Wise Speech – Our Words Matter

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You can see from our past two discussions that Wise Speech is not just about talking. It’s also about developing a comfort with a quality of loving silence and developing the skill of really listening to others.

Many Americans among blog followers had the opportunity to test these skills last Thursday on Thanksgiving with family and friends. How did it go? What did you notice? If you found yourself in the hot water of the sea of misunderstanding, don’t despair. Take notes! That was the test run. Chances are you have more social gatherings ahead!

One student reported that her Thanksgiving was so joyful because she spent more time resting in silence and less time thinking she needed to speak.

A friend recently reminded me that I once said that it’s helpful to consider ‘My mouth is an altar.’ The mouth, that place where speech is formed, can be treated as an altar where we lay down words in a thoughtful and sacred way. What words would we put on the altar? What words would be desecration of the honored trusting space between any two people? See if this is a helpful way to think about it for you.

Wise Speech is one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path, and so works with the other aspects. What is the relationship between them?

If we look at our cooking pot analogy, you’ll see I have drawn Wise Speech (and Wise Action and Wise Livelihood) as steam rising up from the pot of Wise View and its contents of Wise Mindfulness stirred by Wise Concentration.

This makes Wise Speech and the others seem rather effortless. If all the others are in place, then these three arise. Is this true? Could be, but how often are all the others in place? When we find that we have spoken unwisely, or have a strong impulse to do so, we can look back to our intentions, our effort, our view, whether we’re being mindful, and these other aspects provide us with insight into how unskillful language came about. This is really practical and useful!

One student noticed a striving quality to her efforts to connect with a friend, and a resulting difficulty with composing an email to her. This is such skillful noticing.

We can apply the same questions we have been working with throughout our investigation: What is my intention here? Do I have an agenda? Or am I truly coming from my intentions to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with myself and others? Then we can look at effort and the rest.

But there are a few more traditional questions we can ask about anything we have said, written or want to say or write:
  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

Let’s go through these three questions in a little more depth.

Is it true?
This question can create a spaciousness and balance of thinking that feels like fresh air. Even if it gets us to alter our wording from statement of fact to an ‘I think that…’ opinion, it helps to make our speech wiser. But the question opens us to re-examining thoughts and beliefs that may never have been looked at before. If we haven’t really looked at it, how can we speak it as if it is truth? Are we simply parroting what we have heard? Where did we hear it? Is this a source we know to be trustworthy? How do we know that?

‘Is it true?’ is the beginning of our exploration. It behooves us to keep the exploration going, to examine assumptions, to question everything. But for most of us the idea of questioning what we believe to be true is threatening in some way. Why? Because we believe we are what we think, what we believe, what we hold to be true.

This brings us back to Wise View and to the Five Aggregates we explored earlier in the year, that led us to understand that there is no separate self we need to defend or shore up. When we can sense our deep connection with all that is, how this human being life we are experiencing is impermanent, a fleeting conjunction of particles, a perceived segment of a much larger system of processes, and that our consciousness enables us to experience life in this moment as this seemingly-separate being with a skin-encased body, a name and other identifiers, then we can explore a simple question like ‘Is this true?’ with great freedom and curiosity. Because nothing in the answer threatens our being.

Is it kind?
What did the Buddha mean by this question? Is he suggesting that we should always be nice, don’t make a fuss, put up and shut up? Loving-kindness not about making nice in order to maintain some status quo. Instead it is rooted in a deep sense of loving kindness and compassion. So we ask whether we are speaking from Wise Intention or is there some murky motivation here?

Are we saying something nice to appease or are we expressing truth with an understanding of the power of words to wound or heal, to cut down or inspire, to create antagonism or collaboration. We cannot understand the power of our words if we perceive ourselves to be powerless.

The most powerful words in the world come from our parents. As children we craved approval and love, and were tuned into even the slightest hint of a tone of disapproval or dismissal.And we were aware when the words we craved remained unsaid. As adults we would do well to see our parents, whether alive or not, as mere humans prone to error like all others, with no instruction manual and little of what we now call emotional intelligence, and probably more than their share of challenges. We can divest the power we have given them without turning our backs on them. We don’t make ourselves impervious to their barbs by creating armor. Instead we recognize their torment and suffering, and feel compassion. May they be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.

What does this have to do with our own ability to speak wisely. If we are parents, it reminds us that these words we use which we may not even think about — that may be throw-away words as far as we’re concerned, which come from a person who feels rather powerless perhaps, and certainly not capable of any real harm — are in fact received by our children, even adult children, as more powerful and thus more painful than we can imagine. Perhaps we have raised children who are well-balanced and capable, but we cannot assume that even they are not still in need of our approval and attuned to read more into what we say than we may have intended. So be aware!

Whomever we are talking to, loving-kindness is an absence of the need to prove anything, correct or remake anyone. Kindness is not about satisfying our innate curiosity by asking nosy questions, but about taking an interest, and letting the other person take the lead in the conversation. Loving-kindness is universal, so our words are equally kind to everyone we encounter.

Is it timely?
What we have to say might be true, and it might be kind but maybe it’s an awkward moment to say it. For example, it might be true and kind to say “I love you’ to someone, but not in the middle of a business meeting. Or it might be true and kind to have a real heart to heart with someone, but not while they are in the middle of preparing a big dinner. Knowing when is the right moment comes from being attuned to the silence, being fully in the moment, and allowing the words to be a response to a spell of skillful listening. The right time reveals itself.

Since we are in festive season, a time when we often have so many social gatherings and succumb to unskillful speech so easily, let’s explore a few typical pitfalls we might encounter:

Drinking. Some of us rely on drinking to get us through social awkwardness, but that release of inhibitions is really just a release of good judgment. If you can’t drink in moderation, don’t drink. If you drink to calm nerves, then find more skillful ways to address that concern — self-inquiry, looking at the patterns of thought that keep you in fear; and practice, such as joining Toastmasters to get past the nerves.

Wit. Some of us so much want to entertain that we would prefer to be clever even if it cuts. Focusing on listening helps to remind us this is not a stage, we are not doing a routine.

Gossip. Getting together with people who share common bonds with others often ends up by discussing those not present in a familiar but not always loving way. Wise Speech doesn’t talk about people, period. Their stories are not ours to tell. The answer to questions about absent family or friends is, ‘Oh yes, it’s too bad they couldn’t be here. But maybe you can get in touch with them to catch up.’ Of course that family member might not appreciate you referring people to them, so a vague ‘Oh they’re just fine. Thanks for asking.’ might suffice. This is difficult, especially for women who gather together to solve the problems of the world, or at least their immediate family members, and find relief from worry by hearing the stories of other people’s relatives who are even more dysfunctional. There is also a way in which families weave a valued and supportive mythology that has benefits that the Buddha might question, but that the elders of ‘the clan’ seem to have a biological imperative to weave and share. That aside, gossip usually leaves us feeling a sullied. Try a period of not talking in the third person and see if it doesn’t free you! As for supportive sharing of experience, there’s no harm in using stories, just keep the people involved anonymous.

Generalizations, stereotypes. Without giving our words much thought we may find ourselves repeating things we have heard without question, or we might extrapolate a single incident into a judgment about a whole group of people. This is not skillful, since these statements by their nature are neither true nor kind.

Desire to ‘be ourselves’. We have this idea that being free to say whatever comes into our heads is desirable. That anything else is censorship. Why? Do we feel entitled to move our bodies anywhere in space regardless of whether someone is already there? No. When it comes to action and to speech, we are in community.

We may imagine a person — a friend or lover — with whom we can totally ‘be ourselves’, as in we can mindlessly blurt out whatever pops up. This only works if we have a set of disposable friends, whose feelings don’t matter to us. You might be able to think of a friend or two who you can be thoughtless in your speech and they don’t mind, but this only means that this is the kind of abuse they were raised with, and they interpret that as intimacy. We seek intimacy and sometimes rude cutting words make us feel at home. You might recognize that in someone you know, or in yourself. It isn’t wise or loving to continue that abuse.

Secrets as intimacy. Shared knowledge feels like a bond, but building a separate fortress for two or a few is clinging to fortress mentality, just letting the ‘special’ people in. The only people who want in, however, are those who are trapped in believing themselves to be special and separate, in need of constant reassurance and admiration. Healthy relationships are built on a deeply shared sense of connection with all life and respect.

Did you recognize any of these traps in your experience? Or others I haven’t covered here?

You are not alone! These are challenging and it’s good to remember that this is all a practice. We all just do the best we can. All of these skills we develop are in order to reduce suffering for ourselves and others, and create loving-kindness, compassion and joy.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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