottomless; even something as simple as when to speak and when not to speak cannot be determined by formula, and the knowledge of “when” is refined over a lifetime. But are we ever taught that we can use language in such a way as to improve ourselves or harm ourselves? Here we begin to enter on Advanced Right Speech, in which we become more consciously skilled with our words. Each act we commit feeds and waters a sprout that can grow into a habit; insofar as thoughts and statements are also actions, they too have the power to grow into habits and thus change us. When we become aware of the effects of our words, both on ourselves and on others, we realize that every word we utter makes a mark, and nothing we say can be deleted. The Buddha points out that our own speech can make us “impure” — confused, muddy, self-evading, increasingly unable to separate truth from untruth. His own words on the matter are hard to improve upon and worth listening to carefully:

“And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, bitter to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.”

The four ways are: 1) telling falsehoods, by which we deliberately relax our commitment to truth and eventually even become so tied to subtly evolved fictions that we can no longer notice when we might be fooling ourselves; 2) saying things that are certain to cause strife, contention, and bad feeling, thus destroying social harmony by creating a miasma of mistrust — and at the same time turning ourselves into the kind of spiteful little creature who delights in dragging other people down; 3) uttering words designed to hurt and upset, sowing internal strife in those around us, and undermining their capacity for contentment; and 4) filling precious silence with babble that can matter to no one, just to hear our own voices or to cover over a silence in which anxiety might arise. This fourth destructive way is the hardest for a modern to understand, so accustomed are we to our sound-realms constantly being filled with “entertainment” or commentary; silence disturbs us, it is “awkward.” Just from a single day’s experience with social media posts, I can cull dozens of examples of each of the “four ways”: posts that are careless of truth and factually reckless, posts that are sure to turn some group of people against another and drive them both farther into contention, posts that we know will hurt and anger someone, and posts that are just for posting’s sake, for “fun.” The effect of all of these together is unproductive emotional entanglement and mental confusion.
   When we become more disciplined and scrupulous with our words, the opposite happens, and we find ourselves becoming better people:
“And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.”
Here we are introduced to the rare person who can always be counted on to be truthful and honest; who nonetheless never speaks in such a way as to cause discord, and is both good at and enjoys making friendships; whom people routinely seek out because of her sincerity, kindness, good nature, and encouragement; who is always to the point, and always worth listening to. This is an image of a wonderful, lovable human being — the kind of person we would want for a friend, and also one that we can all aspire to become.
   The beauty of such a path is that it can be practiced, for at the beginning of each day we can actually articulate to ourselves an intention to work on the four aspects of samma-vaca with regard to the particular people and situations of our daily lives; and at the end of the day we can reflect, evaluate in detail whether we succeeded or not, and then decide what we need to do to improve. It is the conscious application of our reflective intelligence that makes this a practice, and not just the spontaneous play of natural gifts. Did I tell the truth? Was I right to tell my friend X what my other friend Y had said about him? Did I hurt W’s feelings and make it harder for him to speak with me? Did I just waste an hour chatting about politics on Facebook? Underlying all of these questions is the bigger question about motivation: Why did I speak, what in me needed to say this? In thinking about these things and trying to cultivate lucidity regarding our own actions, we gradually become smarter about ourselves, more sensitive to other people, and more nuanced in our actions.
   A habit of self-reflection tends to make us more moderate and judicious, but being mindful of our mouths develops the special kind of intelligence that is attuned to the intricate mysteries of language. We are never done with the work of samma-vaca; it becomes more challenging and more interesting the better we become at it, and it is work that never stops expanding our minds and hearts. I still think about ways I could have said things better fifty years ago, and the good or bad effect of things that were said to me long ago — for every utterance is a seed that cannot be prevented from growing into something. The practice of samma-vaca necessarily takes place in small, particular instances, but each of these instances is packed full with significance: for example, something as simple as a “hello, nice to meet you” is an occasion for understanding the deeper meanings of welcome and respect. 
   Speaking well depends on listening well, and learning to listen may be one of the hardest things a human being has to do. We are generally poor listeners from impatience, arrogance, desire, and fear: impatience, because we are eager to say our own thing or because we have some other task to check off; arrogance, because it is natural for people to assume they are qualified to judge others, so that we already “know” what our interlocutor will say and what it is worth; desire, because we want to hear ourselves corroborated; and fear, because there are things we know we don’t want to hear. When we are silent, is it because we are listening or because we are waiting to speak? When we speak, are we responding to the person in front of us, or merely reacting or deflecting? If we are habitually not responsive to people and situations, we cannot be sincere practitioners of samma-vaca. It will be obvious that our silences are also included in this, because all silence expresses something, and some silences are more eloquent than words. To the extent that many silences are in fact preparations for speech, words exist in a continuum from intuition, to thought, to utterance — which means that the thoughtful practitioner of samma-vaca must attend to what precedes speaking as much as to speaking itself.
   Thus the art of speaking well includes the complementary art of listening well. Both of these arts cannot be taught as an arsenal of techniques and strategies to master. For example, we can know all there is to know about different methods of beginning an argument, but how do we know when to start and how to choose the words that will move this particular person? Or we can have a large enough vocabulary and wide experience of life to understand the words that are spoken to us, but how do we intuit the real intentions behind the words — such as whether the speaker is friendly or unfriendly towards us– let alone understand why the intentions are what they are? If we have no insight into these deeper matters, we are unlikely to address this interlocutor effectively in speech. 
   But how do we learn such things? It would seem that there is no shortcut; we learn from paying attention to every interaction and reflecting afterwards on what went right or wrong. We learn from mistakes, and also from letting others point out our mistakes: when we said things poorly, when we misunderstood, when we completely misjudged an interlocutor, when we failed to sustain a harmonious relationship. Mistakes and failures make up the rich seedbed of self-reflection and improvement. Because of this, samma-vaca is a practice that will tend to make a person more grounded, generous, humble, attentive, observant, present — and at the same time, more reflective, imaginative, far-sighted, open to other people and to other possibilities. It is a richly rewarding practice for a thoughtful person, and a salutary discipline for a less thoughtful person, because it encompasses so many other virtues. Indeed, samma-vaca is itself a mindfulness practice that tends to get instant feedback because it occurs in the moment, with other people.
     The wonder is that every human being can do this practice in some way; each of us is capable of trying to listen well and to speak well, and of the self-reflection that these require. Even when we find ourselves perplexed in certain situations and unable to see clearly, we can always consult our friends, who can be helpful in getting us to see what we did wrong and how we could do better. In the Pali Discourses, the Buddha’s gift is twofold: a vision, and a practice. He always gives us something we can do — indeed, that we can start doing now, wherever we are, by ourselves. There is no need to wait for anything or anyone.

The Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith (tr.Thanissaro, Anguttara Nikaya, 10.176) can be found here:
The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation (tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi) can be found here: