This time of year we can get into a lot of trouble with our mouths. What goes into them can so easily be too much, too rich, too sweet or too inebriating. What comes out of them might be thoughtless comments, backhanded compliments or casual remarks that are way off the mark. One way to stay out of trouble is to avoid all social gatherings for the duration. But if we do engage, do we have to stand guard, inspecting all content coming in and going out with a careful eye? Ugh! Where’s the fun in that?
Fortunately there is a way to stay out of trouble with our words and our eating without declaring ‘Bah humbug’. Compassionate noticing is joyous, not a duty call or an inner police state. The Buddha called it Wise Action and Wise Speech.
Wise Action during the holidays means being present in our bodies, finding balance, resting as needed, and gently stepping away from the buffet table when we are not hungry but find we are grazing to pass the time. We can wake up out of autopilot and really enjoy the party!
Wise Speech invites us we use three questions to gauge whether speech is indeed wise.
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it timely?
All three need a ‘yes’ answer for our speech to be wise.
One of my students said, ‘If I had to ask those every time I wanted to say something, I’d never speak!’
‘Is that true?’ I asked her. ‘Is everything you say a mean lie spoken at the most inopportune moment?’
Of course not. In my own experience her words are truthful, kind and timely, and I would bet that is more often the case than not. But hearing this set of questions can sound daunting, so I’m sympathetic to her concern.
We have all been witness to and perhaps participants in situations where unskillful words or the wrong tone of voice have ruined the mood at a gathering, sometimes creating a hostile atmosphere. Words are powerful! They can even put a relationship in jeopardy. A family dinner can be a minefield of potential emotional explosions. Having a few simple questions we can ask ourselves before venturing forth into conversation is actually a comforting gift. If what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we can feel confident in our participation. We won’t be left with that gnawing feeling of guilt, wondering ‘Was it something I said?’
But why are we ever motivated to say things that are untrue or unkind? We may be under stress, worried about something, in a hurry, reacting to a perceived slight, or blaming a loved one for our own grumpy mood. With family there can be a river of long-held gripes running just under the surface, so these gatherings can get out of hand quite easily. We may balk at the idea that we need to be mindful of our words. ‘I just want to be me,’ we say. But is mindlessness who we are? Is unkindness who we are? Is saying untruths who we are? Really?
Of course not. When we speak mindlessly we are most often not speaking from our true selves but repeating some social patter we’ve heard somewhere just to fill the space and pass the time. The ‘filters’ of truth and kindness are ways of finding our own authentic voice, not quashing it.
The question of whether what we are about to say is timely really has to do with being present with what’s going on. We take a moment to notice that the person we want to speak to has their hands full at this moment and would not be able to pay real attention. Or we may realize these are words for a private conversation and think better of blurting out something in the group. Finding the right moment doesn’t have to be a monumental task, but considering timeliness helps to insure a more productive conversation.
If you can remember those three questions, hooray. If that’s just way too easy, consider a few more questions you could use as well:
‘What is my intention here?’ You might notice any sensations in the body — tension, for example — that indicate you are probably motivated by fear. Not much good comes from fear. We tend to make enemies. We feel we need to defend our isolated sense of self so we use our speech as as a sword to ‘protect’ ourselves. It doesn’t work, of course. It just makes us feel more isolated as people pull away or attack in kind.
Another motivation can be exposed with the question ‘Am I trying to prove something?’ Maybe some sibling seems to have it all together, and it feels important to be heard and seen as the accomplished person you are. (Remember not to compare your insides with their outsides. You present a pretty polished surface too.) That’s also a good question to ask yourself when you find you are doing most of the talking. If people’s eyes are glazing over or their looking away, you may be thrusting information that was not requested and pontificating about something just to show how much you know.
‘Is this my story to tell?’ is a useful question that helps to curb gossip. All information we receive is not fodder for conversation. Sometimes people share personal information with us and we are not meant to pass it on! It is not necessarily a secret, but it is just not our story to tell. Much as we may want to ‘fill the void’ by sharing stories about others to mutual friends or family members, it’s really a destructive pattern. But if not everyone is able to attend a family gathering, then what are we supposed to say when Aunt Sarah asks after her absent great nephew? Maybe it would be skillful to anticipate that there will be such a question and tell the one who plans to be absent that if he doesn’t want you to share his contact information with relatives, please provide some (true, kind) brief answer for the question of how he is doing so that you can feel confident you are not speaking out of turn. If none is forthcoming, fall back on, ‘Oh he’s fine.’ and if the probe continues, smile and ask the inquisitor a question.
When being mindful of your words in general, you can also look more deeply at the first question ‘Is it true?’ Your first response may be, ‘Well of course it’s true!’ but if you look a little more deeply you might see that we don’t know for certain if it is true. Investigating the truth of what we hear and read, seeing things in context, considering the source, and trying to see the bigger picture are all useful activities when we are looking at information. If we are going to repeat it, we don’t want to do so mindlessly, just passing on fabrications, urban myths or unfounded rumors. In an election year, it is especially easy to align ourselves rather mindlessly with the candidates who we assume represent us, without questioning what we really believe.
Sometimes we talk just to avoid ‘awkward silences’. You might ask yourself, ‘Can I be at home in silence?’ It is often our discomfort with silence that prompts us to say just about anything to keep the conversation going. We get so myopic we don’t recognize how much else is going on besides conversation. When silence arises try resting in it, deepening into noticing sensation. What is present in this moment besides words? A relationship that only has words to bind it is waiting for a deepening that resting in silence can bring: a smile, a pat on the back, a hug, a look, a sensing into the emotional state of the other person.
All these questions are not to make us uncomfortable with speaking. They help us develop language that has more meaning, resonance and connection; and less misunderstanding, boredom, hurt feelings and confusion.
When we pause in our obsessive need to fill the supposed void or to prove that we exist, we might find that the best form of speech of all is really listening. Less focus on monitoring the mouth, and more on activating the ears!
May all these suggestions help you further enjoy your holidays.