The third aspect of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech. This is a very challenging one for most of us. When we were kids, we discovered that words are powerful. Even though we said ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me’ we knew even then that wasn’t true. Words can cut, they can scar, they can destroy. We got hurt by them and then perhaps on occasion we turned around and hurt others. As children we might have relished the little power we could find in our lives, and words surprised us with their power. We could make people laugh. We could make people cry. We could make people angry. We could make people look at us and smile. This word stuff was huge!
I remember being eager to grow up because it seemed to me that grown ups were generally nicer. They didn’t say cruel things, they didn’t make fun of me. Of course much of children’s talk is not purposely cruel, just bluntly honest, curious and untimely. When they see something different than they are used to, they stare and ask questions. This is appropriate for their main quest in life at their age: to discover this new world they find themselves inhabiting.
As children we may have received some variation on the theme of ‘children should be seen and not heard’ and if we couldn’t say something nice we were told not to say anything at all. If we felt the pressure of those sentiments, we may now as adults find we have a greater resistance to the idea of Right Speech than to any of the other aspects of the Eightfold Path. We want to feel we can speak our truth. We don’t want to be silenced. We may feel that to be quiet is to be dis-empowered, because we recognize that indeed words have power. We want to be able to express ourselves in our own way, and we don’t want our speech to be dictated by some set of rules that might squelch our unique creative expression.
We want to feel absolutely free to say what we want, but then sometimes we end up feeling terrible when our thoughtless words leave destruction in their wake. Words have power. We know this is to be so, but still we find ourselves occasionally talking without thinking, talking in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others.
And at that point, even if we have resisted the idea of Right Speech, we can appreciate it as a valuable tool for reflection. It, like the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, is not a rule but a guidepost to light our way out of the murky mire of our guilt over having misspoken. “Why do I feel so miserable?” we ask ourselves. The guidepost of Right Speech reminds us that unskillful speech can cause misery, and we might want to review the speech we’ve been using, asking ourselves,” Was what I said true, useful and timely?” for these are the three criteria of Right Speech. If we are feeling miserable, chances are we can’t answer ‘yes’ to all three.
With the regular practice of meditation our mind becomes more spacious so that we can see our thoughts and hear our speech more clearly. This spaciousness has given us at least glimpses of Right View (sensing in to our deep connection), and has brought us into alignment with Right Intention (to be fully present in the moment and to be kind to ourselves and others.) So now we can see more clearly whether our words are rooted in Right View and Right Intention, and are therefore most likely to be true, useful, kind and timely. Or whether they are rooted in fear, from a view of ourselves as separate and in need of defending. These fear-rooted words are weapons. They have been crafted to cut or to block out. Becoming aware of the roots of our words is vital in developing a natural and authentic expression that is true, useful, timely and kind, i.e. Right Speech.
Through trial and error we find our way, allowing our errors to be valuable learning experiences. Beating ourselves up about it every time we mis-speak is not Right Speech, but only compounds our errors. Acknowledging what we have done and being compassionate with ourselves as we gain personal insight into the ways in which we have misused words, is an ongoing practice. We have habitual patterns of speech that have the power of a lifetime worth of energy behind them, so we need to be patient with ourselves if from time to time we slip back into unskillful ways of expressing ourselves.
At the heart of Right Speech is deep listening, settling into the moment fully, accessing that deeper vaster vantage point of connection, so that we can truly hear what the other person is saying. If our mind can let go of planning what we will say next and truly stay with the conversation as it unfolds, we create a safe environment for honest exchange.
By being in the moment, we are less likely to say “You always do this” or “You never do that.” Instead we might sense into our body to gauge our emotional state and express our truth grounded in this moment. The “I feel…” statements that will naturally arise out of this kind of inner awareness are more useful and timely than accusatory statements that dredge up grudges from the past.
When we are fully present in this moment we are not rushing to the next appointment, or thinking about what to make for dinner. So we are better able to listen with full attention and patience, and take the time to speak with consideration and a full heart.
To develop Right Speech with others we need to really listen to how we talk to ourselves. Are we rude, scolding, name calling, or diminishing ourselves in some way? If we spoke to someone else that way, would we expect them to want to be around us? If we spoke that way to a child, would it be abuse? Does our self talk seem comfortable because it’s what we heard as children?
If so, we must remember that our adult self is here now to see more clearly and to set boundaries when we are abusive in our language. How can we possibly expect to speak with kindness to others if we are constantly speaking so cruelly to ourselves?
As we begin to consider incorporating Right Speech into our lives, let’s bring metta into the mix. Metta/loving kindness is the radiance that helps this guidepost cast a much brighter light. If we send metta to ourselves saying, “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be peaceful,” our interior conversations are more likely to be kind, if only because the contrast between this well-wishing message and our usual rudeness is so sharp that it makes us aware that we are taunting ourselves as cruelly as any playground bully or critical parent ever did.
Developing kindness in our interior speech comes from the wise understanding that we are acceptable because we are an integral part of all that is. No exceptions. Metta is like the sun, shining on all equally. The sun doesn’t pick and choose who is worthy of its light. Nor does metta. It doesn’t matter if you think you are deserving. There is nothing you have to do to receive the absolute blessing of Metta.
So we begin with ourselves, using metta to set the tone of our inner dialog. We use our awareness to begin to notice the kind of language we are using towards ourselves, the predictions of failure, the ‘I told you so’s when we fulfill our own negative expectations. With our increasingly spacious awareness we see the tight tangle of our thoughts become looser, so that individual thought threads become more visible. We can follow them back to their roots. If they are statements of judgment, if they are enemy-making, if they make us feel tension in our body, they are rooted in fear.
And what is fear? Fear is simply a momentary forgetfulness of our true nature. Fear rises up because we feel separate. Feeling separate, of course we feel we need protection. We are not aware that our fear draws to us exactly what we fear. It excites the energy of fear in others and they respond in ways that further exacerbate the situation, confirming our worst fears.
Metta practice is something we can do whenever we recognize fear arising. Metta awareness is one of the fruits of the practice, one of the Four Brahmaviharas (heavenly abodes), but it is also a gateway into Right View or Wise Understanding. It is particularly valuable in developing Right Speech because it uses words.
When we begin a conversation with others, we can send them metta as well. The briefest pause at the beginning of a conversation to take a breath, bring ourselves fully into the moment and send out metta to the other person, can make all the difference.
When we understand our connection to each other, when we see that we are one with this great infinite energy, we can release our fears, our clenched fists and jaws, so our words don’t build fortresses but celebrate the connection we feel. And when we remember our intention to be kind and to be fully present in the moment, we are much more likely to speak from a sense of deep connection, and our words will be true, valuable and timely.
As you can see, by practicing Right View and Right Intention we are more likely to use Right Speech, We are more able to discern whether what we want to say satisfies the three criteria of being true, useful and timely. If it is not, then silence is the better choice. But this is a very different silence from the zipped mouth we imagine. Because if we have Right View and Right Intention we have a quiet loving presence that doesn’t need the power of words to communicate. We are not in need of a power tool to accomplish a task. We are in need of nothing more than what we have – our full awareness of the present moment, our full understanding of our own deep connection to all that is.
If you have ever been on a silent retreat, you know how delicious it is (especially if you are a talkative person) to simply give up speech all together. To just let it go of all that potential for misunderstanding and simply be fully present in the moment with no agenda except to be fully present in the moment.
Of course, we still have our interior talk. And being able to hear our various inner voices and all their discussions, advice, scolding, etc. is a real gift to ourselves. On a silent retreat this inner discussion may feel amplified because it’s the only show in town. No radio, TV, books, internet, MP3 player, or exchanges with others. Just this. Whoa! A real opportunity for inner discovery! A real opportunity to send metta to ourselves, metta to all the raging aspects within us, metta to the wondrous natural world we inhabit, metta to our teachers and our fellow retreatants – the wonderful sangha (community) that shares this dedicated practice to awaken to this moment, to awaken to understanding our deep connection, to awaken to awareness.