Spacious Speech

What does the word ‘spacious’ add to our understanding of Wise or Right Speech?
It creates space for a gentle loving inquiry to occur as the desire to speak arises. There are specific Buddhist questions we ask: Is what I want to say truthful? Is it kind? Is it timely? Spaciousness provides us with the feeling of sufficient time and space to ask in before speaking. We can notice whether our words arise from a deep sense of connected awareness and compassion, or from deep seated insecurities that make us feel a need to define and prove ourselves to others.

On a silent retreat there is a palpable since of spaciousness in the practice of being quiet. When I mention silent retreats sometimes people shudder at the thought of not being able to speak for an extended period. Anyone that knows me knows I love to talk, but perhaps it’s an even greater gift for a talker to rest in quietness for a period of time.

On retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, we not only don’t speak, we don’t make eye contact. Sign or body language would be regarded as speech as well, so what we are doing is letting go of active involvement with others. We no longer need to strategize about what to say and when to say it, how it will be received, how we will be perceived, whether we will be misunderstood, and all the other concerns that come with the responsibility of speaking and interacting in the world. When we enter silence and turn our attention inward to the workings of our mind and outward to the patterns in nature, it can be very liberating and relaxing.

But it is not always very quiet! What we notice right away is that although we are not expressing our thoughts we are still thinking them. With the pressure off as to which thoughts to share and which thoughts to refrain from sharing, we can simply notice our thoughts as they course through our awareness.

With our intention to be present in the moment and to be compassionate, we notice the patterns of our thoughts, the phrases that rise up and repeat, the judgments, the churning of self-doubt, the second-guessing, the fantasies, the ‘if only’s that find flaw in the way things are and perhaps the underlying fear that drives them. On retreat we have little else to do but notice our thoughts and emotions as they course through our awareness. We return again and again to physical sensation when we have lost our intention to be present. Part of what is present is thought and emotion. Through meditation we are developing an ability to notice our thinking process as a part of our overall experience of this moment. Our thoughts are not to be avoided but to be noticed, not to be judged but to be held in an open embrace that is increasingly spacious.

As the retreat continues, the spaciousness may grow so that the running commentary of our thoughts takes up less space and the sense of awareness of what is occurring in any given moment becomes more prominent. This may be experienced as a sense of surrendering to the simple state of being, a sense of understanding ourselves as a natural part of life in this moment, not a bystander but a burst of being as simple an expression of life as any lizard, frog or butterfly. We are life loving itself. All the inner chatter is simply a part of the human animal experience, the electrical and chemical activity in our brains. We don’t need to judge it. We simply accept it as part of the nature of our being. This awareness is the gift of silence and a temporary withdrawal from involvement in the world.

But just as a fast is not a long term diet plan, silence is not a long term answer for Right or Wise Speech. But a period of silence with insight does give us the ability to notice so that when we begin to speak again we recognize how challenging it can be, and how much time we speak unnecessarily, simply because we are uncomfortable with silence. Through the retreat process, indeed through a regular practice of meditation, we are developing a comfortable relationship with silence and with our minds.

We no longer feel we must fill the quiet spaces in a conversation, and we can begin to see that when we don’t leap in to fill the space, we give ourselves the chance to sink more deeply into a sensory awareness of the moment, our surroundings and the person or people we are with. This creation of spaciousness provides an opportunity for others to share from a deeper connected place because we are fully present to really listen. When we do speak, our words are much more likely to be responsive, caring and connected. And if they are not, we are able to see that more readily and recognize how we caused harm through our speech. This ability to recognize gives us an opportunity to amend at once, before further misunderstanding occurs. We can feel in our bodies the discomfort of having spoken unwisely. Without the practice, we might not notice this dis-ease for what it is. We might not be present enough to see the effects on ourselves and others of our words, and we would continue on unwisely, and probably even compound the problem, because now, even if we don’t recognize it, we are speaking from this dis-ease.

The practice of meditation is not a cure-all, but it does offer spaciousness and thus provides more clarity. Each individual meditator has the opportunity to develop this spaciousness if their practice is about being fully present, not about drifting off into a dreamy void. Remember we are developing spaciousness, not spacy-ness! We are developing an awareness of the sensations of the body to anchor ourselves in this moment, not going for out of body experiences of transcendence. We are meditating in order to be skillful in life, not to find an escape route from living.

So let’s focus on those three traditional ways of determining whether our speech is right or wise, and how adding the word ‘spacious’ enhances our understanding of each one.

The questions are whether what we want to say is true, kind and timely. If it doesn’t meet all three of these criteria, then it’s better to leave it unsaid, to find a more honest and kind way to say it, or to wait to say it until the time is right.

Spaciousness offers us the time to reflect on the truthfulness, kindness and timeliness of a statement we may feel prompted to make. “Is it true?” we ask ourselves. If it is a fact that has been fully and fairly researched, not just parroted from something we read online or heard on the radio, then it is fairly simple to determine. But even in that case, it would be wise and useful to site our sources, thus giving others some context for the statement.

If what we want to say is our opinion, then the addition of ‘It seems to me,’ ‘I believe, ‘I’ve noticed’ or ‘I feel’ can be helpful in making a statement more truthful. Of course these additions can be overused, making our speech awkward and dull. Noticing how often we need to use these qualifiers, we may want to question our need to express our opinion about so many things. What are we afraid will happen if people don’t know ‘where we stand?’

We have talked in the past about the ‘don’t know mind’ and how liberating it can be. Speech is enhanced by the acceptance that none of us knows all that much. We all have so many filters of distorted perception that we must peer through in order to see the world. Each of our views of reality is relative. Understanding this makes it easier to let go of our need to be right, to get everyone to see things our way in order for us to feel safe in the world, to be heard lest we disappear, etc.

So spacious speech not only aspires to be truthful, it acknowledges how little truth we actually are privy to at any given moment. If we frame our words to incorporate that margin of error we leave space for others to differ in their opinion without feeling negated or threatened by ours.

The second test of Right or Wise Speech is whether our words are kind. We all have very different views of what is kind. For example, some may feel it is kind to correct another’s errors in order to help them perfect themselves. When we hold this point of view, it’s difficult for us to understand why people bristle so when our intention was to be helpful. We might question our assumption that we are not enough just as we are, that there is some idealized perfection that will make all things right.

We can use spaciousness to notice if our words are the expression of a habituated set of judgments, or if we are trying to change someone, to get them to do something they are reluctant to do. Kindness is honoring another person’s process and freedom of choice.

If this person has power over us, if they get to decide what we do or don’t do, then perhaps there is some room for persuasive speaking. But as adults the perception that someone else has power over us is usually a misperception that needs revisiting. Most of us have a lot more power over our own lives than we believe we do. If we are unhappy we do not have to grumble under our breath like feudal serfs who can be tossed out of our humble cottages by the baron. If we can skillfully craft our concerns into words using wise speech, we have to power to change the conditions and the conditioning of our lives. Directing our words to the right person, gathering information by asking the right questions, and finding others who share our concerns empower us to co-create the world we live in instead of simply tolerating it. This gets us back to the topic we discussed last week about accepting our seat at the table.

Unkind speech often comes from a misperception of boundaries. While we are all one in the most fundamental sense, in relationships we learn to honor the space between us, allow for the natural and necessary process of individuation. If we refer to the deep interconnected core, our Buddha nature, for our sense of who we are in the world, then we do not need to have those around us mirror us. We do not need for everyone around us to agree with us, nor do we have the right to enforce our ‘truth’ on them. This forced invasion into another person’s space is very unkind, to say the least. Again, imagining that vast expansive table and fully inhabiting our place, and using our table manners!

As parents of young children we take the responsibility of skillfully guiding another being into autonomy. Because this is a 24/7/365 kind of relationship, our children get the best and worst of us in full measure. But mindfulness can make us much more skillful, helping us as well as our children to live with awareness and compassion. Parents may think of children as extensions of themselves, and if they are insecure in the world, they may force the children to fill in the gaps, to fulfill unmet goals, to be their best face in the world. This is a role children can never fill and should never be required to do.

I mention parenting here because so much of the unskillfulness in parenting comes across in speech. So many of the negative words we tell ourselves as adults are phrases, names or limiting labels that our parents said to us. If in our noticing we keep coming up with phrases our parents said, or find we are trying to fill the gaps where longed-for words were left unsaid, then we have the power to be the parents to ourselves that we need now. We can hold ourselves in tenderness and compassion. We can give ourselves the nurturing we need. We are not dependent on anyone else to provide our happiness. If we are waiting for that, we are wasting our lives. If we as adults are still looking to our parents to give us a sense of completion or, if they have died, mourning not just our parents but the missed opportunity to hear the words we long for, then we are not understanding the incredible power we have to self-nurture. Perhaps our inner child is still hurt and crying, but it is up to us, not our parents, to comfort that child and to meet its needs skillfully. For our own healing, we accept that our parents did the best they could, even when what they did or said was unskillful. We return to the ‘don’t know mind’ to allow for some spaciousness in our tight expectations and disappointments around the parent-child relationship. We don’t know what they were going through. We don’t know how they were parented. We don’t know what it is like to be them. We only know they loved us as best they could.

When we recognize internalized statements our parents thrust upon us, we don’t have to demand a retraction. Instead we can be grateful for the recognition and we can begin a loving inner dialog with the aspect of ourselves that believes that statement to be true.

We can also learn from the experience the truth of how powerful words can be so that we will be more mindful in our speech, taking the time to be sure that our words are kind, coming from a sense of connection and compassion.

You might wonder what happens when our desire to be kind comes into conflict with our desire to be truthful. One student in our sangha recognized that when these two are in conflict, then the wise thing is to wait until the kind way to say our truth is clearer and the time is right and the person we wish to speak to is in a more receptive place. This brings us to our third factor of Right or Wise Speech: Timeliness.

If we pause in spaciousness before speaking, we can certainly notice if this is the right conversation for this moment.
Really? You want to talk about that now? asks someone who is in the middle of preparing a feast and the guests are arriving in ten minutes. We’ve all been in that situation in one form or another. It’s not that we don’t want the conversation. It’s that this is not the time for it.

Timeliness can be determined easily if we are fully in the moment. Demanding to speak about something when it is not a good time for the other person usually means we are caught up in the past or the future and are ignoring this moment. If the person is not telling us in their words or body language that this isn’t a good time, we can always ask if this is a good time to discuss the subject. If not, then another time can be planned.

Clearly, spaciousness does have a valuable role to play in the exploration of true, kind and timely speech.

A caveat: For some of us, the invitation to be aware of our thoughts and to pause before speaking sparks an inner censor. This inner censor is not grounded in kindness as it sits in judgment of every word, making sure that it appears to be kind. The censor is more concerned about our being seen as kind than about being kind. There is a potential for getting caught up in being a good Buddhist. There is no such thing as a good or bad Buddhist. But there is such a thing as a spiritual striver who feels they are not enough as they are, that they must alter themselves beyond recognition, and that Buddhism is a way of suppressing or rejecting the parts of themselves that are hurt, angry, hungry or fed up. With spaciousness, we open to all aspects of our nature and begin to see them more clearly as transient threads rather than the fabric of our being. We have room for all of who we are and all the world’s seeming imperfections when we hold everything in a spacious open embrace.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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