By Ben Sykora
Often when writing, I enjoy going to coffee shops.
Whether it’s the active environment or just the caffeine high; going to these places and observing my surroundings almost always gets my creative juices flowing. This busy Saturday morning was no different. After I arrived at the pickup area and grabbed my triple shot flat white—a necessary part of my day—I noticed a homeless man sitting in the corner.
The man, who wore a graying beard and a worn jacket, was sipping on coffee and writing on a brown napkin. It was not the first time I have seen the man; in fact, I had talked with him many times before that day.
The very first time I approached the man, I was scared—scared that I would say something wrong; I was scared of any one of the hundreds of things that I imagined in my head going wrong. The only thing I knew about him is what I saw, a homeless man. When I approached him for the very first time, I could see the different judgments floating around in my head. Pushing through those I introduced myself, shook his hand, and we talked for the next two hours.
Weeks had passed since I last saw him at that coffee shop, so when I saw him on that Saturday, I was happy. We exchanged casual conversation for a few minutes, and I noticed how worn his jacket was. I remembered that just a few days early, the charity I run, Bowing for Change, had conducted a coat drive. I told him I would run over to the temple and grab him a jacket.
After doing that, and on my way back to the car, I debated whether or not to share my experience with the man. I wanted to share to others what a pleasant experience it was, and I thought that maybe it would even inspire someone else to do something good as well. There was something holding me back from sharing; I was afraid when people saw it they would see it as bragging and look at me as if I was not genuine.
I imagined going back to school that Monday, and getting critiqued by every person who saw it.
I imagined someone confronting me to tell me that I am genuine and fake (something that actually has happened).
That small debate with myself on the walk back to my car represents much more. It represented a struggle within myself that has led me to where I am today.
The struggle to love myself.
I have always struggled with loving myself. I had the tendency to always have to be right, and that didn’t go over well with a lot of people, leading me to believe that everyone hated me. This led me to be depressed for most of my sophomore year of high school.
My large lifeboat came in the form of a monk from Sri Lanka. One of the very first things he said to me was that I needed to love myself. At that moment, it was just what I needed to hear and I realized that I am not alone on this path. As a result of not loving myself, I was very sensitive to what others thought of me. This affected what I did with my time, the way I acted and what I would say.
After almost a year of mindfulness meditation and practicing loving kindness, I have been able to watch myself improve in every way. Today, I am happier than I have ever been, but I still struggle with one aspect: Right Speech.
One of the most challenging parts of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech, or Samma Vaca. Speech is one of the most powerful tools. Speech has started wars, made peace, spread hate and shared compassion, which is why it is emphasized with such importance.
After I took the five precepts in November of last year, at that time I also promised myself to work on the practice of right speech. Every day, before leaving school, I would read off the five precepts to remind myself of my commitment to my practice. A few days later I was with a friend and I proclaimed “I’m going to not say a single negative word about anyone else for a week!” and every time I failed that day, I would mark a tally in my mind.
The next day my friend asked how my mission of right speech was going.
“I failed 44 times yesterday,” I replied.
By counting how many times I used negative and wrong speech, I was also able to see when I would mess up.
I noticed that when I am surrounded by people I like or those who I am trying to impress, I tend to drop my mindfulness. My least mindful speech was when I was with those I was comfortable with. When the conversation would turn to something negative, I would just go along with it and join it.
In sports, fundamentals are key. Players practice the same movement thousands of times until it becomes muscle memory. When the fundamentals are practiced wrong, it becomes muscle memory, and it takes an effort to reverse. Players have to practice that religiously or else it will not become natural. A habit as strong and natural as speech is almost the same way.
For right speech to become natural, it has to be practiced often.
Being mindful of what you are about to say is a necessary part of practicing right speech. When right speech is used, it seems a lot of the other pieces start to fall into place. When there is nothing beneficial to say, I don’t say it and instead, I am able to listen.
And when we listen, we see those judgments that prevent us from walking up to the guy in the corner of the coffee shop, begin to fall apart.
Ben Sykora is always up to something, whether it is working, writing, running his charity, or attempting to pull off a miracle and pass his next exams. He is always ready for what’s next, and he even has a small notebook in his glove compartment to write in if any ideas come up. Ben is only 18, but he has never let that stop him. Starting out as an intern for an underdog political campaign, Ben has embarked on a journey to have the greatest impact possible in everything he does. He cares about doing what is right versus personal gain, and he tries to the best friend he can to everyone he meets.
Ben lives in a sleepy, small town about an hour and a half northeast of Chicago. He goes to a small Catholic school, and he loves to learn. At any given moment, he is trying to learn something new about himself and the world around him. Ben currently runs a charity called Bowing for Change, who’s mission—like his—is to spread compassion throughout the world.
Editor: Dana Gornall